Sen. Raphael Warnock's (D., Ga.) church should face an IRS audit for concealing its ownership of a low-income apartment building that tried to evict disadvantaged residents, a watchdog group charged in a complaint filed Wednesday.
The complaint follows a Washington Free Beacon report that Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Warnock serves as a senior pastor, owns 99 percent of the Columbia Tower at MLK Village in downtown Atlanta. The church's charity, Ebenezer Building Foundation, did not disclose on its Form 990 tax returns that it owns the building through a network of shell organizations. Experts say the omission violates IRS reporting rules.
"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."
Ebenezer Building Foundation is a 501(c)(3) charity that in its IRS Form 990 filings delegates all management duties to Ebenezer Baptist Church, shares the same address as the church, and identifies Warnock as its principal officer. Ebenezer Building Foundation holds a 99 percent stake in Columbia Tower through a shell company called MLK Village Corporation, which also shares the same address as the church and is led by the same three officers as the charity.
"Accordingly, Ebenezer should have disclosed Columbia Residential as a for-profit-related entity … as a 'related organization' because it is, in effect, its 'Subsidiary,'" the NLPC said in its complaint.
"In addition, 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 added. "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.'"
Columbia Tower has received over $15 million in taxpayer funds to serve as a home for the "chronically homeless" and those with "mental disabilities." That didn't stop the church's 1 percent business partner, Columbia Residential, from filing a dozen eviction lawsuits against residents of the building over the course of the pandemic, one who owed just $28.55 in past-due rent.
The NLPC also charged the church with reporting wildly inaccurate revenues to the IRS in Ebenezer Building Foundation's 2020 Form 990.
Ebenezer Building Foundation in its Form 990 reported to the IRS receiving rental revenues of $609,720 for the 2020 fiscal year ending in December. But audited financial statements obtained by the Free Beacon show Ebenezer Baptist Church and Ebenezer Building Foundation only received a combined $377,993 in rental revenue during the same time period.
The reason behind the $231,727 rental revenue discrepancy is unclear. Ebenezer Baptist Church executive pastor John Vaughn and board chairman Ken Palmer did not return a request for comment.
"Senator Warnock and his church need to explain why they are hiding their ownership in the apartment building and to account for the rents received," said NLPC attorney Paul Kamenar. "It's despicable that in the name of MLK, they are evicting tenants for past due rents of trifling amounts."
Kamenar said that he believes these alleged reporting violations are "only the tip of the iceberg." He said the NLPC will continue to investigate Ebenezer Building Foundation for further wrongdoing.
It's unclear if Warnock was aware that eviction lawsuits were filed against residents of the apartment building his church owns during the pandemic. Warnock did not return requests for comment.
Vaughn, the executive pastor of the church, said in a grant application, however, that he "works closely" with Warnock "in managing the overall vision, ministries, and operations" of the church.
Georgia governor Brian Kemp (R.) in late August awarded the $5 million grant for repairs to Columbia Tower to Ebenezer Building Foundation.
The total sum of past-due rent cited in the 12 lawsuits filed against Columbia Tower residents between February 2020 and September 2022 is just $4,900. Warnock's Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, said Tuesday morning that he would pay the past-due rents.
"I have never known a preacher that likes abortion even after birth, won't pay his child support, and evicts poor people to the street," Walker said in response to the Free Beacon report.