Last fall, Dr. Anthony Fauci came under a barrage of attacks from hysterical critics. But on this occasion, it wasn’t Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, or COVID truthers. It was an even larger and even angrier group—one that falsely and bizarrely believed Fauci had funded medical experiments that tortured beagles with sand flies.
Now, the fringe-y, conservative animal rights organization behind that misinformation campaign is facing accusations that it violated a number of nonprofit tax laws.
The anti-Fauci vitriol that this group ginned up was worse than the already punishing norm for the government’s top COVID expert. The Washington Post reported in November that Fauci’s office received an average of 100 calls per hour for three days straight, with threats so intense that his assistant stopped answering the phone for two weeks.
The Post described the effort as a misleading “campaign” to “leverage existing hostility among conservatives toward Fauci to further its cause.” And the responsible entity—an obscure group called the “White Coat Waste Project”—bears longstanding ties to the conservative movement, including support from influential figures such as Eric Trump’s wife, Lara Trump, a vocal animal rights advocate.
Those connections to right-wing politics helped fuel the group’s explosive but erroneous allegations against Fauci last fall.
But a new IRS complaint from the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability argues that some of the organization’s political activity has crossed into “blatant disregard” for the law.
“The careful coordination between White Coat Waste Project and its associated PAC, and the donations stemming from that coordination, show a blatant disregard for the rules prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political campaign activities,” Campaign for Accountability executive director Michelle Kuppersmith said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Letting these types of violations go on unpunished would set an unfortunate precedent that would only make future violations more likely.”
Justin Goodman, spokesperson for the White Coat Waste Project, told The Daily Beast his organization complied with all “applicable” laws and dismissed the allegations as “politically-motivated.”
“We’re confident that we’re compliant with all laws applicable to our organization. It’s troubling that anyone would resort to politically-motivated attacks on an organization like ours that’s working to stop the government from abusing puppies and kittens with our tax dollars,” Goodman said.
The complaint—filed on Thursday and first obtained by The Daily Beast—alleges a number of violations over multiple years. The document makes the case that the founders of the WCWP nonprofit and its PAC have habitually raised money from prohibited sources, made impermissible campaign donations, and filed false records with federal agencies.
The case appears compelling.
The complaint’s central issue hinges on the claim that the nonprofit functions as a connected PAC, when the law prohibits the group from engaging with political campaigns. This overlap, the complaint says, feeds a number of violations.
The WCWP charity was originally organized by “seasoned Republican operative” Anthony Bellotti in 2013, under section 501(c)3 of the federal tax code.
According to the IRS, such groups are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
But the complaint says that’s exactly what the White Coat Waste Project did.
Four years after founding the nonprofit, Bellotti and his new partner Justin Goodman registered a WCW PAC with the Federal Election Commission—leaving “Project” off the name. The two men told the FEC in their statement of organization that the group was a “nonconnected PAC,” walled off from the nonprofit. But the complaint alleges they had instead “established, financed, maintained, and controlled” the PAC as essentially a bank account to support the nonprofit’s lobbying efforts, calling into question the truth of their federal statements.
And there’s the legal rub: The PAC did what PACs do, which was make campaign donations to elected officials. In this instance, the complaint says, they were the same officials the nonprofit was lobbying.
The complaint argues that Bellotti and Goodman have made “barely any effort to maintain the pretense” that the PAC maintains the necessary legal distance from the nonprofit. For instance, both groups use the same logo and the same slogan.
But more seriously, the complaint cites web data showing the PAC’s website is registered and maintained by the nonprofit. FEC records show that the PAC reports paying Bellotti for “website services.” The complaint says this indicates that Bellotti “created and maintains” the PAC website in his role as president of the nonprofit.
That’s a problem, the document says, because the PAC uses that site to raise money from the public. And given the relationship between the PAC and the nonprofit, that money—as much as 76 percent of the total, according to the complaint—would appear to come from impermissible public sources.
Worse, according to the watchdog, that money provides political support for the nonprofit’s activities.
In 2019, the complaint says, the WCWP nonprofit reported lobbying on an anti-animal testing bill as one of its stated top priorities. During that same election cycle, the WCWP PAC gave money to the campaigns of exactly seven House candidates—the same seven who introduced the bill.
It’s not immediately clear if there was any impermissible political crossover in the anti-Fauci misinformation campaign, but it’s possible. The PAC gave money to a House member who co-signed a letter inquiring about the funding, though the donation predated the letter by more than a month.
When the Post asked WCWP in November about its flawed attacks on Fauci, Goodman—the group’s spokesperson—doubled down.
“When you have such a high-profile person to point the finger at for funding animal experiments, it would be malpractice for us not to do that,” he said.