50.50: Investigation

Revealed: Trump’s top lawyer funds Putin-linked religious lobbyists in Russia

Jay Sekulow’s group has donated $3.3 million to a Russian evangelical organisation with close ties to the Kremlin, an openDemocracy and Mother Jones investigation reveals.

Tatev.jpg
Tatev Hovhannisyan
30 October 2020
President Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow (blue tie), runs a US non-profit that has sent millions of dollars to Russia.
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Stefani Reynolds / CNP/Sipa USA

* This article is based on a joint investigation by openDemocracy and Mother Jones

One of Donald Trump’s top lawyers leads an organisation that has given at least $3.3 million since 2007 to a Russian evangelical group with ties to Vladimir Putin’s government, a new investigation from openDemocracy and Mother Jones reveals today.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded in 1990 by right-wing evangelical Pat Robertson, has been sending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to the Moscow-based Slavic Center of Law and Justice (SCLJ), according to ACLJ’s US financial filings. 

The chief counsel for the ACLJ – and its driving force – is Jay Sekulow, who famously shepherded Trump’s impeachment defence as one of his private attorneys. Along with Rudy Giuliani, Sekulow will be coordinating legal challenges to the US election results if Trump decides to make any. 

The SCLJ was founded by the ACLJ in the 1990s. It is directed by Vladimir Ryakhovsky, an evangelical activist and Russian lawyer who also serves on Putin’s controversial human rights council – as well as Russia’s Putin-funded press complaints commission.

Sekulow’s ACLJ says in its financial filings that the money sent to its Russian branch is intended to underwrite “litigation and legal services related to religious freedoms and human rights in Russia”. It does not disclose further details on exactly how this money has been spent. 

The SCLJ did not answer openDemocracy’s questions about whether it has other funders, and neither the ACLJ nor the SCLJ responded to questions about how exactly the money from the US has been spent in Russia.

Sekulow’s groups embrace a Christian fundamentalist view of human rights. In 2013, the SCLJ expressed support for Putin’s controversial ‘homosexual propaganda’ law, banning advocacy for LGBTIQ rights. A year earlier, after the punk band Pussy Riot held an anti-Putin protest inside a church, the SCLJ supported a law to criminalise such “blasphemous” activity, as well as the “dissemination of such information on the internet”.

Earlier this week, openDemocracy revealed that Sekulow’s group has also sent at least $14 million to its European branch, which has been involved in numerous court cases against women's and LGBTIQ rights (including Poland’s landmark anti-abortion ruling last week, condemned by the Council of Europe as a grave “human rights violation”).

It is one of 28 US Christian right groups that have collectively spent at least £280 million of dark money around the world since 2007. None of these groups reveals the identities of its donors or details what it spends the money on.

Kremlin loyalists

Vladimir Ryakhovsky, who has directed the Moscow-based SCLJ since the 1990s, has held numerous posts on Kremlin committees for the past two decades. 

In 2018, Putin made him a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, a governmental group that is supposed to monitor assaults on political rights. Another member, Alexander Verkhovsky, says that the president attends the council’s annual meetings.

Last year, Putin overhauled the council, removing four (of 48) members who had criticised his government and replacing its head with a former TV host widely seen as a Kremlin loyalist. Ryakhovsky remained a member.

Vladimir Ryakhovsky (left) at a meeting of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin, December 2019.
Vladimir Ryakhovsky (left) at a meeting of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin, December 2019. | Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images

The four members ousted from the committee had sought to investigate actions taken by Russian security forces and courts against participants in protests that had challenged the fairness of recent elections. The new head of the council said in an interview that he intended to pay less attention to political rights and more to "social rights" such as housing and medical care. 

In 2020, Ryakhovsky also joined the Public Press Complaints Collegium, a government-funded group that says it “self-regulates and co-regulates the media”. It describes itself as “an independent structure of civil society" but is funded by Putin’s Presidential Grants Fund.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 149 out of 179 countries in its 2020 Press Freedom Index and described its “stifling atmosphere” for journalists.

Cooperation with Putin is ‘easy’

Ryakhovsky’s brother Sergey is perhaps the leading evangelical Christian in Russia. He is the chief bishop of the Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith (RUCEF), and he, too, has government connections. 

This year, he was reappointed by Putin to the Kremlin’s Civic Chamber, a group that monitors the federal government and parliament and analyses draft legislation. His brother Vladimir was also part of the Civic Chamber in the mid-1990s; Sergey was first appointed in 2006. Since 2002, Sergey has also been a member of the Council for Interaction with Religious Associations – an advisory body, first set up in the mid-1990s, that Putin meets with.

Sergey frequently posts photos of himself with Putin on social media, calling the cooperation with him “easy.” In 2018, he received a letter of gratitude from Putin “for his active participation in the preparation and conduct of Russian presidential elections”. Putin won that year’s elections, with almost 80% of the vote, but they were marred by allegations of voting irregularities and fraud. 

“Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, and the churches of RUCEF as a whole, support the head of state, as the holy scriptures clearly state [we should]. The Bible records the words of the apostle Paul, in which he asks to ‘perform prayers’ for ‘kings and for all rulers’,” Anton Kruglikov, RUCEF’s press secretary, told openDemocracy. 

“The pronounced conservative position of Vladimir Putin on the issues of traditional moral values ​​and his pronounced support for the traditional family evoke great sympathy among evangelical believers,” Kruglikov added. “Unfortunately, this position is quite different from ones of certain European leaders and some former US presidents.”

