Former Alabama judge Roy Moore, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, once said publicly that he did not take a “regular salary” from the small charity he founded to promote Christian values because he did not want to be a financial burden.
But privately, Moore had arranged to receive a salary of $180,000 a year for part-time work at the Foundation for Moral Law, internal charity documents show. He collected more than $1 million as president from 2007 to 2012, compensation that far surpassed what the group disclosed in its public tax filings most of those years.
When the charity couldn’t afford the full amount, Moore in 2012 was given a promissory note for backpay eventually worth $540,000 or an equal stake of the charity’s most valuable asset, a historic building in Montgomery, Alabama, mortgage records show. He holds that note even now, a charity official said.
A Washington Post review of public and internal charity documents found that errors and gaps in the group’s federal tax filings obscured until now the compensation paid to Moore, whose defeat last month of President Trump’s choice for Republican nominee in the Senate race will likely embolden far-right challengers to the party’s mainstream incumbents. Moore is the front-runner in the race to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The charity helped Moore thrive – financially and otherwise – after his ouster from the state’s Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse. The group has filed scores of legal briefs in cases involving conservative Christian issues, but it was in many ways built around Moore himself.
At a time when Moore was running for other public offices in Alabama, the charity kept him in the public eye and helped establish a nationwide network of donors while he took on controversial positions against same-sex marriage, Islam and the separation of church and state. Over the years, it has provided him with health-care benefits, travel expenses and a bodyguard, documents show.
The Foundation for Moral Law’s website routinely promoted Moore’s speaking engagements and his book, So Help Me God: The Ten Commandments, Judicial Tyranny, and the Battle for Religious Freedom. In his last two years as president, as fundraising dwindled, Moore’s compensation amounted to about a third of the contributions to the group, tax filings show.
The charity has employed at least two of Moore’s children, although their compensation is not reflected in tax filings. Moore’s wife, Kayla, who is now president, was paid a total of $195,000 over three years through 2015.
Moore’s charitable and political activities have also overlapped in significant ways. The former longtime executive director of the charity now serves as Moore’s campaign manager. The charity retained the same fundraising firm used by three of Moore’s most recent campaigns for state office, public records show.
An Internal Revenue Service audit of the Foundation for Moral Law’s 2013 finances, provided by the charity, concluded that it left out information about fundraising and other activities on its public tax filings and also identified discrepancies between those filings and its internal books. The IRS wrote that the issues “could jeopardize your exempt status.”
Seven charity and tax law specialists consulted by The Post said the nonprofit’s activities raised questions about compliance with IRS rules, including prohibitions on the use of a charity for the private benefit or enrichment of an individual.
“The biggest issue is the benefit to Roy Moore,” said Paul Streckfus, a former tax lawyer at the IRS and editor of the EO Tax Journal, when told of The Post’s findings.
In interviews with the Post, Alabama Circuit Court Judge John Bentley, a longtime member of the charity’s board and its former chairman, denied that the Foundation for Moral Law served Moore’s personal or political goals. He said the group’s officials did not intentionally do anything wrong.
But he said that he could not fully explain inconsistencies in audits and public tax filings, and that he and other board members did not provide enough oversight. He acknowledged the nonprofit was essentially run by Moore and his family.
“That’s my fault,” he said. “I should have been a lot more active than I was.”
Roy and Kayla Moore did not respond to interview requests. Kayla Moore provided answers to detailed questions in a statement, and the charity gave The Post internal documents to clarify why Moore received the promissory note. The agreement that he would receive compensation of $180,000 a year, described in those documents, has not been previously reported.
‘The Ten Commandments Judge’
A year after his election to the state Supreme Court in 2000, Moore drew national attention and controversy for installing a 2.6-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the court’s building. His ouster from the bench in 2003, after he refused to obey a federal court ruling to remove the monument, made him a hero among some evangelical Christians.
As he fought against litigation to move the monument, friends and allies created an organization they called the Roy Moore Legal Defense Fund and began raising money. The organization’s first application to be recognized as a charity was rejected in 2004 because the IRS determined that it “operated for the benefit of private interests.”
The group renamed itself the Foundation for Moral Law and broadened its mission, saying it would promote the idea that “our rights are given to us by our Creator.” The following year, the IRS approved it as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) public charity, allowing contributors to deduct donations.
Moore became its chairman and traveled the country, giving speeches and making media appearances. He received no compensation at first, although the charity provided health insurance and covered travel expenses. The organization also gave him VIP-level security, paying for bulletproof vests and a bodyguard, a martial arts expert and cousin of former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, records show.
“Judge was traveling the country speaking. He needed protection due to threats,” Kayla Moore said in her statement to The Post.
Political observers considered the nonprofit a showcase for the former judge.
“It was a platform for Roy Moore to advance himself on any possible front, whether it was political or oratorical,” said William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama and a longtime observer of Moore’s career.
Joining Moore at the nonprofit were two other state Supreme Court employees who also lost their jobs over the monument controversy. One of them, Richard Hobson – now Moore’s campaign manager in the Senate race – became the charity’s president. Moore’s daughter, Heather, became its receptionist.
In an interview, Bentley, the board member, played down the hiring of Moore’s family members, describing them as “cheap labor.” He said he did not know exactly how much they were paid.
With donations pouring in – more than $1.5 million in 2005 – the charity bought a pre-Civil War office building in downtown Montgomery for $546,000 and began renovations costing hundreds of thousands more, records show.
The charity hired the Richard Norman Company, a fundraising firm in Virginia that raised money for conservative candidates. Months later, as Moore launched a campaign for Alabama governor, he turned to the firm for his political fundraising as well, drawing donors from across the country.
In an interview, founder Richard Norman said his firm kept the charitable and political operations separate. But he acknowledged that in both contexts Roy Moore’s defiance of the federal government was a central selling point.
