Inside Shaun King’s Shadowy $6.7 Million Nonprofit

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
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Shaun King’s nonprofit amassed millions of dollars in donations in the months following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, while its signature project to review and redress prosecutorial injustices in three major U.S. cities floundered—and while King himself and his associates raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.

Representatives of the Grassroots Law Project produced the 2020 financial reports for the King-led outfit in response to questions from The Daily Beast. These materials have yet to appear in any public records database, and the Internal Revenue Service did not respond to queries about why the King nonprofit did not show up in its online files. But the Grassroots Law Project’s lawyers noted the agency had suffered internal delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tax documents reveal that during the first year of its existence, a period that coincided with the largest racial justice protests in the nation’s history, the organization collected more than $6.67 million. Further, Federal Election Commission records also show that two political action committees tied to the controversial activist have poured close to half a million dollars into the organization.

The single largest expenditure the Grassroots Law Project made in its first year was $2,654,434, which the disclosures only state went “to bridge the gap between grassroots organizing and legal expertise to reform the American justice system.”

The organization’s representatives acknowledged to The Daily Beast that this referred, at least in part, to the group’s flagship program following its launch: “Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commissions”—ostensibly modeled on those instituted after the fall of apartheid in South Africa—that the Grassroots Law Project would go on to help set up in the district attorneys’ offices of San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston.

These restorative boards received considerable publicity and fanfare, along with their own website, fundraising page, and multiple social media accounts, when the Grassroots Law Project and the local prosecutors announced them in early July 2020.

“This system is not broken. It’s functioning exactly the way those who designed and built it intended it to function. It was not built to give marginalized communities justice,” King said in a joint press release with Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner, then-San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin, and then-Boston D.A. Rachael Rollins. “It was built to oppress them. And moving forward, we must build brand new pathways for truth, justice, and reconciliation. The old ones will never get us there.”

But, more than two years on, the commissions’ online pages appear largely stagnant—much like the initiative itself.

The Boston district attorney’s office told The Daily Beast that its commission “unfortunately, did not get off the ground,” while the San Francisco D.A.’s office said its committee had yet to hold a single meeting. Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner—whose exceedingly close political ties to King and one of his PACs have gotten him slapped with thousands of dollars in campaign finance violation fees—did not respond to questions about the commission’s status that were left with his office and on his personal cellphone. In a statement to The Daily Beast, the Grassroots Law Project’s representatives blamed the distractions of Krasner’s re-election bid and Philadelphia’s recent crime wave for the apparent failure to make headway on the project. He is today the only one of the original trio of prosecutors still in office.

The nonprofit also asserted that the COVID-19 pandemic was partly to blame for all three commissions’ failure to launch. Nonetheless, they said the initiative only accounted for around $500,000 of the $2,654,434 figure. The remainder, they indicated, went toward various policy pushes and campaigns for prosecutorial leniency, phone-banking, donations to other groups, and legal defense funds.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>(L - R) Shaun King, Sen. Cory Booker, and Remy Ma attend the Our Vote, Our Power midterm election special in 2018 at Times Square Studios.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Bennett Raglin/Getty</div>

(L - R) Shaun King, Sen. Cory Booker, and Remy Ma attend the Our Vote, Our Power midterm election special in 2018 at Times Square Studios.

Bennett Raglin/Getty

The group also took credit for having “helped ensure that Officer Derek Chauvin was arrested, charged, and convicted for murdering George Floyd” and said they had “successfully advocated against the California Attorney General appointment of [Rep.] Adam Schiff.”

“The Grassroots Law Project is extremely proud of the civil rights work we have accomplished since our inception,” the organization said in a statement. “We’ve made over 1.6 million phone calls, sent over 100 million advocacy emails, hosted over 1,000 unique events, with 35 brilliant staff members fighting against police violence, mass incarceration, and racial injustice.”

The 2020 tax filings The Daily Beast received show King earned a salary of $104,167 as the Grassroots Law Project’s executive director during the group’s first 12 months. But the group’s representatives told The Daily Beast his compensation has since swelled to a quarter-million a year—or, around twice the median compensation for nonprofit executives. The organization’s representatives maintained this income was lower than some other groups with a criminal justice mission.

The documents also show the nonprofit paid $135,486 to the Social Practice, a consulting firm that handles the group’s financials and which is based out of a box in the same San Francisco mail drop as the Grassroots Law Project itself. The Daily Beast previously reported that the Social Practice was also on the payroll of Krasner’s D.A. campaign at the same time the prosecutor got in trouble with Philadelphia authorities for coordinating with King’s PAC and failing to report it.

As The Daily Beast also previously reported, the Social Practice’s co-founder Becky Bond serves as treasurer of that exact same PAC—called the Real Justice PAC—which she co-founded with King. Bond and future Grassroots Law Project co-founder Lee Merritt were also part of the “financial review board” that produced a 2019 report apparently intended to address questions about the fate of millions of dollars King had raised for various social justice causes.

Public records and materials the groups divulged show that entities associated with two other members of the “team of experts in justice reform, law, finance, and compliance”—a nonprofit founded by activist Tamika Mallory and the law firm of attorney David Mitrani—have received regular disbursements of cash from the Grassroots Law Project or the PACs.

Mallory’s group said it only received donations from the Project in the period between March and August 2021, while campaign finance filings show payments to Mitrani’s firm continued through May of this year.

According to the panel’s report, King himself received monthly payments via the Social Practice at the time, though representatives for the Grassroots Law Project maintained that those disbursements have long since stopped.

