Americans for Public Trust

Americans for Public Trust (APT) is a 501(c)(3) organization run by Republican political operatives that claim to be a "nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to restoring trust in government."

About Americans for Public Trust

Americans for Public Trust (APT) is a 501(c)(3) organization run by Republican political operatives that claim to be a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to restoring trust in government.” The group has been subject to an Internal Revenue Service complaint challenging its tax-exempt status for spreading “unsupported and misleading’ political attack ads” in potential violation of IRS rules that prohibit the group from engaging in political activity.

  • APT floods state and federal agencies with ethics complaints targeting Democratic officials and left-leaning organizations almost exclusively. APT uses legal channels and government agencies to target Democrats with ethics complaints –the vast majority of which are dismissed due to a lack of findings.
  • APT’s leadership has deep ties to Republican operative Karl Rove’s network and the Republican Party’s leading fundraising groups, which have spent millions of dollars boosting the U.S. Senate campaign of a former APT employee, Adam Laxalt. APT’s founder, Caitlin Sutherland, previously worked at Karl Rove’s group American Crossroads, and APT’s treasurer Caleb Crosby also serves as the treasurer for Rove’s dark money group One Nation. Additionally, Crosby is the treasurer of four other groups that have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting the Senate campaign of Adam Laxalt, who was previously APT’s outside counsel.
  • The organization has ties to former President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration. Trump’s Nevada campaign co-chair Adam Laxalt served as outside counsel at APT, and former Trump administration official Annie Talley serves as the group’s president and secretary.

Americans for Public Trust describes its work as “holding politicians and political groups accountable for corrupt and unethical behavior.” Meanwhile, APT has been the subject of legal complaints for allegedly violating its tax-exempt status and illegally soliciting donations:  

  • In 2021, APT ran a $1 million ad campaign against the Biden administration that prompted an IRS complaint by End Citizens United. The complaint alleged that APT sought to “advance Republican causes” in violation of its non-profit status.
  • In 2022, the watchdog organization Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint against APT in Virginia for soliciting donations illegally while failing to register with the state’s charitable organization database. 

Caitlin Sutherland, Founder

Before founding Americans for Public Trust in early 2020, Caitlin Sutherland spent several years working in the Republican fundraising sphere. From 2013 to 2017, Sutherland served as deputy research director for American Crossroads, a pro-Trump super PAC affiliated with Karl Rove. After that, Sutherland spent two years as an executive at the National Republican Congressional Committee. She also served as deputy research director of the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC.

Since Biden assumed office, Sutherland has written opinion pieces and spoken to media outlets to stoke partisan divide. In September 2022, Sutherland used the investiture ceremony for Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to be nominated and sworn into the Supreme Court, to rail against Democrats. 

  • When the Library of Congress hosted Jackson’s post-investiture event, Sutherland called the celebration a “disturbing display of partisanship and favoritism.” Sutherland said that the Library of Congress “has some explaining to do” because it did not hold similar events for the investitures of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.
  • A spokesperson for the Library of Congress pointed out that the Library has hosted many events in conjunction with Supreme Court justices, including conservative judges like Neil Gorsuch and John Roberts. The spokesperson also said that Jackson specifically requested that her post-investiture celebration, which was privately funded, be held at the Library and that he could not “recall any other Justices having made a similar request before.” Additionally, Sutherland did not appear to take issue when the White House held a celebration for Amy Coney Barrett after she received Senate confirmation.

Adam Laxalt, Former Outside Legal Counsel

Adam Laxalt previously served as the outside legal counsel to Americans for Public Trust and was featured prominently on APT’s website as recently as June 2021. Laxalt, who served as Nevada’s attorney general from 2015 to 2019, was defeated in the 2022 general election for U.S. Senate in Nevada. A “close ally” of Trump, Laxalt is credited with “spearhead[ing]” the former president’s failed challenges to the 2020 election results.

Annie Talley, President & Secretary 

Before joining Americans for Public Trust, Annie Donaldson Talley served as Trump’s deputy assistant and special counsel and as chief of staff to White House counsel Don McGahn. In addition to her duties advising the President and members of his staff, she “managed the team responsible for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.” 

Caleb Crosby, Treasurer

APT Treasurer Caleb Crosby is a Republican dark money operative and “former Karl Rove deputy.” Crosby served as a campaign aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and was a “veteran of the George W. Bush administration.” As of October 2022, Crosby was a principal officer for six active entities, including Americans for Public Trust. The remaining entities consist of three conservative super PACs — American Crossroads, the Senate Leadership Fund, and the Congressional Leadership Fund — and two right-wing dark money groups — Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies and One Nation.

