Over the past year, one of Donald Trump's staunchest loyalists, a rising star on the right named Kash Patel, has been soliciting donations and raising money for "Fight With Kash," a charity he launched after leaving the Trump administration two years ago.
The charity, which in July of last year became a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, made national headlines this past week with revelations that it provided thousands of dollars to at least two so-called "FBI whistleblowers" who are helping House Republicans push disputed claims of politically-fueled corruption inside the Justice Department.
The revelations surfaced as Patel was set to speak just outside Washington, D.C., at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a mass gathering of largely pro-Trump conservatives that lists "Fight With Kash" as among its event sponsors.
"This year we want to give away $1 million," Patel said from CPAC's main stage on Friday.
But Patel, who recently touted the charity's "thousands and thousands of donors," has so far offered few details about how it actually spends its money or how it decides who to help.
Instead, through media interviews and other public forums, he and his charity have offered vague assertions and inconsistent claims about what it's doing.
Patel has said "the whole point" of his charity is "helping other people" in need, but he has also said its work is, at least in part, about bringing "America First patriots" together and "helping fight the Deep State."
He has said his charity is willing to consider assisting "anyone" -- "It's not just a mission for X or Y" -- but he has also described the money it raises as "for our friends in need," "for those on the right," and -- as he told the CPAC crowd on Friday -- to "help people like … you all here today."
At the same time, Patel has repeatedly promoted his self-branded website, FightWithKash.com, as his 501(c)(3) organization, even though that website claims to be funded by a private trust preceding the tax-exempt offshoot.
With an unmistakable pro-Trump tilt, the website features what Patel has called a "vault" of documents relating to controversial matters like "Russiagate" and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol -- documents that Patel said further the "educational component" of his charity.
But the website also prominently plugs books that, according to Patel, serve as significant sources of personal income for him. And it features hundreds of videos of him, including clips from when he's endorsed certain political candidates.
Federal law prohibits tax-exempt organizations from engaging in "political intervention" or providing "private benefit" to insiders, so if that website is operating as part of his 501(c)(3) organization, then those parts of the website could raise legal questions, according to three nonprofit law experts who spoke with ABC News.
"There are definitely a number of [potential] issues," said Lloyd Mayer, a law professor at Notre Dame University who specializes in nonprofit organizations.
'If Trump's back in, I'm back in'
According to Patel, who recently found himself entangled in the ongoing federal probe into Trump's handling of classified documents, he started his charity hoping to "take a little bit of my infamy" and "put it to good use."
In 2017 and 2018, while serving as a senior Republican staffer in Congress, Patel helped lead the House probe of "Russiagate," through which he claimed to have uncovered a "Deep State" inside the U.S. government that targeted Trump with a federal investigation into his alleged ties to Russia.
Patel joined the Trump administration in 2019, and in the final year of Trump's presidency, he was appointed acting deputy director of national intelligence -- the second-in-command of the entire U.S. intelligence community -- and then chief of staff to the acting U.S. defense secretary, a position critics claimed he was unqualified to hold.
Last year, Trump appointed Patel as one of his official representatives to the National Archives. Then, when the Justice Department's investigation of Trump's handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago became public, Patel claimed Trump declassified large batches of documents before leaving office -- a claim that reportedly landed Patel before the federal grand jury investigating the matter.
Patel now serves as a key political adviser to Trump, and he has become such a popular voice for Trump's agenda that Trump's former adviser Roger Stone recently said he named his dog "Kash" as an "homage" to Patel.
Since Trump formally announced his reelection bid in November, Patel has been mentioned on right-wing media as a potential contender for attorney general or CIA director. "If Trump's back in, I'm back in," Patel, a former federal prosecutor and senior intelligence official, said in a December interview.
Patel declined to speak with ABC News for this story.
'Pushing the envelope'?
When Patel first launched a charity in 2021, he called it the "Kash Patel Legal Offense Trust," vowing to "bring the fake news media to their knees" by funding lawsuits on behalf of the "everyday Americans" across the country who have been "defamed."
That mission now continues with the 501(c)(3) organization, as Patel claims "the biggest threat to our democracy is the fake news mafia."
"We have funded multiple defamation lawsuits for those on the right who have been defamed," he said in another December interview.
But at CPAC on Friday, a member of the charity's board, Trump-linked attorney Jesse Binnall, acknowledged to ABC News that the charity has so far funded only two filed lawsuits: the most recent for Ric Grenell, one of Patel's "great friends" who served as his boss in the Trump administration, and another case on behalf of Daniel Bostic, a "Stop the Steal" activist who helped produce a 2020 film -- featuring Patel -- about the alleged "Deep State."
Grenell's lawsuit was filed by Binnall, targeting a former aide to former Vice President Mike Pence for statements she allegedly posted about him online. Bostic's lawsuit, filed by another attorney at Binnall's law firm, went after a small, Texas-based media company for alleging that Bostic helped organize the Jan. 6 riot -- something Bostic vehemently denies. Both cases are still pending.
