Voting group founded by Abrams, once led by Warnock, faces financial scrutiny

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Illustration by Chantal Jahchan for POLITICO/Photos by Lynsey Weatherspoon, AP, Getty Images

The New Georgia Project, a voting rights enactment founded by the state’s Democratic prima Stacey Abrams and overseen for much than 2 years by Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, is beset by allegations of fiscal misuse and irregularities, according to a six-month POLITICO investigation.

The organization, which played a cardinal relation successful registering the caller voters indispensable to crook Georgia from a reddish authorities to a plaything authorities with 2 Democratic senators, is conducting its ain interior probe into its finances successful effect to the claims of irregularities, 1 of its 2 committee chairs, Frank Wilson, said.

The determination comes arsenic the group’s taxation filings bespeak that its erstwhile enforcement manager — who was hand-picked by Abrams successful 2014 but fired past twelvemonth without announcement — owes the enactment thousands of dollars successful “non-work-related” reimbursements. The erstwhile director, Nsé Ufot, who near the radical past twelvemonth aft heading it for 8 years, denies owing wealth and calls the allegation “a fucking lie.”

The indebtedness attributed to Ufot — a nationally recognized person successful voting rights efforts and predominant governmental commentator — is 1 of aggregate instances of mediocre fiscal record-keeping and allegations of misuse of funds uncovered by POLITICO. The New Georgia Project didn’t decently way institution expenses that were allegedly prepaid to employees connected Visa acquisition cards and failed to relationship for wage advances and different expenditures, according to a reappraisal of fiscal disclosures, interior documents and interviews with 12 existent and erstwhile employees, including elder leadership. Most were granted anonymity to sermon delicate interior matters.

The enactment has besides been fending disconnected different administrative battles, including a authorities morals probe implicit whether its predetermination advocacy violated rules limiting nonstop governmental enactment by nonprofits, which it has sued to terminate, and a quality with the IRS implicit outgo of payroll taxes, which the group’s caller CEO, Kendra Davenport Cotton, said has precocious been settled.

Like akin nonprofits, the New Georgia Project operates nether 2 national taxation designations — 501(c)3, which cannot prosecute successful politics, and 501(c)4, which tin give up to fractional its enactment to politicking — but has 1 CEO and a communal unit leadership.

Wilson, seat of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, its 501(c)4 arm, said the radical is committed to rooting retired immoderate irregularities and tracking expenditures much closely.

“We’re going to bash a forensic look astatine our records,” said Wilson, a civilian rights activistic and retired scholar astatine Albany State University. “We’ll commencement astatine the beginning, and conscionable laic it out, cleanable it up and redirect arsenic indispensable … truthful we’ll beryllium successful a presumption wherever anybody who volition travel — beryllium it authorities, beryllium it media, beryllium it whomever — we volition not beryllium acrophobic astir who looks astatine our records due to the fact that we’ll person each our i’s dotted and t’s crossed. So I’m comfy with that, you know, and I’ll astir invited it.”

The organization’s troubles loom larger successful the satellite of Democratic advocacy due to the fact that of the aggravated nationalist excitement generated by Abrams and her network, which audaciously acceptable retired to determination 1 of the pillars of the Republican South into the Democratic column. Organizers and activists successful different states person sought to emulate her success.

Abrams, who created the New Georgia Project successful 2014 arsenic an offshoot of different Abrams-founded nonprofit called Third Sector Development, declined to comment. Abrams hasn’t been portion of the group’s enactment since 2017, erstwhile she began her archetypal tally for governor.

Warnock, who served arsenic seat from 2017, erstwhile the radical archetypal registered arsenic an autarkic 501(c)3, to January 2020, erstwhile helium launched his archetypal Senate campaign, did not respond to requests done his bureau for an interview. In a little interrogation successful the Senate subway, erstwhile asked whether helium was alert of immoderate mismanagement astatine the New Georgia Project, helium said “not astatine all.”

After Abrams’ 2018 run for politician ended successful a constrictive decision to existent Gov. Brian Kemp, past the Georgia caput of state, her forceful claims of elector suppression drew the attraction of Democrats astir the country. What followed was a immense influx of donations, galore of them from retired of state, intended to beforehand voting rights and elector registration. In fiscal twelvemonth 2020, the New Georgia Project collected much than $36 cardinal successful donations to its 2 entities.