As of October 2022, Crosby was the treasurer of:

The above organizations all spent millions of dollars to influence the 2022 midterm races, including Nevada’s high-profile U.S. Senate race that Americans for Public Trust’s former outside counsel, Adam Laxalt, ran in. 

  • FEC records show that in 2022, SLF spent nearly $3.2 million on ads opposing Cortez Masto in the eight days between Oct. 4 and Oct. 12. As of August 2022, the Senate Leadership Fund had booked over $16 million in ads to boost the candidacy of Adam Laxalt. SLF spent $16.8 million in ads attacking Sen. Cortez Masto in 2016.

  • One Nation has spent millions of dollars targeting the state of Nevada and Democratic Sen. Cortez Masto. The group spent nearly $2 million in 2021 on TV and radio ads opposing Cortez Masto’s backing of the For the People Act, a bill that would have majorly expanded voting rights. One Nation has also given $16.5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund.

  • Congressional Leadership Fund counted Nevada as its “biggest” ad booking in a May 2022 ad buy, reserving $15 million in the Las Vegas media market.

Crosby also runs the political consulting firm, The Crosby Ottenhoff Group, with fellow Republican operative Benjamin Ottenhoff. According to FEC filings, the group is a popular choice among Republican candidates, raking in over $3.1 million from federal candidates and committees since 2020.

  • The Crosby Ottenhoff Group was active in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. According to campaign finance watchdog Transparency USA, Youngkin’s campaign paid The Crosby Ottenhoff Group over $77,000 for consulting services. Less than a week before the November 2021 election, APT posted a screenshot of a Fox News segment attacking McAuliffe on its Facebook page. In the post, APT said McAuliffe “spent nearly $100,000 advertising on a fake news site, masquerading as local news.”

Crosby is the president of the libertarian think tank, the Alabama Policy Institute, which advocates for limited government and anti-regulatory policies. API opposes same-sex marriage, claiming that the anti-discrimination policy will lead to the “unraveling of traditional marriage” and represents “liberalizing social conventions.”

LeElle Slifer, Director 

In addition to serving as a director at Americans for Public Trust, LeElle Slifer is a corporate lawyer and partner at Burns Charest LLP, where she specializes in corporate litigation such as “oil and gas royalty disputes.”

In 2021, Slifer joined the board of the Teneo Network, a “private and confidential” right-wing organization that “aims to influence all aspects of American politics and culture.” The same year Slifer joined Teneo’s board, conservative activist and Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo became chairman of Teneo. 

Former U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters, Officer

Former U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters served two terms in Congress representing California’s 45th district before losing her bid for a third term in 2018 to Katie Porter. She now serves as an APT officer. 

Nat Serslev, Staff Attorney

Nat Serslev was previously a district director for Rep. Walters. In 2018, he directed the west coast office of the National Republican Congressional Committee to protect Republican incumbents in California.

Allegations Of Nonprofit Tax Status Violation

The IRS granted Americans for Public Trust a 501(c)(3) exemption letter in May 2020 on the basis that “the organization is organized exclusively for charitable and educational purposes.” Less than two years later, a complaint was filed against APT alleging that the organization violated IRS rules governing 501(c)(3) organizations.

In February 2021, Politico reported that APT, the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, and the right-wing activist group the Judicial Crisis Network launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to derail the confirmations of two of Biden’s nominees. The ads attacked Vanita Gupta, Biden’s nominee for associate attorney general, and Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services.

APT’s involvement in the advertisements prompted an IRS complaint alleging that the organization violated IRS rules by engaging in communication that did not qualify as “educational” under its 501(c)(3) tax status, as the ads were political in nature and put forward misleading and unfounded claims.

Allegations Of Illegally Solicited Donations 

In June 2022, the ethics watchdog group Campaign For Accountability filed a complaint against Americans for Public Trust for allegedly soliciting donations in Virginia in violation of state law. The complaint alleged that APT failed to properly register with the state’s charitable organization database, making the group’s fundraising efforts since 2020 out of compliance with state law. Campaign for Accountability specifically cited a $900,000 donation that APT received from the Virginia-based group DonorsTrust, as APT did not appear to be registered to solicit charitable contributions in that state. Later in 2022, APT went on to register with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, seemingly in response to the earlier complaint.

 

One of Americans for Public Trust’s main strategic tools is filing ethics complaints and lawsuits with federal and state government agencies to target Democratic officials, candidates, and organizations.

Complaints Against Officials and Candidates

APT has flooded the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Federal Election Commission with numerous complaints against Democratic members of Congress and congressional candidates, but no public action has been taken by either commission regarding any of those allegations. They have also filed complaints against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and President Joe Biden; the former of which was closed after a similar complaint was dismissed, and the latter of which has not been acted upon. 

