Georgia Launches Investigation Into Warnock's Church Following Free Beacon Report

Raphael Warnock
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) / Getty Images
October 14, 2022

Georgia has launched an investigation into a charity controlled by the church that pays Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) a $7,417 monthly housing allowance and owns an apartment building that is trying to evict tenants, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

The Georgia Secretary of State Office's Securities and Charities Division on Wednesday sent a letter to Ebenezer Building Foundation demanding that the charity explain why it is operating in the state without an active registration. The Ebenezer Building Foundation has reported in each of its Form 990 tax returns filed with the IRS since 2011 that it is registered to operate as a charity in Georgia. But the Georgia Securities and Charities Division told the Free Beacon that Warnock's charity is not registered with state authorities.

Ebenezer Building Foundation identifies Warnock as its principal officer in its Form 990s and says it delegates all management duties to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock pulls a salary on top of a lucrative tax-free housing allowance as he serves in the Senate.

"The Division's records indicate that Ebenezer Building Foundation … is not registered as a charitable organization with the State of Georgia," an attorney with the Georgia Securities and Charities Division wrote in the letter to Kenneth Palmer, a member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Board of Trustees.

The letter warned Palmer, who also serves as the chairman of Ebenezer Building Foundation, that soliciting charitable contributions and operating a charitable organization in Georgia without an active registration or an applicable exemption are violations of state law and will subject the charity to administrative penalties.

Georgia's investigation was launched after the Free Beacon reported Tuesday that the Ebenezer Building Foundation owns 99 percent of Columbia Tower at MLK Village, a low-income apartment building in downtown Atlanta that moved to evict disadvantaged residents during the pandemic. One lawsuit, which resulted in a court-ordered eviction, sought just $28.55 in past-due rent. The lawsuits were filed during the same timeframe Warnock attacked his political opponents for failing to safeguard struggling Georgians against pandemic-era evictions.

Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks on Thursday responded to the Free Beacon's reporting, calling it a "desperate" attack on the "spiritual home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." in a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Warnock campaign did not dispute any of the facts reported by the Free Beacon.

From 2011 through 2020, the Ebenezer Building Foundation reported receiving $2.8 million in charitable contributions, $4.1 million in program service revenue, and $847,000 in "other revenue," according to its IRS Form 990 filings.

More recently, in June 2022, Ebenezer Building Foundation applied for a $5 million grant from the state of Georgia to fund repairs at Columbia Tower. Georgia Republican governor Brian Kemp in late August awarded the funds to the charity.

Ebenezer Building Foundation's receipt of the $5 million grant would likely trigger the need to register with the Georgia Securities and Charities Division, an official with the agency told the Free Beacon.

The Georgia Securities and Charities Division provided Ebenezer Building Foundation until Nov. 2 to bring forward evidence showing why it is exempt from registering with the secretary of state and is "therefore not in violation of the Act and Rules."

The letter was sent the same day a watchdog group filed a complaint with the IRS demanding an audit of Warnock's church for concealing its 99 percent ownership stake in Columbia Tower at MLK Village in downtown Atlanta.

"It is abundantly clear that Ebenezer Building Foundation, Inc., has violated one or more IRS laws and regulations regarding the operation of a nonprofit charity," the National Legal and Policy Center charged in the complaint. "The IRS must conduct a full investigation and audit of the Foundation's finances and transactions and assess appropriate civil and criminal penalties, and revoking their tax-exempt status if warranted. The public interest demands it."

Among the alleged issues highlighted in the complaint is Ebenezer Building Foundation's failure to report in its Form 990s that it holds a 99 percent stake in Columbia Tower through a shell company called MLK Village Corporation, which shares the same address as the church and the charity and is led by the same three officers as the charity.

"The Foundation failed to disclose MLK Village Corp as a related organization since it has had the same three registered officers since 2018," the watchdog group said in its complaint. "In that case, they are considered a Brother/Sister organization since they are 'controlled by the same person or persons that control the filing organization.'"

NLPC also alleged that Ebenezer Building Foundation should have reported in its Form 990s its affiliation with Columbia Residential, the 1 percent owner of Columbia Tower and the entity responsible for filing eviction lawsuits against tenants during the pandemic.

Ebenezer Building Foundation reports in its Form 990s that it makes its governing documents and financial statements available to the public upon request, but the charity has not responded to multiple requests from the Free Beacon for copies of those records.

Palmer and Ebenezer Baptist Church executive pastor John Vaughn did not return requests for comment.