Mayer, the law professor, expressed skepticism that funding high-dollar defamation lawsuits even serves a public interest, saying it's "pushing the envelope of what qualifies" as a charitable endeavor, in part because many lawyers are willing to bring defamation cases based on a "contingency fee," when alleged victims only have to pay if their case wins.
Years ago, Patel filed his own defamation lawsuits against the New York Times, CNN and Politico, reportedly seeking more than $120 million in damages. The news organizations have denied the allegations, and the suits are still pending.
It's unclear how Patel has paid for those lawsuits. His lawyer in those cases did not respond to an email asking if Patel might be using a contingency-based lawyer himself, and a spokesperson for Patel declined to comment.
According to Patel, his charity has already given away at least $100,000, and he has said it expects to boost that ten-fold this coming year.
He often talks about the people his charity is helping, but only in vague and general terms, citing their privacy.
While the charity is not legally obligated to divulge their identities, it "would likely be problematic" if it was determining "eligibility for its charitable programs based on political party affiliation or prior voting record," according to Erin Bradrick, a principal at the San-Francisco-based NEO Law Group, which advises tax-exempt organizations and other charities.
Many of the vague descriptions Patel has offered about who he's helping -- and pieces of information available elsewhere -- point to people who are somehow connected to support for Trump or criticism of the Biden administration.
"We have provided financial assistance to Jan. 6 families, and we have saved active-duty military members' careers by providing them with the legal defense funds they need so they can fight this arcane administration," he said in one of the December interviews.
In other interviews, he said the charity has "funded whistleblowers campaigns" with $50,000 in "grants."
Patel hasn't offered any further information about those "whistleblowers," but House Democrats on Thursday issued a report identifying two of them as suspended FBI official Garret O'Boyle and former FBI agent Steve Friend, who the House Democrats said endorse "an alarming series of conspiracy theories related to the January 6 Capitol attack ... and the validity of the 2020 election."
The report said both O'Boyle and Friend "received financial support from Patel," including a $5,000 payment to Friend "almost immediately after they connected in November 2022."
In closed-door testimony before Congress, O'Boyle and Friend put forward a "wide range of personal opinions" and "hearsay" about how the FBI improperly conducted its Jan. 6-related investigations and subsequent arrests, but they provided no "firsthand knowledge" of wrongdoing, the report said.
"[They] are not, in fact, 'whistleblowers,'" even though Patel and others are promoting them as such to boost their own right-wing agenda and "advance Donald Trump's candidacy for President," the report alleged.
In a statement to ABC News, provided by his spokesperson, Patel said his charity has been helping "whistleblowers who provide credible information exposing government waste, fraud, and abuse."
In touting the charity's other work, Patel has also noted that it "bought 10 families $1,000 Thanksgiving dinners" and similarly bought dinners for 20 more families this past Christmas.
He hasn't publicly identified any of those families, but in late December a Missouri woman identified herself on Truth Social, writing, "Wow! I just received a check from [Kash Patel] for $1,000."
"I'm such a big fan that I wasn't sure if I should deposit it or frame it!" added the woman, who has previously posted online that "Trump won 2020," Biden is "a fraud," and the Democratic party is "a satanic cult."
A few weeks ago, Patel announced that "Fight With Kash" would be sending $5,000 to pro-Trump personality Benny Johnson, who has vowed to help residents of East Palestine, Ohio, where a train derailment released toxic chemicals into the environment.
Patel made the pledge on an episode of Johnson's popular podcast, during which Johnson praised Trump's response to the disaster and insisted the "sick and vindictive" current U.S. president "hasn't lifted a finger" because, as Johnson put it, East Palestine is "Trump country," with more than 70 percent of voters in the area supporting Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
The White House defended its response in East Palestine, insisting the Biden administration took an "all hands on deck" approach "very early on," and that it will hold those responsible accountable.
In the statement provided by his spokesperson to ABC News, Patel said, "Fight With Kash will continue to assist veterans, law enforcement, education and other matters outlined in our Mission First approach."
The charity raises funds through donations and through the branded "Fight With Kash" apparel and other merchandise it sells online.
Donations are processed through WinRed, the self-described "secure payments technology designed to help GOP candidates and committees win across the U.S."
'A zero-tolerance rule'
At CPAC on Friday, Patel assured the audience, "[Trump] is going to be our 45th and 47th president of the United States." Minutes earlier, he clapped when one of his co-panelists similarly pushed for Trump's reelection in 2024.
Such rhetoric is boilerplate for Patel's media interviews and public appearances, and, as usual, Patel was wearing a "Fight With Kash" pin on his lapel when he took the stage.
What was different on Friday, though, was that Patel's charity helped sponsor the event, with Patel previewing beforehand that "Fight With Kash" -- "our 501(c)(3) foundation" -- would "have a massive crowd" at CPAC.
