Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) used a sketchy accounting loophole to rake in more than four times the allowable outside income allowance for senators in 2022, a move experts say doesn’t pass legal muster.
Warnock made $155,000 in 2022 serving as a part-time pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, according to his latest financial disclosure. That far exceeds the $30,000 outside income limit for lawmakers in the upper chamber, but the Democratic senator claimed $125,000 of his pastor pay for the year was actually "deferred compensation" for services he rendered to the church before he was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2021.
There’s just one problem: The "deferred compensation" arrangement seems entirely fabricated. If Warnock’s church truly owed the Democrat $125,000 in unpaid wages earned before he joined the Senate, he should have reported it as an asset in his 2021 financial disclosure, experts say. But Warnock made no mention of any such arrangement in his disclosure that year. Nor is there any reference to any "deferred compensation" arrangement for Warnock or any other employee in Ebenezer Baptist Church’s financial records, according to the church’s audited financial statements for the years ending 2020 and 2021 obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
To Kendra Arnold, the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, the omission of any prior mention of Warnock’s supposed "deferred compensation" arrangement from Ebenezer Baptist Church is problematic and raises the question of whether the Democratic lawmaker wrongly characterized the bulk of his church income in 2022 in a scheme to evade outside income limitations.
"If it was inaccurately reported on his filing and the money was actually earned after he became a senator, then the outside earned income limit would apply," Arnold told the Free Beacon. "In that case the legal issue that would arise (in addition to exceeding the outside income limit) is filing inaccurate or false information on a personal financial disclosure, i.e. wrongly saying it was deferred compensation when it wasn’t."
This wouldn’t be the first time Warnock utilized a creative accounting trick to evade the Senate’s outside income limitation. Warnock reported receiving $120,000 from Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2021, $89,000 of which he claimed to have come in the form of a tax-free "parsonage allowance" that he used to pay for his $1 million Atlanta home.
Warnock’s lucrative financial ties to Ebenezer Baptist Church were a sticking point against the senator as he eked out a narrow victory in his 2022 reelection campaign against Republican Herschel Walker. The church lavished Warnock with his lucrative tax-free housing benefit while it simultaneously owned a low-income pest-infected apartment building in downtown Atlanta that moved to evict disadvantaged residents for trifling amounts of unpaid rent. One resident of the church’s building faced eviction for falling behind on rent by just $28.55, the Free Beacon reported.
Pete McGinnis, the communications director for the Functional Government Initiative, said an investigation is warranted into Warnock’s financial arrangement with Ebenezer Baptist Church.
"We don't know if the newly declared ‘deferred compensation’ was in fact earned prior to becoming a senator and the failure of both the church and Rev. Warnock to disclose it was a mistake, but it certainly deserves investigation," McGinnis told the Free Beacon. "Georgia can hardly handle any more dysfunction these days than it already has."
Warnock’s pastoral pay made up a small portion of the $996,000 the Democratic senator made across all sources in 2022, according to his financial disclosure. Warnock’s Senate salary of $174,000 made up less than one-fifth of his total income. Most of his income came in the form of book royalties, which clocked in at $656,000 in 2022, on top of $11,500 in speaking fees. Senators have no income restrictions for book royalties, and Warnock donated his speaking fees to undesignated charities.
Warnock and Ebenezer Baptist Church did not return requests for comment.