These groups are always scams.
A six-month Politico investigation revealed that the New Georgia Project faces accusations “of financial misuse and irregularities.”
Failed Democrat governor candidate Stacey Abrams founded the voting rights group, which aimed to register voters. Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock oversaw the project for two years.
The move comes as the group’s tax filings indicate that its former executive director — who was hand-picked by Abrams in 2014 but fired last year without notice — owes the organization thousands of dollars in “non-work-related” reimbursements. The former director, Nsé Ufot, who left the group last year after heading it for eight years, denies owing money and calls the allegation “a fucking lie.”
The debt attributed to Ufot — a nationally recognized leader in voting rights efforts and frequent political commentator — is one of multiple instances of poor financial record-keeping and allegations of misuse of funds uncovered by POLITICO. The New Georgia Project didn’t properly track company expenses that were allegedly prepaid to employees on Visa gift cards and failed to account for salary advances and other expenditures, according to a review of financial disclosures, internal documents and interviews with 12 current and former employees, including senior leadership. Most were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
The organization has also been fending off other administrative battles, including a state ethics investigation over whether its election advocacy violated rules limiting direct political activity by nonprofits, which it has sued to terminate, and a dispute with the IRS over payment of payroll taxes, which the group’s new CEO, Kendra Davenport Cotton, said has recently been settled.
The New Georgia Project is filed under two federal tax designations. It cannot engage in politics as a 501(c)3, but it’s also a 501(c)4. That designation allows it to use half of its work for politicking.
Abrams created the New Georgia Project in 2014. It is “an offshoot of another Abrams-founded nonprofit called Third Sector Development.”
Abrams left a leadership role in 2017 when she first ran for governor.
Warnock served as chair from 2017 to January 2020, when he began a Senate campaign.
Abrams brought the project a ton of money after she claimed voter suppression led to her defeat in 2018:
After Abrams’ 2018 campaign for governor ended in a narrow defeat to current Gov. Brian Kemp, then the Georgia secretary of state, her forceful claims of voter suppression drew the attention of Democrats around the country. What followed was a huge influx of donations, many of them from out of state, intended to advance voting rights and voter registration. In fiscal year 2020, the New Georgia Project collected more than $36 million in donations to its two entities.
Former staffers said the project was chaotic behind the scenes:
While the organization has built up political capital in the state among Democrats and a large volunteer base for canvassing and voter education events, behind the scenes there was often disarray, according to multiple former staffers. There was frequent turnover in the top finance role, allegations of money misspent or missing and complaints of inadequate tracking of expenditures. Ufot was fired at the start of 2022’s early voting period — ostensibly the group’s busiest moment.
“I went there all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I’m disillusioned now,” recalled a former C-suite employee. “I got the assumption that it was driven by ego after the 2020 elections. That there was this: ‘We can do anything we want, look at how much money we got.’ … I think these things combined with no checks and balances, not having an operations department in place that is allowed to put in policies, procedures and safeguards — which is what I thought I was hired to do — and the rapid growth has just facilitated this.”
This anonymous staffer and others could not believe the organization handed out these $11,000 Visa gift cards. Some people brought back receipts but not everyone. No one had a system to make sure the people used the gift cards for work-related expenses.
Those demanding accountability and a common sense expense tracking practice faced backlash from senior leadership:
“I do understand now why the pushback against [a more accountable gift-card system] and I think when things are in chaos, it makes it easier to act in a way that you aren’t held accountable,” said the former C-suite employee.
This employee also said they failed and struggled to implement other simple office management tools. New Georgia Project bought Asana, a project management software, but it was never used, this employee said.
The leaders also resisted using a software for which people could upload and manage vendor contracts, this employee said. The disorganization around vendor contracts led to several instances in which vendors either were not paid or not paid on time. There were also after-the-fact disputes over prices, according to seven former employees.
Francys Johnson, board chair of the organization’s 501(c)3 arm, is taking the usual route: racism and class discrimination. Maybe don’t hire them for these important positions until they have more training:
Johnson, a noted Georgia civil rights attorney, acknowledged the organization has made “some mistakes,” but suggested the book-keeping problems and organizational issues stemmed from hiring people from underserved communities who had strong grass-roots ties but little management experience. He claimed the group’s critics have disrespect for the type of people on its staff.
“It goes back to people who disdain the kind of communities we serve and disdain the kind of people we seek to employ,” Johnson said. “They believe that we need to have a bunch of Northeastern educated folks who come down and freedom rides, we love to talk about that, and help them liberate the South, as if the South can’t help liberate itself. And so we hire people from community, we hire people who live on the margins, primarily because politics has failed them. And we have to deploy tactics that are not necessarily consistent to what POLITICO might have.”
“And in some instances, I will tell you that, you know, where we are aware of good intentions, but not nearly enough transparency, we’ve course-corrected for those things,” he added.
An anonymous call tipped off Frank Wilson, one of the board chairs, about one of Ufot’s deputies withdrawing $50,000 from the organization’s account.
Wilson said he didn’t have any reason to believe the rumor. No one filed any complaints.
Ufot eventually fired the administrator.
Politico looked at the two Wells Fargo accounts held by the organization. Maybe Wilson should have believed the rumor:
POLITICO obtained records from two Wells Fargo bank accounts controlled by the New Georgia Project, which had been turned over to the state Ethics Commission as part of its probe into possible violations of its tax status. The administrator’s name appears in the memo lines of the Wells Fargo bank accounts’ transactions, a copy of which was provided by the state to POLITICO in response to an open records request. There were 16 outgoing transactions totaling $57,693 from mid-2017 to mid-2019, matching the roughly $50,000 mentioned in the tip received by Wilson.
Ufot also faces allegations of taking money:
The New Georgia Project reported that Ufot received a salary advance of $8,865 in 2021 that has not been “corrected” and New Georgia Project Action Fund noted that Ufot owed the 501(c)4 arm $4,377, according to the respective Schedule L sections of the 990 form.
Johnson said the organization was “discharging our fiduciary responsibilities as an organization. … My expectation is, is that will be resolved in the general course of business.”
Johnson said the $8,865 paid to Ufot was, in fact, not an advance, but represented non-business expenses. The New Georgia Project is taking “all necessary steps” to get paid back, he said.
In 2022, CFO Randall Frazier flagged suspicious withdrawals from the Wells Fargo accounts in emails sent to Ufot, senior leadership, and two board chairs. He also mentioned charges in 2021 since he needed to prepare the 2021 990 form.
This is totally not suspicious:
Shortly after he shared his concerns, on July 7, the then-chief legal officer, Aklima Khondoker, asked members of the organization’s C-Suite Signal group chat for information about Frazier’s job performance.
Khondoker wrote in the chat, which was shared with POLITICO by an administrator: “We need all emails, signal threads, texts, meeting notes, and the like concerning Randall’s performance. This would include anything related to his job as CFO, interactions with staff members, and anything that shows his lack of performance or insubordination … please feel free to send that over as soon as you can.”
Soon after, Frazier was fired by Ufot and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
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