Sergey Ryakhovsky (left) at a ceremony to commemorate the Day of National Unity, 4 November 2018.
Sergey Ryakhovsky (left) at a ceremony to commemorate the Day of National Unity, 4 November 2018. | Dmitry Dukhanin/Kommersant/Sipa USA

On Russia Day – a national holiday considered modern Russia’s ‘Independence Day’ – in 2019, Sergey Ryakhovsky received a formal, personal congratulation from Putin. It wished him success and invited him to a gala reception at the Kremlin.

Defending the faith

The organisations that the Ryakhovsky brothers lead say they are focused on defending the rights of religious groups and individuals. There is certainly a need for such work: observers warn that Russia’s human rights record, including its treatment of religious minorities, has worsened in recent years.

Under the Yarovaya Package, passed in 2016, representatives of churches and religious denominations that are not part of the Russian Orthodox church have been subject to fines, arrests and detention, while their houses of worship have been demolished or transferred to the state or the Orthodox church.

In this context, Alexander Verkhovsky, who sits with Vladimir Ryakhovsky on Putin's human rights council and is the director of Sova Center for Information and Analysis, says: “The SCLJ is one of the most active groups fighting for freedom of religion and belief. And they protect not only Pentecostals or Protestants in general, but all other groups, including various Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and so on”.

Verkhovsky says Sergey Ryakhovsky’s connections to the government are not surprising. "As all other mainstream religious leaders in Russia, he is loyal to the current political regime,” he says. “But he speaks rather bravely if needed, when Protestants are under pressure (and now they are!)."

On its website, the SCLJ says it provides legal assistance to religious groups and individuals and mounts “court cases related to the protection of the rights of citizens and organisations to freedom of conscience and religion”. 

The website’s court cases section hasn’t been updated since 2015, however. The latest case listed on the page, from 2015, relates to a dispute over the ownership of an evangelical church building in Sochi. An earlier case, from 2008, relates to a religious organisation that got in trouble for lecturing about religion at Sunday school without a licence.

Kruglikov called the photos on social media of Sergey Ryakhovsky and Vladimir Putin “very important” and “a signal to the evangelical community that times have really changed”, as throughout the history of Russia, evangelical believers “have never been so recognised by the state that the head of state would personally meet with the head of any evangelical association”.

Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher at University of Bremen, Germany, says the SCLJ “has been primarily representing the interests of the Protestant community of the Russian Federation and Western Protestant and post-Protestant organisations (for example, Mormons) in relations with the authorities.” 

“Of course, the Ryakhovsky brothers, as lobbyists, have worked closely with the presidential administration of the Russian Federation,” Mitrokhin adds.

Anton Kruglikov, RUCEF press secretary, said the SCLJ and RUCEF “cooperate on issues of freedom of religion. Within the RUCEF there is a legal department, but its main purpose is current and preventive work. When it comes to representing the interests of evangelical believers in superior courts (including the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation), the RUCEF seeks legal assistance from well-qualified SCLJ lawyers.” 

Courting the evangelicals

A few years ago, a lawyer for the US president financing a legal activist tied to the Russian president might have seemed odd. Ahead of the 2016 US elections, Sekulow published a book that denounced a supposed global conspiracy including Putin’s Russia, Iran and radical Islam. 

Sekulow claimed this “unholy alliance” was an existential threat to the US and Israel and that the Obama administration at the time was failing to counter the danger. That year, the ACLJ also vowed on its website “to monitor this ever-ramifying national security situation”. 

By 2017, Sekulow had become a high-profile legal crusader for Trump and echoed the president in calling the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election “a witch hunt”

Trump and Sekulow have been openly positive about Putin, denied or discounted Moscow’s attack on the 2016 election, and belittled concerns about the threat Russia posed to the US.

Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky “knows Jay Sekulow well and considers him one of the most competent and respected human rights defenders”, said the RUCEF press secretary.

“Their last meeting took place during the World Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians in 2017 (hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association in the US). The summit touched upon ongoing obstacles to church life and ministry in different countries of the world.” 

This summit was held in a Trump hotel in Washington DC, at a cost of $400,000 paid to the president’s company. Attendees included Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence and the leaders of many other US Christian right groups spending money abroad – including Alliance Defending Freedom, which has also defended the Russian state against Pussy Riot members.

Financial controversies

Long before he became famous for his defence of Trump, Sekulow was a well-known figure on the US right, the host of his own radio show and a frequent guest on conservative media outlets. 

There have been a number of controversies regarding the ACLJ’s finances. In 2005, Legal Times reported that Sekulow, with the ACLJ and a string of interconnected non-profit and for-profit entities, had “built a financial empire that generates millions of dollars a year and supports a lavish lifestyle – complete with multiple homes, chauffeur-driven cars, and a private jet that he once used to ferry Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia”. 

In 2017, The Washington Post revealed that Sekulow’s “charity empire” brought in nearly $230 million in donations from 2011 to 2015 – and $28.5 million of that ended up with members of Sekulow’s family or their companies.

That year, the non-profit watchdog CharityWatch reported that the family connections and associations among the various groups in Sekulow’s charity network (which included the ACLJ) raised a “red flag”.

Sekulow, the ACLJ and SCLJ did not respond to requests for comment.

* David Corn of Mother Jones contributed reporting for this article.

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