“He’s known as ‘The Ten Commandments Judge,'” he said. “That story was an important part of every fundraising appeal we did.”
Moore lost the race.
Unusual payment plan
In 2007, Moore became the charity’s president, committing himself to 20 hours a week, according to tax filings. The board agreed to pay him; the question was how much. They considered a figure as high as $500,000 annually, according to an internal letter the charity provided to the Post.
On March 5, they decided to follow Moore’s lead. “Judge Moore has recommended a salary of $180,000,” Bentley, then the chairman, wrote to other board members.
They agreed to pay him in an unusual way. Moore would be paid whatever speaking fees and donations to the charity he could generate through what was called “Project Jeremiah,” the group’s ministry to pastors and preachers. But he was guaranteed $180,000 a year under the agreement, with the charity making up the difference if Project Jeremiah revenue fell short. If the charity did not have the cash in a given year, the debt to Moore would accumulate.
The Foundation for Moral Law created a separate bank account and earmarked donations to “Project Jeremiah” specifically for Moore, Bentley said.
“This is a very important project to restore a proper understanding of God to the preachers of our land, but I need your help!” Moore wrote in 2007 in a personal fundraising message about “Project Jeremiah” on the charity’s website. “My resources are limited.”
The salary agreement and “Project Jeremiah” were not disclosed in the charity’s tax filings that year. Moore’s compensation was reported as $105,500.
The charity’s descriptions on public documents of its payments to Moore varied greatly. In some years, including 2007, he was described as an outside legal contractor, tax filings show, and in others he was paid as president. His reported compensation ranged from $55,392 to $105,500 – and not until 2012 did the figure match the $180,000 the board had agreed to pay him.
Martin Wishnatsky, a spokesman for the charity, said Moore was never a legal consultant, despite the statements in tax filings.
“Judge Moore never received separate amounts for ‘legal work,'” Wishnatsky said in a statement. “That description was a shorthand for the services he provided to the Foundation that included overall supervision, educational programs, and participation in preparing amicus briefs on religious liberty and related issues.”
IRS identifies problems
By 2011, attention to Moore’s monument battle was waning. Donations to the Foundation for Moral Law were in a nose-dive, down by almost two-thirds from 2005. But the board stood by its pledge to give Moore $180,000 in compensation each year.
On Feb. 17, documents show, the board convened for an annual meeting in Gadsden, Alabama. There was only one item on the agenda: how to pay Moore for “arrearages of salary during the past four (4) years,” according to the board’s record of the meeting.
Lacking the ability to pay him cash, the board agreed to give Moore a promissory note worth $393,000 that Moore could cash in on demand, documents show. The board backed up its promise with a second mortgage on the charity’s historic building. In effect, the board was giving him the opportunity to foreclose on its headquarters to collect what he was owed. It also authorized Bentley to increase the amount owed to Moore as needed.
Among the nine members on the board was Kayla Moore, who recused herself from the vote.
Later that year, while giving an opening statement on behalf of the charity in a legal dispute with a telemarketing company, Moore played down his financial arrangements.
“My salary does not come by way of a regular salary from the Foundation, but through a special project that I run so that I don’t inhibit the Foundation,” he told a jury in August, according to a transcript of the hearing in federal court in Ohio.
In December 2011, Bentley agreed to increase the amount of debt to Moore, anchored by the mortgage, to $498,000, records show.
The back-pay arrangement was not disclosed to the IRS on annual tax filings until Nov. 14, 2012, one week after Moore won an election to return to Alabama’s Supreme Court. The tax filing, covering 2011, said he had been paid $393,000 in “retirement or other deferred compensation,” reflecting the amount in the original note, although mortgage records show the higher figure.
For 2012, Bentley bumped up the indebtedness to $540,000, mortgage documents show. On tax filings for that year, the charity said he was paid $138,000 in “reportable” compensation and $42,000 in “other” pay – for the first time reflecting the $180,000 total he was to receive each year under the agreement.
Moore’s full $180,000 compensation should have been disclosed each year, whether it was paid to him or accumulated as debt, said Marcus Owens, who led the tax-exempt organizations division at the IRS from 1990 to 1999.
“The treatment of the payments to him really is quite irregular,” Owens said.
Eve Borenstein, an expert on nonprofit tax law, said the annual tax filings, known as a Form 990, are the public’s only way to know how charities are spending donations and paying their employees each year.
“If people do not report what is intended to have sunlight on it, there’s no point in having the form,” she said.
Officials with the charity did not respond to questions about why its tax filings for the five years beginning in 2007 did not reflect the board’s obligation to pay Moore $180,000 a year.
Kayla Moore became the charity’s president when Moore returned to the Alabama Supreme Court in 2013, making $65,000 a year from 2013 to 2015. Roy Moore was kicked off the court for a second time last year for ordering state judges not to honor a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriage.
In February this year, the IRS concluded its audit of the charity’s 2013 finances, according to the documents provided to the Post. The IRS identified problems that it said could threaten the group’s tax-exempt status if not resolved.
The IRS wrote that the charity “did not identify its special fundraising activities.” It also found that the group’s tax filings contained figures that “did not reflect those recorded on your books of account.” The document does not detail the activities or figures at issue.
In recent weeks, the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group in Washington, accused the charity of openly promoting Moore’s Senate campaign through a Facebook page titled “Foundation for Moral Law.” Charities are prohibited by law from supporting or opposing political candidates.
Kayla Moore said in her statement to the Post that the Facebook page “is not an official page of the Foundation for Moral Law.”
In an interview, Bentley said he could not account for all of the gaps and inaccuracies in tax filings, audits and other documents, in part because he had devoted so little time to overseeing the group’s finances.
“I can understand why that would raise some concerns,” he said.