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.
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:
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.
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, is currently running as the Republican candidate for the 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.
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.”
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 is 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 is the treasurer of:
The above organizations all have a stake in the 2022 midterm races in Nevada, which could impact the high-profile U.S. Senate race that Americans for Public Trust’s former outside counsel, Adam Laxalt, is running in.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
Despite not disclosing its own donors, APT:
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.
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. CRC Advisors is staffed by several former Federalist Society leaders and has been paid over $41 million by groups connected to Leonard Leo since 2012.
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.
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.”
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.