The most recent records available show that, to date, the Social Practice has received a combined $940,812.20 from the Grassroots Law Project, the Real Justice PAC, and the Grassroots Law PAC, a third King-founded committee where Bond now serves as treasurer.

The groups’ representatives insisted Bond and King were uniquely qualified for these roles, and deserving of their compensation. The pair sent a joint statement to The Daily Beast.

“We’re extremely proud of the work we’ve done for Real Justice PAC and Grassroots Law PAC, helping to elect champions for criminal justice reform in jurisdictions all over the country,” the pair said in a statement. “The campaigns we have both launched and supported span pages, and we will continue to fight alongside the amazing community members who have experienced harm at the hands of a brutal legal system.”

The relationship between the Grassroots Law Project and the Grassroots Law PAC is particularly idiosyncratic. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, it’s become increasingly common for nonprofits to launch a political action committee.

But, in the case of the Grassroots Law groups, the PAC spawned the nonprofit, emails King sent his financial supporters show.

The Grassroots Law PAC first registered with the FEC as The Action PAC in July 2019, almost a year before the Project’s founding. The filings list Merritt as the PAC’s treasurer and King as its point of contact, roles which records show they held into the fall of 2020, before they ceded them to Bond. From the outset, it listed the Real Justice PAC as an affiliate.

On June 1, 2020—two days before the Grassroots Law Project incorporated in Delaware in June 2020—and one week after the Floyd murder—the Action PAC sent a fundraising email to supporters under King’s name.

“Tomorrow, our team will officially launch the Grassroots Law Project,” the missive from King read, asserting the organization had already hired five staffers. “Between now and tomorrow, I’m asking you to become a founding donor to help kick off the Grassroots Law Project.”

The Action PAC would continue sending fundraising emails from King and Merritt on behalf of the Grassroots Law Project for more than a year afterward. It wasn’t until February 2021 that the PAC changed its name to match the nonprofit. The Action PAC heralded the rechristening with a tweet and a Facebook post asserting it was “merging with” the Grassroots Law project.

By that point, payments from the PACs to the nonprofit marked “payroll” and “software” had already been underway for a month-and-a-half. Today, those payments total $461,768, as of the most recent FEC report.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, the groups’ representatives asserted that, today, neither PAC has any staff of its own—rather, they rely on the Grassroots Law Project to do their work and reimburse it for staff time and other expenses. The PACs and the nonprofit’s representatives said this arrangement saves money and allows for the staff to receive full-time benefits.

It also has the effect of concealing who exactly gets paid for doing what. The groups refused to provide a breakdown of the specific services King had rendered to the PACs' efforts to support specific political figures, saying they didn’t want to compromise the safety of the candidates whose careers he had helped advance.

“Attacks on Mr. King have been used against candidates and elected officials by trolls and people who may pose security threats,” a representative for the nonprofit told The Daily Beast. “GLP does not want to subject candidates Mr. King supported to harassment by publicizing those strategic services.”

The group maintained that King only received $28,364.84 out of the payroll reimbursements last year for services rendered to the Real Justice PAC, and no money at all from the Grassroots Law PAC—providing a screenshot from the timesheet app Clockify to substantiate this claim.

But ethics advocates said the group’s rationale for concealing the exact range and scope of work King provided to the PACs did not pass scrutiny. Brendan Fischer, of the nonprofit investigative group Documented, noted that the PACs did not disguise either their connection to King or the candidates they supported.

“It’s a matter of public record that King is associated with the PAC and it’s a matter of public record what candidates the PAC support,” said Fischer, who added that he did not believe the groups had violated any law. “If you don’t want your enemies knowing Shaun King is working to support these candidates, it’s already too late.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Shaun King accepts an award onstage during Rihanna’s 5th Annual Diamond Ball Benefiting the Clara Lionel Foundation in 2019. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Dave Kotinsky/Getty</div>

Shaun King accepts an award onstage during Rihanna’s 5th Annual Diamond Ball Benefiting the Clara Lionel Foundation in 2019.

Dave Kotinsky/Getty

Meanwhile, Robert Maguire, research director for the good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, argued that donors and the public should know who gets paid for what political work—especially when the payee is somebody like Shaun King, with a record of concerns and complaints about the disposition of money he has raised.

“This is why we have the campaign finance reporting system, that has been around for the better part of 50 years at this point, because we have a right as a free society to know the activities of people who are engaged in electoral activities,” said Maguire.

Strange to Maguire, too, was the Grassroots Law Project’s decision not to list the two PACs as related organizations on its tax forms. Dr. Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a nonprofit and campaign finance expert at the University of Notre Dame’s law school, agreed.

“Grassroots Law Project did make a mistake by not identifying the two PACs as ‘related organizations,” he wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “Since the PACs are controlled by the same individuals who control Grassroots Law Project, they are considered brother/sister related organizations.”

Mayer said that the IRS could impose fines on the group for this omission, though he noted the agency almost never takes this kind of enforcement action.

Grassroots Law Project disputed Mayer’s argument, maintaining that the PACs and the nonprofit are in fact “separate, non-overlapping control groups”—even though for part of 2020 King and Merritt led both the Grassroots Law Project and the PAC that now shares its name, even though King’s own webpage says he leads both the Project and the Real Justice PAC, and even though Bond handles the financial documents for all three entities.

“Because we are constantly under attack, we work with some of the most diligent and experienced attorneys in the field of tax and election law,” the group wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Any suggestion that GLP is not compliant is totally false.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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