"All of that is inconsistent with being a 501(c)(3), and it puts the [tax] exemption at risk," according to Dan Kurtz, a partner with the New York-based law firm Pryor Cashman who represents nonprofit organizations.
While 501(c)(3) organizations are allowed to express political views, they "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating" in "any political campaign," which includes a ban on making "public statements of position ... in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office," according to the IRS.
"CPAC is not itself a campaign, but it's sufficiently close [that] for a charity to sponsor it is pretty dubious," said Kurtz, who before becoming a private attorney led the New York attorney general's charities bureau.
Mayer said the fact that Patel didn't make clear on Friday that he was speaking at CPAC "as an individual," but then took time to promote the charity, creates "a gray area."
"Follow the money," Mayer suggested.
A 501(c)(3) charity can sponsor a political conference like CPAC, but the charity has to reach an agreement with the conference ensuring that any funds from it are used "for things that charities can do," Mayer said. And if any expenses associated with his appearance at CPAC were paid for by his charity, that would also create concerns, Mayer said.
The spokesperson for Patel declined to say if Patel's charity had reached any agreements with CPAC or paid for any expenses associated with the conference.
Mayer noted that the IRS has a "zero-tolerance rule" about "political intervention" -- a single infraction is enough to risk tax-exempt status.
'Everything I do there is a 501(c)(3)'
According to three of the experts who spoke with ABC News, the website Patel keeps touting as his 501(c)(3) organization could also raise potential legal concerns -- but those concerns largely depend on whether the claims he's made about his own charity are true.
"FightWithKash.com -- Fight with Kash with a 'K' dot-com -- is a 501(c)(3) charity," Patel said Monday on a podcast. "My life lives at FightWithKash.com," he said last month. "Everything I do there is a 501(c)(3)."
He has made near-identical statements at least 12 times in the past four months, and suggested it another dozen times.
But the website, launched the year before Patel's charity became a 501(c)(3), has a long-standing disclaimer on it saying it's "Paid For By Kash Patel Legal Offense Trust," the defamation-focused effort Patel launched in 2021.
If FightWithKash.com can't be attributed to the 501(c)(3), then the website may not be restricted by IRS rules.
But Mayer said that, with Patel publicly linking them so often, "It's hard to say, 'This is not our website' -- regardless of who's paying."
Kurtz agreed, saying the 501(c)(3) is "stuck with it."
When visitors first land on FightWithKash.com, a large advertisement overtakes nearly the entire window, encouraging visitors to buy an upcoming book Patel wrote about "the Deep State" and "how we can defeat" it. The same space previously pitched two other books by Patel: a children's book described as "Russiagate for kids," and another children's book about how "King Donald" lost his throne to "mischief" and faulty vote counts.
The books are plugged in videos and links throughout the website. And Patel has publicly acknowledged that selling those books is "how I make a living these days."
But the IRS generally prohibits a 501(c)(3) charity's resources from being used for substantial personal financial gain, raising potential "private benefit" concerns if FightWithKash.com is indeed tied to the 501(c)(3), according to Mayer and Bradrick.
Zac Kester, head of the nonprofit legal aid firm Charitable Allies, was skeptical of such concerns, saying he didn't see anything "inherently problematic" because the books are part of Patel's brand, and any "private benefit" would be "incidental" to the charity's education-oriented missions.
Elsewhere on the website, ahead of the midterm elections in November, FightWithKash.com posted clips of Patel speaking at a Republican candidate's campaign event and at Trump's "Save America" rally in Arizona -- "You need to send" the "whole slate" of Trump-backed candidates to victory, he said at the October rally, naming each of the candidates he supported.
Mayer and Kurtz said that if FightWithKash.com is actually part of the 501(c)(3) charity, such videos could raise potential "political intervention" concerns. But Kester reiterated that he didn't see anything "inherently wrong" with them, especially because, in his view, a brief comment in a much-longer video "doesn't become the message of the charity."
Last month, the charity launched a new website, TheKashFoundation.com, reflecting the 501(c)(3) organization's official name as registered with the IRS. And in interviews Patel has sometimes referred to the charity as "The Kash Foundation," or even the "Fight With Kash Foundation." But Patel has scarcely mentioned the new website since it first went online.
Some clarity about the 501(c)(3) organization more broadly might come later this year, when the charity is expected to file annual forms with the IRS. According to Mayer, the information submitted may be "pretty broad and vague," but the charity will have to provide specific numbers about revenues and expenses.
Regardless, both Mayer and Kurtz said that even if Patel's charity was found to be violating rules around its tax-exempt status, there's a practical reality: The IRS is unlikely to take any action in such a case, they said.
The IRS is "very wary going after groups that are political, particularly conservative ... because they get accused of being partisan even when they aren't," Mayer said.