Trump’s Inaugural Committee Paid $26 Million to Firm of First Lady’s Adviser


February 16, 2018

February 16, 2018

 Stephanie Winston Wolkoff at the Trump International Hotel in Washington last January. – Justin T. Gellerson for The NYT

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Trump’s inaugural committee paid nearly $26 million to an event planning firm started by an adviser to the first lady, Melania Trump, while donating $5 million — less than expected — to charity, according to tax filings released on Thursday.

The nonprofit group that oversaw Mr. Trump’s inauguration and surrounding events in January 2017, the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee, had been under pressure from liberal government watchdog groups to reveal how it spent the record $107 million it had raised largely from wealthy donors and corporations.

Its chairman, Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a longtime friend of Mr. Trump’s, had pledged that the committee would be thrifty with its spending, and would donate leftover funds to charity. In a statement released by the committee, he praised it for carrying out the inauguration and more than 20 related events with “elegance and seamless excellence without incident or interruption, befitting the legacy and tradition that has preceded us.”

But the mandatory tax return it filed with the Internal Revenue Service revealed heavy spending on administrative and logistical expenses associated with planning and executing several days’ worth of events for donors and supporters around Mr. Trump’s inaugural ceremonies.

By contrast, the return showed that the group’s charitable donations included only a previously publicized $3 million for hurricane relief, as well as a total of $1.75 million to groups involved in decorating and maintaining the White House and the vice president’s residence, and $250,000 for the Smithsonian Institution.

The 116-page filing indicates that the majority of the funds — more than $57 million — went to four event-planning companies.

The company that received the biggest payment — $26 million — was WIS Media Partners of Marina del Rey, Calif. Records show that the firm was created in December 2016, about six weeks before the inauguration, and its founder, according to a person familiar with the firm, was Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a longtime friend of Mrs. Trump’s. Otherwise there is very little information available about the company.

Ms. Winston Wolkoff made her name planning Manhattan society galas. An associate of the Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Ms. Winston Wolkoff traveled in the same circles as Mrs. Trump, who attended Ms. Winston Wolkoff’s 40th birthday party in 2010. Ms. Winston Wolkoff has subsequently been brought on as a senior adviser to the first lady’s official government office.

Two people with direct knowledge of Ms. Winston Wolkoff’s role, who asked to remain anonymous, said she often invoked Mrs. Trump’s name with transition officials as she delivered instructions for the inauguration. But Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Trump, said the first lady “had no involvement” with the inaugural committee “and had no knowledge of how funds were spent.”

Ms. Winston Wolkoff is not paid for her work in the first lady’s office, according to Ms. Grisham, who said Ms. Winston Wolkoff is classified as “a special government employee” and “has specified duties as outlined in her contract.”

Special government employees are a category of federal worker created to allow the government the flexibility to hire specialists to fill discrete roles, usually on a temporary basis.

Ms. Grisham did not respond to follow-up questions about the particulars of Ms. Winston Wolkoff’s work in the first lady’s office, or her relationship with Mrs. Trump. Ms. Winston Wolkoff could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Barrack praised Ms. Winston Wolkoff, saying she “executed her duties well.”

But Craig Holman, an official with the government watchdog group Public Citizen, which had called on the inaugural committee to release more details about its finances sooner, described the payments to Ms. Winston Wolkoff’s firm and other expenditures as “fiscal mismanagement at its worst.”

Much of the money paid to Ms. Winston Wolkoff’s firm and other event production companies was probably passed through to other vendors that provided goods or services on a subcontractor basis.

An operative who worked with the inaugural committee, who was not authorized to speak for attribution about its spending, said Ms. Winston Wolkoff’s firm handled everything from securing venues and table settings to arranging Instagram filters and satellite feeds, as well as the transportation of heavy equipment. The operative said Ms. Winston Wolkoff personally received $1.62 million for her work.

An inaugural committee official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the details publicly, said Ms. Winston Wolkoff’s firm also paid the team used by Mark Burnett, the creator of “The Apprentice,” whose involvement in the inaugural festivities was requested by Mr. Trump.

Also reaping payments for event production services was Hargrove Inc., of Lanham, Md., a company that plans trade shows and other events, which was paid $25 million. David Monn of New York, who also is known for orchestrating society events and planned a state dinner for former President Barack Obama, was paid $3.7 million, which the operative said was primarily to plan two events, one of which was billed as a “candlelight dinner” attended by Mr. and Mrs. Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence.

The committee spent heavily on administrative expenses, including $9.4 million on travel, $500,000 on legal fees, $237,000 on fund-raising and $4.6 million on salaries and benefits for its 208 employees. That included $100,000 paid to Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign aide, who has since been indicted on a host of charges by the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, according to the operative who worked with the inaugural committee.

Mr. Barrack, a California real estate investor, picked Mr. Gates to help lead the committee’s efforts. But many people with long experience in Republican politics remained wary of Mr. Trump as the inauguration approached and did not get involved with the committee.

The inaugural committee official said wrap-up costs were more significant than had been anticipated, and indicated that the committee’s finances were affected by its lack of a large deal for broadcast rights to the inaugural balls. But its brisk fund-raising — the $107 million it raised was about twice as much as Mr. Obama’s inaugural committee raised for the festivities around his 2009 swearing-in — allowed it to cover all its costs.

The inaugural committee closed out October with $2.8 million in the bank, according to the tax filing. It indicated in the release that the remaining funds also would be donated to charity once remaining expenses were paid.

The tax return indicated that the committee already donated to six nonprofit groups, and inaugural officials pointed out that the $5 million in total charitable donations to those groups was more than Mr. Obama’s committee donated.

Among the recipients of charitable donations, the White House Historical Association received $1 million, while the Vice President’s Residence Foundation, which is devoted to decorating and furnishing the vice president’s residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, received $750,000.

The American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical group, received $1 million each. All three groups were involved in relief efforts after a string of hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Caribbean.

As questions mounted last summer about the inaugural committee’s finances and pledged charitable donations, Mr. Barrack released a statement promising that “millions of dollars of reserve funds will be allocated to various charities, institutions and foundations in an amount that surely will exceed any previous inauguration.”

The inaugural committee split the costs of staging a range of festivities with the taxpayer-funded Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies and various federal, state and local government agencies. Security costs alone were predicted to surpass $100 million, which will eventually be paid for by the federal government.

Among the top donors to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee was the Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon G. Adelson, who donated $5 million, and corporations including Chevron, Boeing and AT&T.

The committee had previously filed a mandatory report with the Federal Election Commission listing its donors, and the donor names were omitted from the I.R.S. filing released Thursday. The bulk of the report — about 90 pages — comprised a list of donation amounts without the identities of the donors.

Courtesy/Source: NY Times