On November 4, anti-immigrant group The Remembrance Project (TRP) live-streamed its second annual national conference. In doing so, the group may have inadvertently revealed that it violated federal rules prohibiting non-profit organizations from collaborating with political campaigns.
If such prohibited behavior did occur, it would further damage the reputation of TRP. The group also invited white nationalists to its recent conference and is still beset by allegations from former supporters, first reported by Politico, that TRP co-founder Maria Espinoza is exploiting the stories of grieving people to raise her personal profile.
One of the speakers at Saturday’s event was Paul Nehlen, a businessman currently waging his second consecutive primary challenge against House Speaker Paul Ryan. In 2016, Nehlen’s bid to unseat Ryan failed, with the incumbent garnering nearly 85% of the vote. Nehlen lost despite endorsements from right-wing media personalities like Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Laura Ingraham—all of whom frequently attack Ryan and question his conservative credentials.
During his remarks Saturday morning, Nehlen discussed his new primary campaign. “I will hope to see some of you up in Wisconsin in 2018,” Nehlen said, “because we’ll make another trip to Paul Ryan’s house.”
Nehlen was referring to a July 2016 press conference that activists affiliated with TRP held outside of Ryan’s house to endorse Nehlen’s campaign. When the press conference was first reported, TRP could credibly claim the activists were acting as individuals and not formally representing the anti-immigrant group. However, during a question-and-answer session, Nehlen elaborated on the event and suggested that Maria Espinoza directly sought to use her organization as a vehicle to assist Nehlen’s campaign.
When a conference attendee asked Nehlen to describe “exactly what happened when you went to Paul Ryan’s house,” Nehlen responded:
So the group reached out to me, Maria reached out and she said ‘how can I help?’ And I said well, I think if we do a speech calling on Paul Ryan to tear down the wall that’s around his house, because he won’t fund a wall for the rest of us, that might be useful and we’ll get some news media out of that and we’ll really get your voices projected into the district that really matters. So we reached out to the news media and absolutely zero of them showed up. But we went to Parker Park and we walked over very politely and we were quiet and we didn’t leave any trash and we assembled in front of Paul Ryan’s house and we set up a video. And we gave a speech. Some of the moms spoke and then we quietly left.
“God was sending a message to Paul Ryan that day and his messengers were in the Remembrance Project,” Nehlen added before alluding to future collaborations between TRP and his campaign.
“So that’s what happened that day. Like I said last night, for those of you who were here, we have maybe a little bit different plan for next year,” he concluded. “So I’ll leave that there now that we’re on tape.”
While founded in 2009, TRP was not officially designated as a Section 501(c)(3) Tax Exempt Organization by the IRS until 2014. Earlier this year, TRP incorporated a 501(c)(4) wing, The Remembrance Project Advocacy, Inc., which has fewer restrictions on working directly with political campaigns. However, that entity was created nearly two years after the press conference in front of Ryan’s home. Additionally, all available materials online, including the conference registration page, indicate that this year’s conference was organized by TRP’s (c)(3) wing.
According to the Internal Revenue Service “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
The Remembrance Project has maintained a proximity to several political campaigns in recent years. Most notably Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Espinoza and TRP’s so-called “Angel Moms” spoke at many of his campaign stops.
Nehlen’s remarks Saturday suggest the group has directly coordinated with Nehlen’s previous and current campaigns. Right Wing Watch also reported that conference materials listed Nehlen and his wife as sponsors of last weekend’s conference, an unlikely coincidence.
The IRS also notes that any organization found violating rules regarding political campaign activity “may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
Only the IRS can determine whether TRP has actually violated any federal rules. However, TRP shows it is consistently willing to operate in ethical gray areas. And by live streaming its conference Saturday, TRP broadcasted to the world that it is willing to bend ethical and legal standards to their very limit.