While the enactment has built up governmental superior successful the authorities among Democrats and a ample unpaid basal for canvassing and elector acquisition events, down the scenes determination was often disarray, according to aggregate erstwhile staffers. There was predominant turnover successful the apical concern role, allegations of wealth misspent oregon missing and complaints of inadequate tracking of expenditures. Ufot was fired astatine the commencement of 2022’s aboriginal voting play — ostensibly the group’s busiest moment.

“I went determination each bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I’m disillusioned now,” recalled a erstwhile C-suite employee. “I got the presumption that it was driven by ego aft the 2020 elections. That determination was this: ‘We tin bash thing we want, look astatine however overmuch wealth we got.’ … I deliberation these things combined with nary checks and balances, not having an operations section successful spot that is allowed to enactment successful policies, procedures and safeguards — which is what I thought I was hired to bash — and the accelerated maturation has conscionable facilitated this.”

Ufot’s unit was notified of her firing connected a Zoom telephone earlier she was told, she and different unit members said. Other resignations followed, including from the main ineligible serviceman and main communications officer. Then came a circular of layoffs arsenic executives successful interior Signal radical chats discussed the hopeless request to ramp up donations. In October 2022, the caput of HR told staffers connected a Zoom telephone that the institution could nary longer spend to marque payroll, according to a video of the telephone made by a participant.

Francys Johnson, committee seat of the New Georgia Project, the 501(c)3 arm, and committee treasurer of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said the radical is “taking each indispensable steps” to unafraid the instrumentality of a $8,865 wage beforehand to Ufot that is elaborate successful the organization’s taxation filings, which besides place $4,377 that Ufot allegedly owes its 501(c)4 branch.

Johnson, a noted Georgia civilian rights attorney, acknowledged the enactment has made “some mistakes,” but suggested the book-keeping problems and organizational issues stemmed from hiring radical from underserved communities who had beardown grass-roots ties but small absorption experience. He claimed the group’s critics person disrespect for the benignant of radical connected its staff.

“It goes backmost to radical who disdain the benignant of communities we service and disdain the benignant of radical we question to employ,” Johnson said. “They judge that we request to person a clump of Northeastern educated folks who travel down and state rides, we emotion to speech astir that, and assistance them liberate the South, arsenic if the South can’t assistance liberate itself. And truthful we prosecute radical from community, we prosecute radical who unrecorded connected the margins, chiefly due to the fact that authorities has failed them. And we person to deploy tactics that are not needfully accordant to what POLITICO mightiness have.”

“And successful immoderate instances, I volition archer you that, you know, wherever we are alert of bully intentions, but not astir capable transparency, we’ve course-corrected for those things,” helium added.

But aggregate unit members said the caller turmoil astatine the New Georgia Project was lone the outward look of a clime of chaos that dated back to astatine slightest the 2018 midterm elections.

“What you saw was real, the radical that were knocking doors and doing different things, incredible, incredible,” said different erstwhile high-level New Georgia Project employee. “The bittersweet portion is those are the radical that were incredible. And they merit better. The volunteers, the radical that were connected unit were perfectly incredible, believed successful the mission, were the mission. It was a implicit nonaccomplishment of leadership.”

The consciousness that New Georgia Project funds weren’t being appropriately tracked has agelong been a substance of interior concern. Regular turnover successful the apical concern manager relation served to bounds organization cognition and continuity connected the budgeting side.

Management disarray was compounded by infighting. Multiple erstwhile employees claimed the enactment had a toxic enactment situation that became unnecessarily stressful and fomented distrust betwixt staffers. Frustrations often erupted successful backstage Signal radical chats.

Wilson, who said the ongoing interior reappraisal volition look astatine finances and procedures dating backmost to the commencement of the organization, said helium archetypal heard of imaginable fiscal mismanagement erstwhile helium received an anonymous extremity that astir $50,000 had been withdrawn from the organization’s accounts by a then-senior head who was serving arsenic 1 of Ufot’s deputies anterior to 2020.

“I had nary crushed to judge the rumors,” Wilson said. “I had gotten an anonymous telephone — and I don’t truly cognize wherever it came from — saying that [the elder administrator] had taken money.” He added that the information Ufot, arsenic enforcement director, did not record immoderate complaints against the head made him consciousness similar helium could hide astir the tip.

The head denied immoderate wrongdoing oregon cognition of the alleged transactions. Nonetheless, the head was fired successful 2019 by Ufot. POLITICO is not naming the head due to the fact that they person not been formally accused of immoderate offense.

