Black Lives Matter’s finances deserve the scrutiny they’re finally getting

The California Department of Justice recently issued a notice to Black Lives Matter not only that it was in violation of state law over the failure to disclose financial records, but also that its leadership could be personally liable for the resulting fines for failing to account for $60 million in donations.

Indiana also is questioning the organization, and Amazon has suspended BLM donations due to concerns over the handling and reporting of donations by the group’s leadership.

The problem is determining who that leadership is on an organization racked by internal conflicts, resignations and scandals.

The move, however, highlights a glaring contrast to how state officials have treated BLM as opposed to the far more aggressive efforts targeting organizations like the National Rifle Association. New York is seeking to dissolve the NRA for some of the same allegations leveled against BLM, including the use of funds by BLM officials for personal benefits.

The perils of growing too fast

Businesses are often warned of the perils of growing too fast. That may seem counterintuitive, but success can bring serious problems if growth outstrips capabilities or production. BLM is a case study of that danger. After the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, corporations frantically moved to establish their standing as anti-racist organizations. BLM became the vehicle for such corporate bona fides.

Millions of dollars poured into BLM coffers as endorsements of the organization adorned everything from NFL helmets to corporate websites. BLM leaders were given lucrative corporate deals, including co-founder Patrisse Cullors, who inked a contract with Warner Bros. to help guide and develop programming across its platforms.

Patrisse Cullors, here in Los Angeles in 2018, stepped down from the Black Lives Matter movement in 2021.

Patrisse Cullors, here in Los Angeles in 2018, stepped down from the Black Lives Matter movement in 2021.

It was a sudden and ironic change for an organization that continues to support boycotts of white-owned businesses. Cullors insisted that she and her BLM co-founder “are trained Marxists. We are super versed on, sort of, ideological theories.” She has denounced capitalism as worse than COVID-19. Yet, companies like Lululemon rushed to find their own “social justice warrior” while selling leggings for $120 apiece.

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None of these corporate sponsors seemed as interested in tracking the millions given to BLM as they did publicizing their donations. Indeed, when some began to raise questions about Cullors buying luxury homes, Facebook and Twitter censored them. BLM itself denounced such critics as “white supremacists” for questioning how these millions were being spent.

However, BLM itself seemed to be run like a college Trotskyite study group despite its long list of corporate sponsors.

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Cullors stepped down last year as executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation
, and there have been other resignations that left the group effectively headless. Those resignations might have been tied to the New York Post’s revelation that BLM Global Network transferred $6.3 million to Cullors’ spouse, Janaya Khan, and other Canadian activists to purchase a mansion in Toronto in 2021.

According to The Washington Examiner, BLM PAC and a Los Angeles-based jail reform group paid Cullors $20,000 a month. It also spent nearly $26,000 on meetings at a luxury Malibu beach resort in 2019.

There is a circular element to these payments. Reform LA Jails, chaired by Cullors, received $1.4 million, of which $205,000 went to the consulting firm owned by Cullors and her spouse, according to New York magazine.

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When Cullors resigned, two people were supposed to take over as executive directors – Makani Themba and Monifa Bandele. However, neither assumed their posts, and both have said that they do not know who is running BLM.

Two other people remain on the board – Shalomyah Bowers and Raymond Howard.

A victim of capitalism

It is not clear whether there is a pattern of such payments because BLM has not filed a 2020 return, a Form 990, as required under federal law.

Even the issuance of a letter from the California Department of Justice is a surprising move given BLM’s inviolate political position. However, it still leaves a contrast to how Democratic prosecutors have treated another politically active organization, the NRA.

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In New York, Attorney General Letitia James is still seeking to dissolve the NRA, which she has called a “terrorist organization.” The dissolution effort is based on the use of donations for private planes and personal benefits of NRA officials.

James, however, has not cracked down on organizations like National Action Network, which has been accused of giving millions to founder Al Sharpton in special deals or expenses. James has also not pursued BLM for reports of special dealing.

I would oppose an effort to dissolve BLM, just as I oppose the efforts to dissolve the NRA. However, the favored status afforded to BLM by the news media, corporations and state regulators has magnified the problems for the organization. There are also obvious free speech and association questions raised by such selective or disparate enforcement policies.

Cullors once declared that “while the COVID-19 illness is tragic, what’s more tragic is capitalism.” The leadership of BLM could be precisely the tragedy of capitalism that she described.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black Lives Matter’s financial management raises red flags