The very shady way that Donald Trump’s new lawyer got very, very rich

Donald Trump’s new lawyer is the Donald Trump of lawyers.

Attorney Jay Sekulow speaks at a news conference near the Supreme Court in 2004 CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Attorney Jay Sekulow speaks at a news conference near the Supreme Court in 2004 CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

On paper, Donald Trump is a lawyer’s dream client. Deep pockets. A seemingly never-ending stream of legal problems. And a high-profile that can transform his confidants into minor celebrities.

Trump’s the kind of client that could pay off a lawyer’s mortgage, put their children through college, buy them a sexy sports car, and leave them with enough attorney’s fees left over to pay for a vacation home.

And yet Trump’s struggled to find counsel to represent him in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. As one lawyer told Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff, “the guy won’t pay and he won’t listen.” Trump’s reputation as a blowhard who doesn’t pay his bills and won’t stop sending damaging tweets reportedly left many of Washington’s best lawyers unwilling to represent the President of the United States.

The consequences of Trump’s trouble finding legal counsel was on full display Sunday morning, when Trump attorney Jay Sekulow — who is an accomplished appellate litigator but does not have the kind of resume a high-level official normally looks for in a lawyer that will represent them in a federal investigation— told Fox News’ Chris Wallace three conflicting pieces of information about his client.

In a performance that was widely mocked, Sekulow said that Trump is being investigated by the Department of Justice, that Trump isn’t being investigated by the Department of Justice, and that Sekulow doesn’t know whether Trump is being investigated by the Department of Justice.

But a full portrait of Mr. Sekulow reveals that he is more than just a junior varsity lawyer that Trump is forced to rely on after all the big kids turned him down. He is also fantastically, opulently, obnoxiously rich. And, much like his most famous client, Sekulow got that way through an elaborate web of business ventures, family-led operations, and media savvy.

A pair of religious charities led by Sekulow “paid out more than $33 million to members of Sekulow’s family and businesses they own or co-own” over the course of a little more than a decade, according to a 2011 report by The Tennessean’s Bob Smietana. One of Sekulow’s non-profits “paid a total of $2,374,833 to purchase two homes used primarily by Sekulow and his wife,” according to a 2005 expose by Legal Times’ Tony Mauro.

At the time of Smietana’s 2011 report, a tax attorney who advises ACLJ claimed that “the arrangements between ACLJ, CASE, and companies of which Jay Sekulow has an ownership interest are on terms and conditions more advantageous than the organizations could obtain otherwise.” ThinkProgress emailed ACLJ and a company run by Sekulow’s sister-in-law several questions regarding the Sekulow charities’ finances. As of this writing, we have not received a response.

Indeed, a tangle of tax forms, news reports and other disclosures reveal an extraordinary jet-setting life. Sekulow woos donors with promises to “protect Christians” and then dashes off to the golf course on a private jet.

Jews for Jesus

Sekulow began his career as an attorney for the IRS, but soon left government to open a law firm and real estate business with a law school friend. It didn’t end well for him. As Tony Mauro reports, the firm “collapsed when investors sued him for securities violations,” and Sekulow sought bankruptcy protection in 1987.

Yet, even as Sekulow’s business was crumbling to dust, Jesus — or, rather, Jews for Jesus — gave the young lawyer his first big break.

A “Messianic Jew,” meaning that he identifies as Jewish but also believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Sekulow became general counsel to Jews for Jesus in the 1980 — an organization best known for distributing Messianic Jewish literature at airports.

Winding your way through Sekulow’s financial disclosure forms is a dizzying, head-churning experience.

Sekulow’s big break came with Board of Airport Commissioners of the City of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, a lawsuit involving an airport regulation that was so obviously unconstitutional it borders on comic. “BE IT RESOLVED by the Board of Airport Commissioners,” the airport rule began, “that the Central Terminal Area at Los Angeles International Airport is not open for First Amendment activities by any individual and/or entity.”

As Jews for Jesus’ counsel, Sekulow brought this absurd regulation all the way to the Supreme Court. It was hardly a difficult case to win. Yet, in bringing it there, Sekulow joined the small, elite ranks of lawyers who have won a unanimous victory in the Supreme Court.

Armed with this victory, Sekulow founded the first of his two biggest non-profits, Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism (CASE). A few years later, he caught the eye of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, and became Chief Counsel of Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a non-profit law firm that Robertson founded as a Christian conservative counterpart to the ACLU.

Not longer thereafter, Sekulow took over as head of ACLJ. He’s since argued nearly a dozen more cases before the Supreme Court, primarily on behalf of Christian right causes.

Yet, while Sekulow’s appellate credentials are nothing to sneeze at, his true gift appears to be using his two non-profits to enrich himself and his family.

The finances

Winding your way through Sekulow’s financial disclosure forms is a dizzying, head-churning experience. Sekulow earned no salary whatsoever from ACLJ in 2015, for example, according to a form the organization filed with the IRS. Yet ACLJ also paid more than $5 million to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group, a law firm half-owned by Jay Sekulow.

Meanwhile, CASE’s 2015 financial disclosure to the IRS indicates that it is “doing business as AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW & JUSTICE” even though CASE and the ACLJ are separate non-profit corporations.

Moreover, the bulk of ACLJ’s funds appear to have come from CASE. In 2015, CASE raised over $54 million— dwarfing the ACLJ’s $19 million in the same year — and provided a $15,554,513 grant to ACLJ.

CASE did pay Jay Sekulow a salary, although it was less than six figures in 2015. Its biggest staff expense was Jay’s brother Gary, who earned over $630,000 in compensation from CASE and “related organizations.” Gary works both as Chief Financial Officer of CASE and as “COO/VP of Finance” for ACLJ.

Meanwhile, CASE paid $440,000 to Regency Productions, a company owned by Jay Sekulow, for a “MOVIE PROD CONTRACT,” and another $717,000 for TV and radio production. Another $777,400 went to PFMS of Georgia, a company run by Jay’s sister-in-law Kimberly Sekulow.

All four members of CASE’s board are named “Sekulow.”

These figures represent how much the Sekulow charities paid out to Sekulow-run businesses in a single year. Smietana’s multi-year investigation into CASE and ACLJ found that the two charities paid out $15.4 million to Jay’s law half-owned law firm, $5.7 million to Gary, $1.6 million to Jay’s wife Pam, and “$2.74 million in private jet lease payments to companies owned by Jay Sekulow and his sister-in-law, Kim Sekulow” over the course of a little more than a decade. Sekulow-linked companies also “earned $2.89 million for space rental, media production and administrative work.”

Donald Trump’s lawyer, in other words, appears to have run his organizations very much like the Trump Organization — using them to increase his own profile and to enrich himself and his family. And yet there is also at least one major difference between the two men.

Trump doesn’t claim that the Trump Organization is a charity.