On October 11, a story appeared in the Washington Free Beacon that claimed “Warnock’s Ebenezer Baptist Church” moved to evict disadvantaged residents of an apartment building it owns.
As evidence, the publication provides copies of two eviction notices for the same person. One dated September of 2021, and one dated September of 2022.
In rapid succession, the following events then occurred:
- A scant three hours after the Washington Free Beacon broke the story of the evictions, Herschel Walker claimed he would pay all of the back rent for the people supposedly being threatened with eviction. The Free Beacon published a story on the Walker offer, four hours later.
- Fox picked up and published the same story that afternoon.
- October 12: A conservative ‘watch dog’ group, National Legal and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the IRS about the Ebenezer Building Foundation.
- October 12: Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office sends a letter to the Ebenezer Building Foundation, noting that nonprofits that solicit contributions in Georgia have to register with the state. He demands that the nonprofit proves it’s exempt from filing.
- October 13: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporter assigned to cover Herschel Walker picks up the story and the complaint.
- October 14: The Free Beacon writes about the ‘Georgia investigation’ into the Ebenezer Building Foundation, Inc.
- October 14: The Fox debate moderator at the Warnock/Walker debate asks Warnock about the Washington Free Beacon story and the evictions. (As noted prior to the event by the ever-helpful AJC.)
- October 14: Walker also hits Warnock about the evictions.
Whew! Busy week! And I haven’t seen such exquisite coordination between seemingly independent entities since the last Cirque du Soleil show I attended.
Normally, I wouldn’t pay any attention to a story in the Washington Free Beacon, a publication on par with other luminaries such as Brietbart and Newsmax. What made this different, though, was the painfully obvious orchestration of the events between the Washington Free Beacon, the National Legal and Policy Center, Herschel Walker’s campaign, Secretary Raffensperger, and even the Nexstar debate team. Orchestration that casts doubt on the true legitimacy of the Walker/Warnock debate, and the media coverage related to it; Orchestration that includes an Georgia elected official, Raffensperger, using his office for political gain.
Would this sequence of closely timed events happened if Senator Warnock was not running for Senate? Would the stories had been published? Would the IRS complaint had been filed? Would Raffensperger had sent the letter?
I can say with complete surety: No.
Now, let’s look at the facts.
Just the Facts
Columbia Tower at MLK Village is a 96 unit apartment building, and all units are designated as low-income housing. I can’t find exact figures for rents, but I’ve found indications online that they can range from $100 a month up to $700 a month, depending on the renter’s income.
Columbia Residential provides the day-to-day management of the property, which is owned by MLK Village Tower LP—a limited partnership between MLK Village Corporation, Inc, and Columbia at MLK Village Tower Partners, LLC, with the sole member, Columbia Residential.
Ebenezer Baptist Church established the MLK Village Corporation in 2003 to handle the business end of its effort to provide homes for the disadvantaged, including support for the Columbia Tower at MLK Village. The church owns 99% of the property, Columbia Residential owns 1% via the limited partnership.
As for Ebenezer Building Foundation, the nonprofit at the center of all the recent fooflah, I’ll let it speak for itself in what the Free Beacon termed an audited financial statement, but in actuality, is nothing more than a simple grant request for money to renovate the Columbia Tower.
Ebenezer Building Foundation was established in 1996 to raise funds for the construction and maintenance of facilities of the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta and to support the various programs of Ebenezer Baptist Church including ownership in Columbia Tower at MLK Village a permanent supportive housing development of 96 units serving the homeless, mentally ill population in Atlanta, Ga. The Ebenezer Building Foundation has supported the construction of the Horizon Sanctuary and the Martin Luther King, Sr. Community Resources Center, and maintenance of the small low-income rental properties owned by Ebenezer Baptist Church. Its officers are members and leaders of Ebenezer.
OK, now you know the players. Let’s move on to the accusations.
The Washington Free Beacon started all of this with its stories on the Columbia Tower evictions. It’s important, then, to establish who has control over evictions at Columbia Tower.
As the AJC article notes, Columbia Residential, the organization that manages the Columbia Tower, issued a statement:
As the building’s sole management agent, Columbia Residential handles all aspects of property management at MLK Village; the building’s owners bear no responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the property, nor do they exercise any oversight of the building tenants’ rental transactions.
Neither Senator Warnock, nor Ebenezer Baptist Church/Ebenezer Building Foundation have any control over how evictions are managed at the property.