Accusations That The Biden Administration Improperly Worked With Teachers Union During COVID-19

In May 2021, APT launched a $1 million advertising campaign attacking President Joe Biden, claiming that he “secretly worked with teachers unions to keep schools closed” during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  • APT sued the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over records regarding communication between teachers’ unions and the CDC.
  • In response to the allegations of improper coordination with the Biden administration, the American Federation of Teachers president said, “in this pandemic we have fought for safety & resources 24/7…It’s not mysterious or clandestine. It’s routine. And this CDC wants feedback from stakeholders including teachers.” 

Dark Money Activism

Despite not disclosing its own donors, APT: 

  • Launched DarkMoneyRewarded.com in February 2021 to make spurious claims about Biden and other Democrats being corrupted by “liberal dark money.”
  • Ran a six-figure ad buy in March 2021 accusing Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of collaborating with supposed liberal dark money groups. Senator Whitehouse has been outspoken in his criticism of dark money groups. 

Americans for Public Trust received nearly $1.5 million in contributions in 2020, with the entirety coming from just two sources. DonorsTrust contributed $900,000, and the Legacy Foundation contributed nearly $600,000. DonorsTrust went on to give APT over $3.7 million in 2021, and nearly $1.58 million in 2022, making up nearly all of APT’s funding that year.

  • In 2020, the Legacy Foundation received $750,000 from the 85 Fund, a dark money group connected to former Trump judicial advisor and Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo. Since 2011, the Legacy Foundation has received at least $2.75 million from conservative dark money groups, including DonorsTrust, Donors Capital Fund, and Tea Party Patriots Inc.
  • DonorsTrust and its affiliate organization, Donors Capital Fund, are two of the most influential conservative funding organizations and have been dubbed the “dark-money ATM of the right.” 

CRC Advisors and Leonard Leo 

In 2020, Americans for Public Trust spent over half a million dollars on independent contracting services, with $220,000 of that going to “Creative Response Concepts,” a Republican PR firm now known as CRC Advisors. Right-wing activist and former Trump judicial advisor Leonard Leo launched CRC Advisors in 2020. Leo currently serves as the chair of CRC Advisors and as co-chair of the Federalist Society. APT went on to pay CRC Advisors over $470,000 in 2021, and nearly $481,000 in 2022. Payments to CRC Advisors made up over 28% of APT’s expenses in 2022, despite their revenue decreasing by over 56% year-over-year. CRC Advisors is staffed by several former Federalist Society leaders and has been paid over $100 million by groups connected to Leonard Leo over the course of a decade. 

America Rising

In 2020, Americans for Public Trust paid $324,000 in research consulting fees to the America Rising Corporation, an opposition research firm targeting Democrats.

One Nation, Senate Leadership Fund, Congressional Leadership Fund

Americans for Public Trust has connections to several major GOP fundraising groups through its treasurer, Caleb Crosby. Crosby also serves as secretary and treasurer of One Nation, a dark money group “masterminded by Karl Rove.” Crosby is also the treasurer for the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC. Additionally, he is the treasurer for the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is “closely affiliated” with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Donald Trump

Americans for Public Trust’s former outside counsel, Adam Laxalt, simultaneously served as co-chair of the Trump campaign in Nevada. While serving in these roles, Laxalt was a key figure in levying the campaign’s unsuccessful legal challenges to stop the counting of votes in Nevada’s 2020 presidential election. Laxalt continued to align himself with Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was stolen as recently as February 2022, stating “we know the Democrats changed our election.”

Annie Donaldson Talley, who currently serves as APT’s president and secretary, previously served as Trump’s deputy assistant and special counsel and as chief of staff to White House counsel Don McGahn. Talley has been called a “trusted aide” to Trump and worked on his 2016 campaign. Before that, Talley worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Talley is also a partner at former Alabama Senator Luther Strange’s law firm, Luther Strange and Associates. Talley’s biography on the law firm’s website boasts that she “managed the team responsible for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.” 

Holtzman Vogel and Cooper & Kirk 

In 2020, Americans for Public Trust paid the law firm Holtzman Vogel Baran Josefiak Torchinsky $120,000 for legal services. Holtzman Vogel is a boutique law firm that represents “some of the nation’s largest super PACs and their related nonprofits on the conservative side. These include American Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, the Honest Elections Project, the BH Fund, the Freedom and Opportunity Fund, and American Engaged. With the influx of money in politics following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, Holtzman Vogel “became one of the premier legal shops to help the PACs distribute their largesse.” APT hired Holtzman Vogel to help obtain their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

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