On Feb. 6, conservative media personality Sean Hannity brought his longtime financial advisor, William Lako, on his popular radio show to talk about money.
“For 25 years, you’ve watched me start with nothing, right, pretty much?” Hannity asked Lako. “Yes, I did,” replied Lako.
Since Hannity started investing with Lako’s Georgia-based firm, Henssler Financial, as an Atlanta radio host in the 1990s, he has risen to stardom as a host of Fox News. He’s built an image of himself as a blue-jeans-wearing regular guy willing to take on out-of-touch elites and hypocritical “Learjet liberals.”
“When you go shopping for clothes, don’t you go to the discount rack?” Lako asked Hannity. “If I do go shopping, it’s at Kmart, Walmart and Target, my favorite stores,” Hannity said. “Or Costco.”
But when it comes to shopping for real estate, Hannity has far more expensive tastes.
Over the last decade, Hannity appears to have built a real-estate empire worth tens of millions of dollars that spans at least four states and whose existence has remained hidden from the public behind anonymous shell corporations registered to the address of Henssler Financial, according to property records and corporate filings reviewed by The Times.
The companies all start with the same four letters — “SPMK,” followed by Roman numerals — and, along with high-end luxury properties, they also own rental properties that could house hundreds of tenants and which are currently taking new renters.
SPMK companies own an entire neighborhood of duplexes in Lithia Springs, Ga.; apartment complexes in Athens, Ga., Brunswick, Ga., Gainesville, Ga., and Madison, Ala.; high-rise condos in South Florida; and a private helicopter and a private jet registered at an airport 20 miles from Hannity’s mansion on Long Island.
One of the companies, SPMK II, is a co-owner of Henssler Property Management LLC, which manages rental properties owned by other SPMK-named limited liability corporations, according to financial disclosures from Henssler Financial. Lako is also listed as an investor.
SPMK II also co-owns Henssler Capital LLC, an investment fund that recently launched a private securities offering that has raised $13 million from 65 investors between Jan. 31 and Feb. 15, according to Securities and Exchange Commission disclosures. Lako, again, is listed as an investor.
The shell companies’ links to Hannity were first reported by the Guardian, which said that many of the properties were bought after banks foreclosed on their previous owners after the Great Recession.
The companies also appear to have obtained mortgages insured by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, leading some commentators to ridicule “Handout Hannity” for using taxpayer help to build his wealth at the same time that Hannity was criticizing the Obama administration’s housing policies. Hannity had not previously disclosed his relationship with HUD when previously interviewing and praising HUD Secretary Ben Carson on Fox News.
“I think it’s funny that Sean Hannity turns out to be a welfare queen for HUD, having taken advantage of guarantees that were put forward by none other than the Obama administration,” conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens said on an MSNBC panel Monday.
Hannity on Monday said he had no direct discussions with HUD regarding loans for his real estate holdings. And he defended his shell companies as “REAL companies that spend real investment money on real properties,” many of which are rental homes and apartments in lower-income areas.
“It is ironic that I am being attacked for investing my personal money in communities that badly need such investment and in which, I am sure, those attacking me have not invested their money,” Hannity said in a statement on his website. “The fact is, these are investments that I do not individually select, control, or know the details about; except that obviously I believe in putting my money to work in communities that otherwise struggle to receive such support.”
Lako did not respond to a message seeking comment Monday.
Christopher Reeves, a real-estate attorney who serves as the registered agent for many of the SPMK companies and who maintains offices at the same address as Henssler Financial, did not respond to a message seeking comment.
“I doubt you would find it very surprising that most people prefer to keep their legal and personal financial issues private,” Reeves told the Guardian in an email. “Mr. Hannity is no different.”
Hannity’s personal business dealings, and their mixture with his on-air media commentary, have recently been thrust into the public spotlight after President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, disclosed that Hannity was one of his other clients.
Hannity, who had been using his media platform to bash the criminal investigation into Cohen, said that his legal discussions with Cohen were “almost exclusively about real estate.”
But it’s hard to pin down what real-estate matters Hannity might have been discussing with Cohen, simply because Hannity has accumulated so much real estate. A review of corporate records revealed more than 20 holding companies with “SMPK” names registered at Henssler Financial’s address in Kennesaw, Ga.
Hannity having business dealings that involve a federal government agency would likely be frowned upon at a legacy news division. But Fox News has held more relaxed standards for its prime-time hosts, who are commentators and not journalists in the traditional sense.
Hannity, who has been with Fox News since it launched in 1996, is also feeling the laser-like spotlight that comes with being the top dog at the most-watched cable news channel that drives much of the politically charged national dialogue.
While Hannity has been part of the prime-time lineup for years, it has been other stars, such as Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, who have generated the attention and controversy on Fox News.
But O’Reilly’s firing last year and Kelly’s departure to NBC have turned the staunchly conservative Hannity into the network’s main attraction. Moved to the 9 p.m. Eastern time slot last year, his show has become the tent-pole program for Fox News in prime time, delivering the largest audience in cable news on most nights.
Hannity has never had Lako on his television program, according to a Fox News representative.
Hannity’s presenting of Lako as an expert on his radio program — with disclosure that he is his client — is an accepted practice, according to Michael Harrison, publisher of the talk radio business publication Talkers.
“Just having people on the air who you do business with or have contacts with is not necessarily saying, ‘Go do business with this person here’s their number,’” Harrison said. “If it’s short of touting, it’s basically using your connections to bring colorful personalities onto the air.”
Harrison said radio hosts run afoul of the law if they take direct payment from a guest for appearing without disclosing it.
“I see Hannity using his sources for content and for experts,” Harrison said. “I do not believe there was anything done with intent to deceive or to promote these people on the radio. It’s uncomfortable, and a lot of that is because of the murkiness of the laws that apply to this.”
Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.