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A controversial nonprofit for Capitol riot defendants makes changes after criticism

Cynthia Hughes, seen here wearing a "Due Process Denied" shirt, has become a regular on Steve Bannon's show, where she has described the Jan. 6 defendants as "political prisoners." On a recent episode, Hughes announced changes to the Patriot Freedom Project after receiving criticism.
War Room
Screenshot by NPR
Cynthia Hughes, seen here wearing a "Due Process Denied" shirt, has become a regular on Steve Bannon's show, where she has described the Jan. 6 defendants as "political prisoners." On a recent episode, Hughes announced changes to the Patriot Freedom Project after receiving criticism.

The nonprofit Patriot Freedom Project became one of the most prominent groups supporting the "political prisoners" criminally charged in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Now - after facing criticism from some on the pro-Trump right, family members of defendants and experts in charity law - the controversial group has announced it is replacing members of its board of trustees and "revamping" its website.

In January, NPR first reported that family members of Capitol riot defendants felt the Patriot Freedom Project was not transparent enough about how it was spending the roughly $900,000 it had received in donations. Charity experts also told NPR they saw "red flags" in the group's practices, such as the fact that the organization's board of trustees consisted of three people: group president Cynthia Hughes, Hughes' sister-in-law, and Hughes' 24-year-old son.

A spokesperson for the Patriot Freedom Project previously rejected any criticism of the group. The spokesperson, who would only comment to NPR on the condition of anonymity, insisted that the group was a model of transparency and argued that it was an asset that family members made up the Patriot Freedom Project's board, likening it to a mom-and-pop operation.

Since NPR's story, however, Hughes has said publicly said that her family members are no longer on the board.

The Patriot Freedom Project's website also now features an updated document entitled "Statement of Activities." The document was first uploaded to the group's site in December, but the content of the document has changed since NPR's story. (Despite the modifications, it still bears the date of Dec. 9, 2021.)

Among those changes: the document previously included a sentence that stated, "No one is going to get rich off the Foundation."

That sentence no longer appears in the document on the group's website.

The document currently on the group's website also features a caution to potential donors that the group "cannot guarantee" the IRS will grant the Patriot Freedom Project tax-exempt status, so their donations may not be deductible at tax time. The earlier version of the document stated the group was preparing its application for tax-exempt status and "contributions are deductible."

Some Capitol riot defendants and their families tell NPR they remain skeptical of Hughes and her organization. Concerns highlighted by charity experts have not all been addressed. And government authorities in four states told NPR they were examining whether the Patriot Freedom Project was complying with their state's laws on charitable registration.

A spokesperson for the Patriot Freedom Project did not respond to NPR's detailed questions for this story. Instead, the organization sent the same statement it provided in January, which said, in part, "We will never stop fighting for these people, their families and children, and if the government funded media doesn't like it will do it even more."

Changing the board

After NPR's initial story on the Patriot Freedom Project, Steve Bannon invited Hughes to respond on his popular pro-Trump show, "War Room," which is available nationwide as a podcast, online video stream, and even on satellite TV. Hughes has become a "War Room" regular and Bannon has pledged that a portion of "transaction fees" from his latest cryptocurrency venture will be donated to the Patriot Freedom Project.

In her interview, Hughes suggested the decision to install her family members on the three-member board of trustees was the result of moving to set up the organization quickly.

"I had to come up with board members," Hughes told Bannon. "I put my son, my sister-in-law - who is a Democrat, by the way - on the board."

In general, nonprofit boards are supposed to provide independent oversight of the group's activities. Charity experts say having a board made up exclusively of family members can create conflicts of interest.

"They're not on the board now," Hughes told Bannon. "We have diversified the board. We have two board members that are not related to me that will be released very soon."

Since that interview on Bannon's show, which aired on Jan. 31, the group does not appear to have publicly identified the new board members, and did not provide their names when NPR asked.

In her interview with Bannon, Hughes also alluded to other growing pains for the group, which formed last summer.

"In the beginning of this process, I didn't have good people around me," Hughes said. "I had people who were not so honest with me. Now I have great people in my camp."

Hughes also discussed for the first time her financial problems, including a bankruptcy filing from the early 2000s.

The spokesperson for the Patriot Freedom Project previously declined to comment to NPR regarding Hughes' financial situation. On Bannon's show, Hughes said that her earlier bankruptcy stemmed from what she characterized as an abusive previous marriage. "I had to file bankruptcy because of the financial problems that this man brought to my life," Hughes told Bannon.

Now, Hughes said, "I don't have financial problems."

Hughes did not address the lawsuits she has filed in recent years, in which she publicly disclosed more current money troubles. For example, in 2018 she stated in court documents that her family had experienced "serious financial hardship" in a lawsuit against credit rating agencies, demanding changes to her credit rating and $15,000 in damages. That lawsuit resulted in a settlement with one party, and outright dismissal with the others.

Registering with state charity regulators

In her interview with Bannon, Hughes also did not address the fact that the Patriot Freedom Project, which is headquartered in New Jersey and operates under the legal name Hughes Advocacy Foundation, had not registered with the state Attorney General's office. Under New Jersey law, charities are generally required to register with the state within 30 days of raising $10,000 in a fiscal year.

