Trump-Allied Nonprofit Paid Millions to Companies Run by Insiders

The Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit whose funding skyrocketed after it became a nerve center for President Donald J. Trump’s allies in Washington, has paid at least $3.2 million since the start of 2021 to corporations led by its own leaders or their relatives, records show.

In its most recent tax filings, the nonprofit’s three highest-paid contractors were all connected to insiders.

One was led by the institute’s president, Edward Corrigan, and another by its chief operating officer. At a third contractor, the board members included the group’s senior legal fellow Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who supported Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Last year, the Conservative Partnership Institute hired a fourth company connected to an insider: a fund-raising firm run by Mr. Corrigan’s brother, Patrick Corrigan. Public filings show the company received a contract three weeks before the firm was legally formed.

The Conservative Partnership Institute applied to the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt nonprofit, and the agency approved. That means donations to the group are tax deductible, like gifts to a food bank or the American Red Cross. It also means that, by law, its money must serve the public good rather than private interests.

The nonprofit has pushed those limits by entwining itself with only one faction of American politics. It pays high salaries to some of Mr. Trump’s former officials, hosts retreats for Republican lawmakers at a rural compound and funds efforts to vet people and ideas for a second Trump term.

Legal experts say these insider transactions also raise concerns about self-dealing. While hiring insiders is permitted when certain safeguards are in place, the payments moved money out of daylight and into opaque entities that the nonprofit’s leaders helped control.

“There’s no checks and balances,” said Michael West, a lawyer at the New York Council of Nonprofits. Because there is no real third party to determine whether the insider-led companies were charging the nonprofit a fair price, Mr. West said, “the potential for overpayment here is epic.”

Mr. Corrigan, the institute’s president, did not respond to questions about what steps the group took to assure that it was not overpaying the insiders’ companies. The companies did not say what rates they charged.

Of the insiders who had dual roles at the nonprofit and its vendors, only one responded to questions from The New York Times. Wesley Denton, the institute’s chief operating officer and a former Trump administration official, said he also had been paid by Compass Professional, one of the vendors.

Mr. Denton’s annual compensation, with benefits, from the institute was $391,735. He declined to say how much he received from Compass Professional. He was on the board of both the vendor and the institute.

“We’re proud to have helped launch new, independent, nonprofit service providers that provide high-quality professional services,” Mr. Denton said in a written statement.

The institute’s donors include several Republican political campaigns, as well as conservative businesspeople. One major donor, the retired Texas aviation entrepreneur Robert Bruce, said the nonprofit’s leaders had not told him about their use of vendors with insider connections.

“I’ve never had a conversation like that,” Mr. Bruce said in a phone interview.

He estimated he had given “several hundred thousand” dollars to the institute. Mr. Bruce said he had no concerns that the nonprofit’s leaders were misusing money. “I’ve known them a long time,” he said. “They’re good people.”

The Times traced the relationships between the group’s leaders and their vendors by examining charity and corporate filings with the federal government, five states and the District of Columbia.

The records do not show what share of the $3.2 million went to the institute’s top leaders and their family members — only that the money flowed to companies where they served as an owner or a director. In at least one case, a company failed to flag that connection as required in a state filing.

The Conservative Partnership Institute was founded in 2017 by former Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, after he was ousted as the president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative nonprofit. The group’s aim was to help conservatives wield power, shepherding them “through the Washington swamps without being infected with Potomac Fever,” Mr. DeMint said in 2017.

The institute’s fund-raising actually improved when conservatives lost power.

In 2021, with Democrats in charge in Washington, the institute hired former Trump staff members, including Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff. It began courting donors as the voice of Mr. Trump’s allies and ambitions.

Fund-raising jumped to $45 million in 2021 from $7 million in 2020. The nonprofit, newly flush, bought a 2,200-acre retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and a series of commercial buildings near the U.S. Capitol, with plans for a restaurant, a school and TV studios. The group also began convening workshops and seminars for conservative lawmakers and staff members as well as seeding new conservative nonprofits.

As the money flowed, the institute’s leaders began to found a series of companies in Delaware.

The first was Compass Professional. Its first annual report listed a slate of directors, including Edward Corrigan and Mr. Denton.

Next was Compass Legal Services. Its initial filing listed directors, including Ms. Mitchell and Charlotte Davis, one of the institute’s board members.

By the end of 2021, the group had paid its companies a combined $639,259, according to an audit that it filed with state-level charity regulators.

Federal law allows nonprofits like this one to hire insiders as long as they properly disclose the payments and ensure the insiders do not overcharge. Legal experts still advise against it because of the temptation for insiders to abuse their power over charity funds.

“You have an obligation to behave in the interest of that organization,” said Linda Sugin, a professor of nonprofit law at Fordham University. “The problem is, when you’re on both sides of the transaction, then we’re skeptical that you’re going to put the organization’s interests before your own.”

Ms. Sugin said the institute could have reduced its risk by soliciting bids from competing firms to gauge whether the insiders were charging market rates. The institute could have asked its leaders to recuse themselves from the decision to hire their own companies, she said.

Mr. Corrigan and other leaders did not respond to questions about whether their group took those steps.

If a nonprofit is found to have given improper benefits to insiders, the insiders could face financial penalties from state or federal regulators. In extreme cases, the I.R.S. could revoke the group’s tax exemption.

In 2022, a third Delaware company was formed: Compass Property Management. Its corporate filings show Mr. Denton as president.

During that year, the nonprofit paid the three insider-connected companies a combined $2.6 million, according to the audit that it filed with states. The institute said those payments were “for the use of facilities, personnel, human resources and other professional services.”

How much of that flowed to the insiders on those vendors’ boards of directors?

Mr. Denton offered only a partial answer.

He said the vendors did not pay their board members solely because they were board members.

However, as in his case, Mr. Denton said the companies could pay their board members for other reasons, for “doing employment work for these organizations, outside of their board duties.” The president of Compass Legal issued a statement saying his company did not pay “outside directors” but did not specify which directors were counted as “outside.”

Compass Professional and Compass Legal have worked for other clients, including Mr. Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign and Gun Owners of America, according to federal campaign and charity filings. The companies’ leaders did not respond to queries about how much of their business came from the Conservative Partnership Institute.

The most recent data on what the institute paid the three original insider-connected companies is from 2022. Since then, corporate filings show, the companies’ board members have shifted, but Conservative Partnership Institute leaders or their family members remained on the boards of each.

Last year, the institute also hired a company that was partly owned by Patrick Corrigan, Compass Direct LLC, to a fund-raising contract, paying $180,000 over the next year.

In a filing in North Carolina, the institute said that contract began on July 1, 2023. But Patrick Corrigan’s company was not founded until July 24, three weeks after it won the contract.

In its own filings with North Carolina, Patrick Corrigan’s company was asked if he was related “as parent, spouse, child or sibling to ANY officer, director, trustee or employee” as his client, which was his brother’s nonprofit.

In filings for 2023 and 2024, the company answered “no.” Patrick Corrigan signed the forms.

After The Times pointed this out, Patrick Corrigan responded with a one-line email: “The NC filing has been updated,” he wrote. He did not respond to other questions.

Robert Draper and Julie Tate contributed reporting.

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