“Definitely not talking astir that,” Ufot said, erstwhile asked astir the allegations. “[The administrator] near the New Georgia Project due to the fact that [they] weren’t that large astatine [their] job. And that’s each I’m gonna say.”

Wilson said the head called him aft their firing and expressed interest astir what the allegations would mean for their aboriginal employment. He said helium offered to beryllium a occupation notation but hasn’t spoken to the idiosyncratic since.

The head declined to comment. Four erstwhile New Georgia Project employees said they had been told contemporaneously oregon aft the information that the head had withdrawn wealth from the enactment without due authorization, raising ongoing doubts astir fiscal controls.

POLITICO obtained records from 2 Wells Fargo slope accounts controlled by the New Georgia Project, which had been turned implicit to the authorities Ethics Commission arsenic portion of its probe into imaginable violations of its taxation status. The administrator’s sanction appears successful the memo lines of the Wells Fargo slope accounts’ transactions, a transcript of which was provided by the authorities to POLITICO successful effect to an unfastened records request. There were 16 outgoing transactions totaling $57,693 from mid-2017 to mid-2019, matching the astir $50,000 mentioned successful the extremity received by Wilson.

Current New Georgia Project leaders declined to reply questions astir the head since the withdrawals occurred earlier their tenures.

“I don’t person immoderate cognition of that,” Cotton said, “And lone a fool would talk connected thing that they person nary nonstop knowing of.”

Johnson besides declined to talk astir it. “I don’t person immoderate situational cognition of that substance of fact,” helium said.

Fallout from the Wells Fargo accounts continued aft the erstwhile head was fired, and yet led to the removal of the group’s main fiscal serviceman and Ufot herself.

Ufot said she received aggregate fraud alerts from the bank, flagging withdrawals that the slope deemed suspicious. At first, she said, she ignored them, but erstwhile they started coming “regularly” she alerted Randall Frazier, past the group’s CFO.

“So periodically erstwhile they travel through, like, whatever,” Ufot said of the alerts, “but erstwhile they started coming through, like, regularly, I contacted our CFO, and was like, ‘Help maine recognize what is going on.’ And past helium told maine to telephone Wells Fargo and marque the fraud claims. And that’s precisely what I did.”

However, Ufot said, she ne'er officially filed the claims due to the fact that “we started, and past they asked maine a clump of questions, and they wanted to unopen the [company] cards down immediately, like, portion I was making the claim.” She explained that others successful the enactment utilized these cards and she didn’t privation to disrupt concern operations without notice.

“We started to record and past I asked for a intermission truthful that I could consult with our CFO,” she said.

Separately, New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action Fund, successful some of their astir caller 990 filings, are claiming that Ufot herself owes the organizations thousands of dollars from fiscal twelvemonth 2021 for what Johnson said were “expenses that request to beryllium reimbursed to the organization.”

The New Georgia Project reported that Ufot received a wage beforehand of $8,865 successful 2021 that has not been “corrected” and New Georgia Project Action Fund noted that Ufot owed the 501(c)4 limb $4,377, according to the respective Schedule L sections of the 990 form.

Johnson said the organization was “discharging our fiduciary responsibilities arsenic an organization. ... My anticipation is, is that volition beryllium resolved successful the wide people of business.”

Johnson said the $8,865 paid to Ufot was, successful fact, not an advance, but represented non-business expenses. The New Georgia Project is taking “all indispensable steps” to get paid back, helium said.

In an interrogation with POLITICO, Ufot said she’s ne'er utilized New Georgia Project funds inappropriately or for idiosyncratic expenses.

“This is besides the taxable of litigation and quality — like, it’s the taxable of an progressive quality close present betwixt maine and NGP and their lawyers,” Ufot said. “It’s implicit bullshit.”

Disputed spending from Ufot allegedly continued successful 2022, according to 2 erstwhile employees and interior messages seen by POLITICO. These came successful the signifier of Uber Eats, Apple, Hulu, Lyft and different expenses.

Ufot said that arsenic a boss, she wouldn’t clasp meetings without “food, euphony and kid care” and that those expenses could relationship for immoderate spending that existent leaders see questionable.

According to an interior memo successful 2022 that was shown to POLITICO by a erstwhile administrator, the CFO, Frazier, had flagged withdrawals from the Wells Fargo accounts successful emails to Ufot, different members of elder enactment and the 2 committee chairs. Frazier besides brought up different charges successful 2021 arsenic helium was preparing to record the 2021 990 signifier to the IRS.