Because the group solicits donations online and on national platforms like Bannon's "War Room," experts said the group also has to be mindful of charity registration requirements in other states, too.

"Most states have some requirement of registering within their state," said Philip Hackney, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and an expert in nonprofit law. "If you are soliciting across radio and TV or even the internet, you're pretty quickly soliciting across 50 states."

In some cases, those registration requirements kick in before an organization starts raising money. Regulators often "require advanced registration prior to soliciting charitable donations or holding funds for charitable purposes in that particular state," said Erin Bradrick, an attorney with the NEO Law Group, who has worked in nonprofit law for nearly a decade.

"I think that we're seeing state Attorneys General increasingly step into an expanded role in terms of data collection and enforcement with respect to charities," said Bradrick.

NPR checked with government regulators in places where the group appears to have solicited or received donations from local residents: California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, and New York.

Government agencies in all of those jurisdictions told NPR the group had not yet registered.

In California, the state's Department of Justice issued a "Notice to Register" to the group on Feb. 1, requesting that the organization provide a set of detailed records within 30 days. The offices of attorneys general in Illinois and New York said they were examining whether the group was complying with state law. In Florida, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees charities, and they said they were also evaluating whether the organization needed to file a registration.

As for the organization's home state of New Jersey, a spokesperson for the Division of Consumer Affairs at the state Attorney General's office said the agency was "aware of reports regarding Patriot Freedom Project," but could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation, citing general policy.

The Patriot Freedom Project did not respond to NPR's questions about its registration. The organization does state on its website that it "is committed to operating prudently and effectively, with appropriate transparency, and in compliance with the Internal Revenue Code; state laws regulating fundraising; and all other applicable laws."

Political statements

There may be another obstacle to the Patriot Freedom Project receiving the IRS' blessing as a tax-exempt entity: its statements about politics.

The IRS has "an absolute prohibition" on 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations intervening in partisan political campaigns, said Bradrick.

On Jan. 26, the group's twitter account said "We need to...take down Chris Smith and the alleged [R]epublican VanDrew!" Chris Smith and Jeff Van Drew are both Republican members of Congress from New Jersey and are currently running for re-election.

"That's exactly the type of thing that violates the prohibition on political campaign intervention," said Hackney.

The group has also tweeted statements suggesting Trump should run for President again.

Because Trump has not officially declared that he is running for office, Hackney said, it's less clear whether those statements violate the law. Either way, the IRS may give those statements a close look when evaluating whether to grant the Patriot Freedom Project tax-exempt status.

"The IRS might say, 'Sorry, you appear to be engaged in political campaign intervention' and deny your application as a result," Hackney said.

If the IRS does deny the group's application, the Patriot Freedom Project may have to pay taxes, and donors would not be able write off their contributions to the group.

Response from Capitol riot defendants and their families

The Patriot Freedom Project has received national prominence and support from leading pro-Trump figures such as Bannon, U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance, author and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza and radio host Clay Travis. But opinions of the group among actual Capitol riot defendants and their families remain divided.

Some, such as Trish Priller, have publicly vouched for the group. Prosecutors have said Priller's husband, Christopher Worrell, is a member of far-right group the Proud Boys, and that he attacked police guarding the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 with a can of "pepper spray gel." Worrell has pleaded not guilty. Priller told NPR in a message that the group "helped many wives & children pay their bills, home repairs, food, car repairs, diapers, Christmas and has also secured lawyers. If Cynthia didn't create the Patriot Freedom Project many families would have suffered."

Bonnie Nichols, whose husband Ryan has pleaded not guilty to allegations that he used a chemical spray to assault police on Jan. 6, 2021, told the conservative website The Federalist that the group provided financial assistance and emotional support to her family. "I don't know where we would be if we didn't have that support," she said.

Other family members remain highly critical of the group. "I really am pissed off," said the family member of one defendant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of backlash from the group. They were particularly upset that the group said it may use a portion of the hundreds of thousands of donated funds to hire employees, rather than directly support defendants.

On its most recent "Statement of Activities" the group said that while, "no one has taken a salary" yet, "we will potentially hire several employees, all of whom will be paid reasonable salaries for the work they are doing."

Two men charged in connection with the Capitol riot also contacted NPR and raised concerns about "favoritism" by the group's leadership.

Troy Smocks did not go to the Capitol on Jan. 6, but was present in Washington, D.C. that day. He pleaded guilty to sending threats against public officials on the social media platform Parler, and was recently released from the D.C. jail. He said the Patriot Freedom Project only seemed to support a small fraction of all defendants.

"More than half of the guys [in jail] are not listed on their site," he said. In fact, out of more than 700 Capitol riot defendants, only 40 are currently listed on the group's website along with their individual fundraising pages.

As of last December, the group stated that it held more than $500,000 that it had not yet spent. Though Smocks said he is dealing with serious money trouble from being locked up, he said he had not received any support from the Patriot Freedom Project, and questioned why the group had not provided aid to more defendants.

Smocks said he felt like groups like the Patriot Freedom Project and others raising money for these cases were more in it for themselves than the defendants.

"They use the events of Jan. 6 and the detainees in order to pad their own resumes and enrich themselves," said Smocks.

The spokesperson for the Patriot Freedom Project declined to address Smocks' criticisms on the record.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.