Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) may have violated federal law by claiming a sketchy accounting loophole to take home a lucrative part-time pastor salary in 2022, a watchdog group charged in a complaint Tuesday.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) demanded the Senate Select Committee on Ethics immediately investigate whether Warnock lied on his 2022 financial disclosure in regard to his $155,000 salary for occasionally serving as a pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. To work around the $30,000 outside income limitation for senators, Warnock claimed $125,000 of his pastor pay in 2022 was actually "deferred compensation" for work he did for the church before he assumed office on Jan. 20, 2021. However, the compensation arrangement appears entirely fabricated, the Washington Free Beacon reported.
The watchdog group noted that the Ethics in Government Act does not allow lawmakers to break the law without consequence. If Warnock fabricated his "deferred compensation" arrangement to rake in money past the legal limit from his church in 2022, he could be fined up to $50,000 or sent to prison for up to a year, the complaint states.
Even if the arrangement was legitimate, Warnock could run into other reporting issues. If, in 2022, he truly was owed $125,000 for work he did before he was sworn into office, he should have disclosed that asset in his prior financial disclosures. Similarly, Ebenezer Baptist Church should have recorded a $125,000 liability for wages owed to Warnock in its books prior to 2022.
But Warnock did not disclose the income. Nor did the church reference any "deferred compensation" arrangement for Warnock or any other employee in its audited financial statements for the years ending 2020 and 2021.
"Either Sen. Warnock and his church had a deferred compensation agreement that both have conspicuously failed to report the existence of for years, or he received outside income of over four times the legal limit," FACT executive director Kendra Arnold told the Free Beacon.
"In either case, this would be a major breach of Senate ethics laws that must immediately be investigated by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics," Arnold added. "The applicable laws and rules are clear and the people he serves deserve to know what occurred here."
Warnock used a different accounting trick to evade the Senate’s outside income limitation in 2021. That year he reported receiving $120,000 from his church, $89,000 of which he said came in the form of a tax-free "parsonage allowance" that he used to pay for his $1 million Atlanta home.
Warnock’s 2021 arrangement was approved by the Senate Ethics Committee, the Democratic senator noted in his financial disclosure that year. But Warnock made no mention of any such approval for his "deferred compensation" arrangement in his 2022 financial disclosure.
Warnock’s financial ties to Ebenezer Baptist Church were a flashpoint in his 2022 reelection campaign. As the church enriched the senator with a lucrative salary, a low-income apartment building it owned moved to evict its disadvantaged residents for trifling levels of unpaid rent. One resident of the building faced eviction during the pandemic for falling behind on rent by just $28.55, the Free Beacon reported.
Though Warnock denied during his reelection campaign that his church-owned apartment building acted aggressively to evict its tenants, the building has moved to evict six residents since he secured his victory. The building has taken four residents to court so far in 2023 for falling behind on rent by less than two months, and law enforcement officials forcibly ejected another resident from the premises in July, Fulton County court records show.