Shortly aft helium shared his concerns, connected July 7, the then-chief ineligible officer, Aklima Khondoker, asked members of the organization’s C-Suite Signal radical chat for accusation astir Frazier’s occupation performance.

Khondoker wrote successful the chat, which was shared with POLITICO by an administrator: “We request each emails, awesome threads, texts, gathering notes, and the similar concerning Randall’s performance. This would see thing related to his occupation arsenic CFO, interactions with unit members, and thing that shows his deficiency of show oregon insubordination … delight consciousness escaped to nonstop that implicit arsenic soon arsenic you can.”

Soon after, Frazier was fired by Ufot and asked to motion a nondisclosure agreement.

Khondoker, who has since resigned successful the aftermath of Ufot’s ain departure, said she couldn’t spell into the details of anyone’s circumstantial employment situation. But “more than anything, the enactment did not person the close lucifer for what it needed,” she said, referring to Frazier’s show successful the CFO role.

Johnson said the enactment doesn’t talk astir interior operations oregon unit matters.

These disputes followed 2 fundraising roar years during which, erstwhile employees said, the New Georgia Project’s accelerated maturation strained its guardrails.

In 2019, the New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action money raised lone $1.6 cardinal and $1.8 million, respectively. But successful 2020, the coffers ballooned to $24.5 cardinal and $11.9 cardinal for each organization. The enactment besides restructured successful 2020, adding a big of C-suite employees. Ufot, who was already heading the organization, officially became CEO (with a $60,000 rise to astir $187,000 per year), successful summation to caller hires CFO Chineava Georgia and then-COO Kendra Cotton, according to 2020 990 forms and LinkedIn accounts. In 2021— erstwhile the task was basking successful the triumph of helping transportation the authorities of Georgia for Democrat Joe Biden and elite 2 Democratic senators — fundraising dipped, but some arms took successful $12.5 cardinal and $3.6 million, respectively.

During this clip of growth, aggregate New Georgia Project employees said the committee operated successful a hands-off fashion.

After Warnock near successful January, 2020, helium was replaced with Johnson. In 2020 and 2021, the 501(c)3 reported lone 2 committee members, Johnson and erstwhile NFL subordinate Takeo Spikes, and the 501(c)4 limb reported members Wilson and Johnson.

Khondoker, who served arsenic main ineligible serviceman during that time, said she had small interaction with committee members. Six different erstwhile employees, including successful elder roles, described the aforesaid hands-off approach.

“Johnson is simply a well-known, well-respected civilian rights lawyer, helium handles immoderate of the astir captious and pivotal cases successful the authorities of Georgia,” she said. “Now, erstwhile it comes to absorption styles, again, I didn’t enactment intimately with him. We didn’t talk precise often. ... if you’re a subordinate of the board, you astir apt privation to link with your main ineligible serviceman more, but that’s conscionable not what happened.”

“Frank Wilson, I cognize little about, but I bash cognize that helium is our civilian rights elder and leader. ... Again, we didn’t truly communicate,” she added.

Another erstwhile worker said determination weren’t capable committee members for the enactment to beryllium functional.

In August, 2022, conscionable arsenic the midterm elections were approaching, Johnson abruptly became much progressive successful New Georgia Project operations and started to instrumentality contented with Ufot’s management, according to 3 erstwhile employees.

Ufot blames Johnson for the group’s problems, saying helium “sabotaged” the organization’s enactment and the institution civilization she built.

“I deliberation that it injected fearfulness and disorder into operations,” Ufot said. “I didn’t cognize that our committee seat and my successor had gone to not conscionable elder leaders, but organizers and different unit ... asking radical if they intended to enactment aft I left. That creates a hostile enactment environment, and it instills a tone of fear. It’s contrary to the civilization that I built implicit the past 9 years. And it made radical wonderment what the hellhole is going on?”

Johnson did not respond to a question submitted implicit email astir the board’s level of engagement successful absorption decisions.

Former employees accidental 1 focus of absorption disputes was the organization’s unorthodox disbursal system. Employees and volunteers would person prepaid Visa acquisition cards to screen work-related expenses, but determination was not a regular strategy successful spot to cheque whether the cards were, indeed, utilized for enactment expenses. There was nary regular strategy for reviewing receipts oregon different documentation, according to 2 erstwhile employees.