In addition, though low-income housing offers substantially reduced rents, tenants do have to follow tenant agreements, and these include paying rent. If a tenant doesn’t pay rent, doesn’t work with the management to pay rent, they face eviction.
However, as Columbia Residential noted in the statement to AJC, there have been no evictions at Columbia Tower since 2020. And, from my own examination of eviction cases in the Fulton County Magistrate’s court database, contrary to what’s implied in the Washington Free Beacon, no eviction action was filed during the various COVID eviction moratoriums.
The residents of Columbia Tower also have help to ensure such evictions occur rarely, if at all. Hope Atlanta has two permanent caseworkers at Columbia Tower to assist the residents. The focus of this organization at the apartments is also included in the grant request:
HOPE Atlanta provides supportive services for the residents at Columbia Tower by offering an array of programs and services that refer to treatment, train, strengthen, and support persons with mental illness, substance abuse disorders, physical disabilities, abused persons, persons living with HIV/AIDS, homeless, and persons coming out of transitional housing to live a more self-sufficient and satisfying life in the community. HOPE Atlanta serves as a vehicle to assist these participants in accessing programs and services offered by HOPE Atlanta and its community partners.
The IRS Complaint
The National Legal and Policy Center terms itself a watch dog, but SourceWatch considers it a “front group and industry funded right-wing political and policy lobbying organization.”
The IRS complaint is almost a total word-for-word rehash of the original Washington Free Beacon story. However, at the end we find the actual reason for the filing: The Ebenezer Building Foundation did not list the MLK Village Corporation as a related entity.
(There was also a claim of financial irregularities in the form, but I’ll get to them later.)
First of all, the Ebenezer Building Foundation, Inc. is related to an entity, as noted in the Form 990 Schedule R the foundation filed. The entity is the Ebenezer Baptist Church. That entity, being a religious organization isn’t required to file a 990. If it did, though, chances are good that it would list its relationship with the MLK Village Corporation.
What the Washington Free Beacon and the National Legal and Policy Center don’t mention in any of their various accusations is that it isn’t unusual for nonprofits to spin certain functionality off to other entities for activity that it, itself, doesn’t consider a primary component of its existence. So, a church could create a nonprofit to handle efforts such as providing low-income housing in a city that desperately needs it (Ebenezer Building Foundation), and then create another, separate C corporation (MLK Village Corporation), to handle the business aspects of some or all of of its efforts. How the relationships exist between all the entities can be complicated, and may be identified in IRS paperwork not as accessible as the form 990 filing is for Ebenezer Building Foundation.
Nonprofit form 990s are publicly accessible but most other IRS filings, are not. Both the Washington Free Beacon and the National Legal and Policy Center know this.
The real problem is the IRS does not penalize people or organizations for making false complaints, like the police would if you make a false claim of a crime. So people can make a bogus IRS complaint a few weeks before a critical election and know that they will suffer no penalty for doing so, and the IRS is still so badly understaffed it can’t respond before the election.
In addition, the Center’s IRS complaint also hastens to point out what it terms discrepancies in income on the form 990 the organization filed in 2020, and the amounts provided in the grant request specifically for Columbia Tower submitted in 2022 listing the 2020 rents.
The two documents are not for the same entity or same purpose. What amounts are recorded in each have specific requirements. The IRS form requires an accounting of income before expenses, the statement in the grant request likely requires an accounting of income sans expenses. In particular, as the Washington Free Beacon so helpfully pointed out, the figures in the grant request had been fully audited.
At a minimum, commonsense should have demonstrated the absurdity of all of this. Look at the dates when each of these organizations were founded: The Ebenezer Building Foundation was established in 2006; MLK Village Corporation was established in March of 2003; the partnership with Columbia Residential began in 2005, when they bought the Columbia Tower and renovated it for habitation. They’ve been dealing with both state and federal agencies, since.
In the complaint, the Center stated, “It is abundantly clear that Ebenezer Building Foundation, Inc. has violated one or more IRS laws and regulations regarding the operations of a nonprofit charity.”
No, what is abundantly clear is that the Center is making an accusation of guilt based on no evidence, and is demanding that the Ebenezer Business Foundation prove its innocence.
And speaking of being forced to prove innocence…
The Disingenuous Mr. Raffensperger
Both the Washington Free Beacon and the National Policy and Legal Center care more about messaging than fact, which is something that shouldn’t surprise any of us.
