COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Democratic Party is calling for an investigation into a charity operated by supporters of President Donald Trump that is planning a second cash giveaway in Cleveland for this weekend.
Zach West, a Columbus attorney representing the ODP, sent a letter to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley on Monday asking him to investigate the Urban Revitalization Coalition.
The letter accuses the URC, which gave away $25,000 at an event in Downtown Cleveland last December where some speakers praised Trump, of breaking a state bribery law by giving away money to potential voters. The URC is planning a similar event for this Saturday, at which organizers say they plan to give away $50,000 split among 140 people.
“The conspirators are flouting Ohio law by offering cash for votes, and have announced they intend to continue their criminal conduct,” West said in the letter.
A spokesman for O’Malley, a Democrat, said his office got the office on Tuesday, and is reviewing it. Darrell Scott, a Cleveland pastor and prominent Trump adviser who founded the URC, called the letter a “publicity stunt.”
He compared his group’s activities to those performed by the National Action Network, a liberal advocacy group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton. He said the group has invited both Democrats and Republicans to its events, and doesn’t tell anyone to vote for Trump or any other candidate.
“It’s kind of insulting to say somebody is buying votes,” he said. That’s kind of saying someone is selling me votes for a couple hundred bucks. That’s insulting, man. It’s insulting to someone’s intelligence, and it tells me the Democratic Party is afraid and doesn’t want black people to be helped.”
“I’ll tell you this much, had it turned into a Trump-bashing event, nobody would be saying a word,” he said.
The URC was founded last year by Scott and Kareem Lanier, another prominent Trump political surrogate from Cleveland. While organizers have declined to discuss their donors, tax records first reported by the Center for Public Integrity show the charity received $238,000 from America First Policies, a nonprofit arm of a Super PAC founded by former Trump campaign aides.
Scott and Lanier have said their goal is to educate the black community about White House policies that can help them. At the December event in Cleveland, organizers gave awards to various people, including a White House official from Cleveland and Geraldo Rivera, a Trump-friendly media personality, during which some praised the Trump administration’s policies.
They also awarded Democrats, including Cleveland Councilman Basheer Jones. The group invited Democratic Councilman Blaine Griffin, but the invitation fell through after Griffin raised questions about the group’s mission.
Afterward, they raffled off the $25,000 in increments of a few hundred dollars to random people in attendance.
The group planned another event in Virginia in January on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day billed to feature Trump himself before it was canceled.
The Cleveland event and the URC’s activities, first reported by cleveland.com, raised eyebrows nationally in January after it was reported on by Politico and other media outlets. Campaign finance law experts have said the group’s activities could raise legal issues, depending on what was said at its events, in campaign-finance and charitable law.
In his letter to O’Malley, West, the Ohio Democratic Party attorney, argued the group’s giveaways themselves violate a state law that forbids giving something of value to try to induce someone to vote.
But Ryan Stubenrauch, an attorney and Republican political operative who worked on Gov. Mike DeWine’s 2018 campaign for governor, called the letter “nothing more than a bunch of guesses and assumptions based on things like Twitter posts and reports.”
“Even if those guesses were true, Ohio law doesn’t prohibit people or organizations from providing things of value to people who might later go on to support a certain political candidate,” he said. “If Ohio law were what ODP is suggesting, every candidate for township trustee, county commissioner, and state representative would be committing bribery when they hand out bottles of water, fans, or any of the political junk that gets handed out by both Republicans and Democrats at every county fair in Ohio.”
West’s letter also includes a copy of a report published by the URC last year in which the charity describes its organizational goals.
Among the goals: “increase the 8% African-American vote from 2016 by 25% in the 2020 presidential election.”
The 8% number matches exit poll data estimating the percentage of black voters who voted for Trump in 2016, West said.
“The only reasonable reading” of the report is that the group’s “primary purpose is increasing Trump’s support among African-American voters,” West said.
Scott said he wasn’t immediately familiar with what the 8% number was referring to. He said the URC hasn’t even asked if people were registered to vote at its events.
“Whatever is there is there, but that has not been an issue in any of our events,” he said. “We haven’t even said to people that y’all need to get out to vote. They’re nitpicking, trying to find something they can find.”
Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University political scientist who specializes in elections law, said it’s hard to tell whether the group has broken any laws without additional evidence. But he said the IRS has been reluctant to enforce laws forbidding charities from engaging in political activity since 2011, when the agency was accused of unfairly singling out Tea Party groups.
“The IRS is not a particularly vigorous enforcer on political activity by nonprofit organizations, so I wouldn’t especially expect anything to come of it,” Tokaji said.
The URC is planning another giveaway this Saturday at the Galleria, at an event co-hosted by Scott, Lanier and Ray J, an entertainer.
Lanier said the event will be similar to the previous one, just with more cash being given out. The group’s website advertises events for later this year in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, but fliers don’t reference any cash giveaway component.
“We’re celebrating urban leaders who have made tremendous impacts in our urban communities,” he said. “We’re just going to be giving away twice the amount, keeping consistent, integrous and keeping our word.”