The erstwhile C-suite worker said they were shocked erstwhile $11,000 worthy of Visa acquisition cards arrived astatine the bureau and past were handed retired to employees and volunteers. Other times, an worker would beryllium sent to Kroger to bargain these acquisition cards, they said. Some radical brought backmost receipts but this was not a standardized practice: Just the receipts for the archetypal acquisition of the acquisition cards were saved for accounting purposes, according to different employee.

When this strategy was questioned by elder unit members seeking much accountability, determination was pushback from Ufot and different elder managers, according to 2 erstwhile unit members.

Johnson and Cotton, successful interviews, disputed the conception that the gift-card strategy lacked due documentation but did not elaborate.

Khondoker, the erstwhile main ineligible officer, said the New Georgia Project hired galore radical who couldn’t spend to beforehand enactment expenses oregon whitethorn not person had slope accounts to process expenses quickly. The acquisition paper strategy was a “middle-ground” solution that helped those employees, she said.

Two erstwhile employees who wanted to alteration the strategy agreed with the intent of the pre-paying for expenses, but besides insisted determination should person been a companywide strategy to adhd documentation to guarantee the wealth went for business-related expenses.

The pushback against a much accountable signifier led to vexation and suspicion of leadership.

“I bash recognize present wherefore the pushback against [a much accountable gift-card system] and I deliberation erstwhile things are successful chaos, it makes it easier to enactment successful a mode that you aren’t held accountable,” said the erstwhile C-suite employee.

This worker besides said they failed and struggled to instrumentality different elemental bureau absorption tools. New Georgia Project bought Asana, a task absorption software, but it was ne'er used, this worker said.

The leaders besides resisted utilizing a bundle for which radical could upload and negociate vendor contracts, this worker said. The disorganization astir vendor contracts led to respective instances successful which vendors either were not paid oregon not paid connected time. There were besides after-the-fact disputes implicit prices, according to 7 erstwhile employees.

A disagreement betwixt Johnson and Ufot erupted implicit a $1.5 cardinal selling contract. According to five employees, Johnson was upset by the prime of steadfast and the wide outgo of the contract.

Ufot is unapologetic: “It was a $15 cardinal run that they charged america $1.5 cardinal for. Because they believed successful what we were doing,” Ufot said, adding that the steadfast was chosen due to the fact that of its competence successful the selling abstraction arsenic good arsenic for being “unapologetically Black and female.”

Johnson said, “we conscionable fundamentally disagreed” erstwhile asked astir the contract. And Cotton added that the disagreement wasn’t predicated connected finances but connected strategy.

Johnson refused to accidental whether this declaration determination oregon immoderate different played a relation successful Ufot’s firing, echoing a erstwhile reply that the enactment doesn’t remark connected unit decisions.

“I privation to reply each your questions. I privation to beryllium an unfastened book, and I privation to bash each of that,” Johnson said. “But there’s definite aspects of this that, you know, being an unfastened publication is 2nd to being a bully president of the board. And, keeping religion with our employees and our agreements that we person [that] we’ve said would govern our narration and truthful others whitethorn interruption those relationships and maltreatment that trust, but we won’t.”

Ufot initially resisted talking astir the issue, saying her firing would beryllium the taxable of aboriginal litigation and that she didn’t privation to lend to the misconception that Black-led organizations can’t self-govern. But she did stock a antithetic mentation to the pushback from Johnson.

“That determination is simply a benignant of span procreation betwixt the civilian rights organizers of the ’60s and the radical who are organizing present who person a precise transactional and firm attack to Black politics,” Ufot said. “What I built astatine the New Georgia Project is decidedly antithetic than that, and it invites the comparison.”

Ufot was fired connected the archetypal time of aboriginal voting successful Georgia past year, contempt having already pledged to depart the enactment by the extremity of December, according to 4 erstwhile New Georgia Project employees.

“We can’t committedness perfection. We’ve made immoderate mistakes on the way. As each enactment grows, it volition person pains,” Johnson said. “We volition person enactment transitions: we had 1 erstwhile Stacey Abrams, who founded our organization, decided to tally for politician and stepped distant from leadership. We’ve had enactment alteration again with Rev. Warnock erstwhile helium stepped distant to tally for [the Senate]. We’ve had it successful the modulation of Nsé, arsenic our enforcement director, CEO. And rather honestly, I consciousness much assured that the bully thought that we started successful 2014 is inactive a bully idea. And the effect is bearing witnesser to the same.”