Was Election Denial Just a Get-Rich-Quick Scheme? Donors’ Lawsuits Look for Answers

Widespread voter fraud is a fake problem, but some conservative donors say they’re getting scammed out of real money.

President Donald Trump’s post-election litigation was, in legal terms, a flop. In financial terms, however, it was an unparalleled success, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in donations. While a small percentage of that money was spent on doomed legal challenges, much of it went to pay off the campaign’s debts, straight to the Republican Party, or to finance a leadership PAC that Trump can use to fund his future ambitions. More than $2.7 million flowed from the Trump campaign to individuals and firms involved in the January 6 rally in Washington, D.C.

The former president isn’t the only one who cashed in on manufactured voter-fraud panic. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have both fundraised off the lie.

Further from the spotlight, a network of small nongovernment groups and right-wing personalities also used the discredited narrative of a stolen election to convince conservative Americans, rich and poor alike, to hand over their money. In some cases, new lawsuits allege, it may have been used to personally enrich the fundraisers themselves. Suits filed against the groups True the Vote and pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s Defending the Republic, along with some individuals tied to those enterprises, describe how they turned election fraud allegations into cash.

The fundraising continued long after it became obvious that the election challenges would fail, said Rick Hasen, an election law expert. “At some point, it became clear to any reasonable observer that the lawsuits were not going to change the results of the election,” he said. “The evidence was quite clear within a few weeks of the election that there was no massive fraud that could have affected its results. And so anyone making those claims is either deluding themselves or deluding someone else.”

Refund Request

At least one major donor, Fredric Eshelman, is now claiming that he was tricked. Immediately after the November 3 general election, Eshelman, a North Carolina Republican megadonor, decided that he wanted to back efforts to investigate election fraud. Eshelman has not been shy with his political spending: In 2020 alone, he gave more than $7 million to Republican political causes at the state and federal levels, most of it to a single pro-Trump PAC.

Two days after the election, Eshelman’s associates introduced him by phone to Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the Texas-based nonprofit True the Vote, according to court filings. Within hours of their first conversation, Eshelman wired her group $2 million to help fund its ambitious efforts to fight alleged election fraud.

True the Vote is one of the most well-known “election integrity” organizations. It dates back to the tea party movement of the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency and has a record of challenging election procedures and the eligibility of individual voters in a number of states.

About the reporter

Richard Salame

Richard Salame

Richard Salame is a reporter at L'Orient-Le Jour and the former associate editor and Puffin Foundation writing fellow at Type Investigations.