‘Huge number of problems’: Charity experts sound off on BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors’ potential self-dealing
Andrew Kerr, DCNF
- Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation co-founder Patrisse Cullors was identified as the co-chair of an art company that received business from three activist groups under her control, a press release obtained by the Daily Caller News Foundation shows.
- The art company, Trap Heals, was founded and led by the father of Cullors’ only child, the DCNF previously reported.
- “I feel personally and from an ethical perspective, there are a huge number of problems here,” longtime charity ethics expert Doug White told the DCNF.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors was identified in a press release as co-chair of an art company that has profited from several activist groups that call Cullors a co-founder and leader, which charity experts say amounts to self-dealing and raises ethical and legal questions.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) Global Network Foundation, BLM PAC and Reform LA Jails — three activist groups Cullors claims to have co-founded and led — have provided business to the art company, Trap Heals, the Daily Caller News Foundation previously reported. Trap Heals was founded and run by Damon Turner, the father of Cullors’ only child, the DCNF found.
“I feel personally and from an ethical perspective, there are a huge number of problems here,” longtime charity ethics expert Doug White told the DCNF.
“Self-dealing is when someone is in a position to direct money and who uses it on his or her own behalf,” said White, a former director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Fundraising Management program. “That’s basically what it boils down to, and this fits that largely, that definition.”
Paul Kamenar, the counsel for the conservative watchdog group National Legal and Policy Center, said BLM Global Network’s dealings with Trap Heals raises questions given that the organization’s bylaws, which the group provided to the New Mexico office of the attorney general in March, state that only one person serves on its board of directors.
“Trap Heals’ contract with Black Lives Matter Global Network in 2018 raises troubling questions not only because of the personal and business relationship between Patrisse Cullors and Damon Turner, but also because it appears from BLM’s Bylaws that Cullors is the sole Director,” Kamenar said. “Most nonprofits have at least three Directors and many large ones have more than that so that there is accountability and oversight.”
Cullors was identified as the co-chair of Trap Heals in a January 2020 press release advertising an art project the company put together in South Central Los Angeles.
“TRAPS HEALS, founded by CEO and cultural architect Damon Turner and co-chaired by activist, artist, organizer, educator, and founder of both Black Lives Matter and Yes on R, Patrisse Cullors, is set to hold the first-ever public activation in South Central LA,” the press release from FYI Brand Group read.
The revelation that Cullors may be a co-chair of Trap Heals follows a DCNF report that Cullors had identified Turner as the father of her only child in a 2019 post on her verified Instagram page.
FYI Brand Group did not return multiple requests for comment. The public relations firm called Cullors a “long-time client” in a June 2, 2020, Instagram post.
Cullors and Trap Heals did not return multiple requests for comment and additional details.
White said it was noteworthy that Cullors and Trap Heals are not disputing the press release.
“They’re not denying it. If someone called me and said, ‘This press release said you were a co-chair of this group that’s been hired by this organization that you started and two others that you started. Is that true?’” White said. “I’d be on the phone in about ten seconds and say, ‘No, not true,’ if it isn’t true.”
Turner said in a May 2020 interview that Cullors was directly involved when BLM Global Network invited his company to participate at an art festival in October 2018. Business records previously reported by the DCNF show that the company was incorporated just days before that event took place.
Cullors “hit me and said, ‘Hey what have you been working on?’” Turner recalled. “I sent her the deck that I was working on, and that sort of gave us the opportunity to do this really cool art installation.”
“We had games, pillows on the floor, cherry blossom trees. And that became sort of like the destination for the festival that year. Everybody knew that something just happened,” Turner said. “As we began digging deeper into that idea, Black Lives Matter Global Network gave us a contract to support them in their cultural efforts.”
Trap Heals stated on an archived version of its website that it served as the “lead developer of the art & cultural efforts” of BLM Global Network in 2018. Trap Heals removed that language from its website sometime after Nov. 24, 2020, according to available archives.
It’s not clear if BLM Global Network paid Trap Heals for its services. It’s also not clear if Cullors had any formal involvement with Trap Heals when it received a contract from BLM Global Network.
BLM Global Network did not return multiple requests for comment.
Trap Heals also received a collective $238,000 between 2018 and 2020 from Reform LA Jails and BLM PAC, two other groups co-founded and led by Cullors, according to campaign finance records previously reported by the DCNF.
“If a section 501(c)(3) organization has ignored its conflict of interest policy and entered into an unreasonably favorable transaction with an interested party, there could be legal ramifications for the interested party and the organization,” Alan Dye, a partner at Webster, Chamberlain & Bean who specializes in nonprofit organizations, told the DCNF.
Dye made clear, however, that public charities like BLM Global Network can legally do business with an outside organization controlled by an insider, as long as the charity is paying the organization fair market value.
Cullors has faced criticism from other black activists following reports that she had purchased four homes across the country since 2016 for a total of $3.2 million. Additionally, Cullors received upwards of $20,000 a month from one of her activist groups, which also spent $26,000 at a luxury resort for “meetings,” the DCNF previously reported.
Black Lives Matter Greater New York Leader Hawk Newsome, a prominent New York-based black activist who is not associated with Cullors’ group, called for an “independent investigation” of BLM Global Network’s finances during an interview with the New York Post in April. BLM Global Network denied that its resources were put toward real estate purchases for any employee or volunteer.
And a group of 10 BLM chapters accused BLM Global Network in November of providing little to no support to the local groups. They also said the national arm provided no acceptable financial transparency surrounding the money it raised since its founding in 2013.
The local chapters’ statement said Cullors was the “sole board member” of BLM Global Network and became the group’s executive director in July 2020 “against the will of most chapters and without their knowledge.”
The local BLM groups’ accusation followed a DCNF report that BLM Global Network spent a combined $4.5 million on payroll, consultants and travel in its 2017, 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, a figure that encompassed 83.3% of the group’s total spending during the three-year period, according to audited financial statements prepared by its former fiscal sponsor, Thousand Currents, a California-based charity.
The Tides Foundation announced in July that it took over as BLM Global Network’s fiscal sponsor.
During the same period, however, the financial statements show that BLM Global Network provided only $328,000 to outside organizations, such as the local, independent and autonomous BLM chapters across the country that, according to Cullors, are the ones responsible for carrying out the group’s mission.