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Georgia nonprofit says it unwittingly gave $25,000 to white nationalist Richard Spencer

The largest donor to Richard Spencer’s nonprofit in recent years was a Georgia community foundation that said it didn’t know it was supporting a white nationalist.

Its donations to his National Policy Institute totaled $25,000 from 2013 to 2014, according to three years of unpublished tax returns that Spencer gave to The Times.

The returns offer the most detailed look to date at the finances of a white nationalist who has risen to national prominence over the last year. The growing revenue of his organization — which has failed to file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service since 2012 and as a result lost its tax-exempt status — came primarily from anonymous donors and conferences advocating a separate nation for white people.

The Georgia group, the Community Foundation for the Central Savannah River Area, which promotes philanthropy to a wide range of causes and counts the Masters golf tournament as one of its biggest donors, is based in Augusta and gives away between $5 million to $9 million a year.

Its chief executive, Shell K. Berry, said the donations to Spencer’s group came from a “donor-advised fund” — a common arrangement in the charity world in which a donor gives money to one group with the intention of having it forwarded to others. The arrangement can offer the donor tax benefits as well as anonymity.

Neither Berry nor Spencer would reveal the identity of the original donor.

Berry said her nonprofit’s board never reviewed the purpose of Spencer’s organization before approving the donations. At the time, Spencer’s group was in good standing with the IRS.

“In no way did our organization, its board or its staff actively know or support the mission of this organization, and I don’t want it to be construed that we ever did,” said Berry, who said she found out about the donations after she took over in 2015 and was “not terribly excited” about being connected to Spencer.

The previous chief executive, R. Lee Smith Jr., could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

Philip Hackney, a Louisiana State University law professor and former IRS attorney, said that foundations wield “final control” over donor-advised funds and can reject a donor’s requests. But in practice, requests are almost always approved if the recipient is in good standing with the IRS, Hackney said.

The donations from the Georgia group were detailed on a supplementary tax-return form, called the Schedule B, which is not normally released to the public. Spencer provided it to The Times along with the rest of his group’s tax records.

“They didn’t have to share that with you,” said Hackney. “It’s supposed to [enable] them to be anonymous.”

The Schedule B lists all donors who gave more than $5,000 in a year or more than 2% of a group’s total revenue. The Georgia foundation was listed as Spencer’s only major single donor between 2013 and 2015.

Although Spencer has struggled with doing the paperwork required to run a nonprofit, he has succeeded in catapulting himself into national headlines on a regular basis and attracting small donors to support him.

The returns show the National Policy Institute collected $85,593 in 2013, $122,167 in 2014 and $145,671 in 2015, mostly from donations, but increasingly from revenue collected from holding conferences. At one of those recent conferences, attendees hailed Spencer with Nazi salutes.

The increasing revenue corresponds with Spencer’s rising profile on the far right, where he was known for embracing the term “alternative right” (or “alt-right”) to describe his beliefs. Spencer then received mainstream attention during last year’s presidential campaign by coming out as a vocal supporter of Donald Trump.

Spencer said that his group’s revenue was “even higher” in 2016, with conferences alone bringing in $100,000, and that the average size of his donations over the last three months was almost $100.

After forgoing a salary upon initially taking over the group, Spencer collected $3,156 in 2013, $7,984 in 2014 and $13,275 in 2015, according to the tax returns, which say running the nonprofit is his full-time job.

He compared his small salary to that of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who once paid himself a $1 salary.

The records also show that Spencer’s group has used supporters’ money to pay off more than $26,000 in credit card fees and bank charges since he took over the National Policy Institute in 2011.

“This is not important,” Spencer said, declining to comment when The Times asked him how he accumulated the charges.

“I think people can be relieved to know that [the National Policy Institute] isn’t some personal slush fund, that I spend money on projects…. The amount of work that I have put into the movement speaks for itself.”

Spencer declined to give a fuller accounting of how he sustains his personal life financially, but he comes from a well-to-do background.

His family owns millions of dollars worth of cotton farmland in Louisiana, a business that has received at least $2 million in subsidies from the federal government over the last decade, according to a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting. (“Investigative journalists just discovered that my family is rich and successful,” Spencer tweeted Friday. “Shocking stuff.”)

Spencer said in an interview that he was “not a fan” of stories about his and his nonprofit’s finances, but he said he has accepted that the scrutiny comes hand in hand with his rise to prominence.

“A couple of years ago, if we had screwed up our taxes, no one would have noticed. We would have quietly handled the problem,” Spencer said, adding that he has fired his bookkeeper. “But now we basically have to handle the problem publicly. I wish that weren’t the case. This is the cost of being recognized, and I’m willing to pay that.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

@mattdpearce

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