Caveat donor: GOP election-contest funder files suit for $2.5 million refund

Donate in haste, repent at leisure, but this donation requires a massive amount of repentance. Fred Eshelman shelled out $2.5 million to fund investigations into vote fraud after the November election, and claims he was repeatedly given assurances that True the Vote was on the cusp of proving the kind of massive fraud that would reverse the election results. Now he wants his money back — and has sued True the Vote to get it back:


True the Vote was one of several conservative “election integrity” groups that sought to press the case in court. Though its lawsuits drew less attention than those brought by the Trump campaign, True the Vote nonetheless sought to raise more than $7 million for its investigation of the 2020 election.

Documents that have surfaced in Eshelman’s litigation, along with interviews, show how True the Vote’s private assurances that it was on the cusp of revealing illegal election schemes repeatedly fizzled as the group’s focus shifted from one allegation to the next. The nonprofit sought to coordinate its efforts with a coalition of Trump’s allies, including Trump attorney Jay Sekulow and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the documents show.

Eshelman has alleged in two lawsuits — one in federal court has been withdrawn and the other is ongoing in a Texas state court — that True the Vote did not spend his $2 million gift and a subsequent $500,000 donation as it said it would. Eshelman also alleges that True the Vote directed much of his money to people or businesses connected to the group’s president, Catherine Engelbrecht.

True the Vote has been around for a while, working on election-integrity issues such as voter-ID policies. They’re a legit outfit, not a fly-by-night group, but their biggest claim to fame was as a victim of the 2013 IRS targeting scandal in the Obama administration. Their application for non-profit status, as well as those of other conservative groups, got held up for political reasons. Engelbrecht helps organize the effort to force Congress to deal with the IRS, and the scandal played out for months and eventually led to congressional probes and the resignation of Lois Lerner and acting IRS commissioner Steven T. Miller.


Until now, True the Vote had its critics on policy, but there hasn’t been any significant suggestion of scamming its donors of which I’m aware. Those kind of accusations are being made about the Lincoln Project now, but True the Vote has been around for quite a bit longer and hasn’t had that kind of reputation — nor has it raised anything near Lincoln Project levels of cash. Engelbrecht insists that it spent Eshelman’s money properly:

Asked about the shifting focus from allegation to allegation, Engelbrecht said, “A good thorough investigation takes the course it takes, and we were not going to expose whistleblowers to make a quick headline.” She said that the group’s investigation “is ongoing even now.” In court documents, True the Vote says Eshelman’s money was spent properly.

True the Vote’s lawyer, James Bopp, said that no conditions were attached to Eshelman’s donations and he is not entitled to the return of his money just because he didn’t like the outcome.

All due respect to Eshelman, but Bopp makes a good argument here, no matter what one thinks of the overall “stop the steal” movement. If Eshelman wanted to pay for and direct an investigation, he could have hired someone to do the investigation directly. That might have been the smarter option anyway, as a truly independent investigator would have quickly seen through the nonsense speculation around the “stolen election” narratives and saved Eshelman a ton of cash. If an investigator directly hired by Eshelman misled him on the issue to bleed him dry, then he would have a pretty solid case.


However, Eshelman didn’t hire an investigator. He made (presumably tax-free, at least in part) donations to a non-profit to fund their efforts on voter fraud. Unless they made concrete promises as a condition of that donation — which to be fair is what Eshelman is claiming — it’s tough to see how he’s entitled to a refund when there really was no widespread and/or systemic voter fraud in the election. Doesn’t funding an investigation, either directly or indirectly, run the risk of it not panning out? I’d bet a court would be hard pressed to rule otherwise, especially when it comes to charitable donations. As long as True the Vote actually conducted a substantial investigation, good luck in getting a refund.

And it’s not as if they didn’t spend the money on challenges. As soon as they got Eshelman’s money, True the Vote started putting it to that use:

The windfall propelled the nonprofit into action.

That evening, Engelbrecht sent Crawford a one-page summary of the group’s ambitious new “Validate the Vote 2020” campaign. It included a budget of $7.3 million and envisioned plans to set up cash rewards for whistleblowers, analyze voter data to identify “patterns of election subversion” and file lawsuits to “nullify the results” in seven battleground states.

In a news release announcing the whistleblower program the next morning, Engelbrecht said: “Unfortunately, there is significant tangible evidence that numerous illegal ballots have been cast and counted in the 2020 general election, potentially enough to sway the legitimate results of the election in some of the currently contested states.”

But over the following days, in federal lawsuits True the Vote filed in GeorgiaMichiganPennsylvania and Wisconsin, the group said the evidence for its claims was still being developed.


Clearly the group put significant time and resources into the project, even if it was futile. Even with that, the Washington Post reports, True the Vote eventually offered to return $1 million to settle with Eshelman when these efforts predictably collapsed. Eshelman wants the whole donation returned, however, and so they’ll go to court to hash it out.

The lesson here is that donors need to do some recon on their own before writing big checks, especially for novel causes and in pursuit of low-percentage outcomes. If Eshelman can produce specific evidence of personal grift off his donation, perhaps he might end up prevailing. At the moment, though, this looks more like a very bad investment — and a clear demonstration of caveat emptor. Or of Otter’s response in Animal House (NSFW).

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