What should surprise us, though—or, at a minimum, be cause for concern—is when an elected state government official uses his office solely to help a candidate running for office.
The ink for the original Washington Free Beacon story had barely a chance to dry before Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger jumped onto the Ebenezer Building Foundation pile-on.
In a letter dated October 12, his office wrote:
The Division’s records indicate that Ebenezer Building Foundation, Inc. (“Ebenezer Building Foundation”) is not registered as a charitable organization with the state of Georgia. Accordingly, if Ebenezer Building Foundation is soliciting charitable contributions and operating as a charitable organization in the State of Georgia without an active registration or applicable exemption, it is in violation…
If the Washington Free Beacon and the National Legal and Policy Center can claim not to have access to all the documentation when making their claims, the same cannot be said for Raffensperger. He knows full well that the demand for Ebenezer to prove its innocence is disingenuous because, as Secretary of State, he has access to all the information he needs to answer the question in the letter, himself.
What was worse is there’s nothing in Raffensperger’s department letter actually accusing Ebenezer Building Foundation of wrong doing. No mentions of any irregularities in any form, or any documentation that would lead to a letter of this kind. No, the letter only outlines the law, and then tells the organization it must prove it is innocent of breaking this law.
Can we then assume every other nonprofit in the state is getting this same letter? Or only nonprofits that are related to a candidate running for the Senate?
The media, for the most part, has ignored the Washington Free Beacon stories. The only repetition they’ve received is from other conservative publications…and Fox. And AJC.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution will have to look to its own in why it would allow itself to be used so poorly. At a minimum, it did, at least, ask for a comment from the Columbia Tower management.
Fox, on the other hand, is being Fox. And interestingly enough, it was Fox being Fox that got carried into that sham of a Walker/Warnock debate on Friday evening. Of all the questions the Fox moderator Buck Lanford could ask, he asked Warnock specifically about the fresh, unvetted, and relatively obscure accusations published by the Washington Free Beacon.
Not about climate change, which would have so much impact on coastal community like Savannah. Not about the Ahmaud Arbery murder and trial that has so dominated the news in this state and the country. Not even about whether the candidates support COVID vaccinations and the various lock-downs. Or the book banning happening in schools. Or the attempts to suppress speech about the LGBTQ+ community in the state.
No, Lanford asked about the dubious allegations just published by a relatively unknown, ultra-conservative publication.
The Media Fails
The media has, for the most part, played it smart with the accusations about the Ebenezer Building Foundation and Senator Warnock’s connection. It knows that there’s little truth to the allegations, and that this all was a contrived ploy to find something, anything, to accuse Warnock of and take the heat off of Walker during the week of their only highly publicized debate.
Still, the media failed. It should be covering this story—not because the allegations have any factual basis, but because they don’t.
The people who contrived this mess attacked an organization whose purpose is to provide low-cost housing for the disadvantaged in a city that desperately needs it. They attacked the nonprofit’s founder, Ebenezer Baptist Church—Martin Luther King Jr’s church—one of the most respected churches in America. And they did so solely to provide something, anything, to taint Senator Warnock in the news leading up to, and during, the debate.
However, the worst player in all of this wasn’t the Washington Free Beacon or the National Legal and Policy Center. Or even Fox. No, the worst player was Secretary of State Raffensperger, who used his elected office to send a duplicitous letter implying much while delivering nothing—all to aid the Republican candidate for Senate.
There is no worse action an elected official can commit than putting party over people. No greater betrayal of the public trust…and the media just treats it as business as usual. Worse, Raffensperger is still portrayed as the saint who did his job when Trump came calling, and therefore can do no wrong.
Who would have known that a Republican just doing their job is enough to get a free pass from the media forever?
The media in this state, and this country, have failed in their job.
A conspiracy of innocence
In the title to this piece I accused Raffensperger, Washington Free Beacon, Fox, and the others of conspiring together in this attack on the the Ebenezer Building Foundation and, indirectly, Senator Warnock and the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Conspiring together…that’s a pretty serious accusation. And though it is true that the timeline at the beginning of this writing gives weight to my accusation—not to mention three different types of attacks all on the same institution, even though that institution has been doing the same thing for decades—I have no smoking gun. No text messages between the players. No whistleblower claiming ‘they seen it all.’
So, I grant all of them the same courtesy they granted the Ebenezer Building Foundation:
They can prove their innocence.