Brittany Gibson, Politico, November 12, 2023
The New Georgia Project, a voting rights organization founded by the state’s Democratic star Stacey Abrams and overseen for more than two years by Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, is beset by allegations of financial misuse and irregularities, according to a six-month POLITICO investigation.
The organization, which played a key role in registering the new voters necessary to turn Georgia from a red state to a swing state with two Democratic senators, is conducting its own internal probe into its finances in response to the claims of irregularities, one of its two board chairs, Frank Wilson, said.
The move comes as the group’s tax filings indicate that its former executive director — who was hand-picked by Abrams in 2014 but fired last year without notice — owes the organization thousands of dollars in “non-work-related” reimbursements. The former director, Nsé Ufot, who left the group last year after heading it for eight years, denies owing money and calls the allegation “a fucking lie.”
The debt attributed to Ufot — a nationally recognized leader in voting rights efforts and frequent political commentator — is one of multiple instances of poor financial record-keeping and allegations of misuse of funds uncovered by POLITICO. The New Georgia Project didn’t properly track company expenses that were allegedly prepaid to employees on Visa gift cards and failed to account for salary advances and other expenditures, according to a review of financial disclosures, internal documents and interviews with 12 current and former employees, including senior leadership. Most were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
The organization has also been fending off other administrative battles, including a state ethics investigation over whether its election advocacy violated rules limiting direct political activity by nonprofits, which it has sued to terminate, and a dispute with the IRS over payment of payroll taxes, which the group’s new CEO, Kendra Davenport Cotton, said has recently been settled.
Like similar nonprofits, the New Georgia Project operates under two federal tax designations — 501(c)3, which cannot engage in politics, and 501(c)4, which can devote up to half its work to politicking — but has one CEO and a common staff leadership.
Wilson, chair of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, its 501(c)4 arm, said the group is committed to rooting out any irregularities and tracking expenditures more closely.
The organization’s troubles loom larger in the world of Democratic advocacy because of the intense national excitement generated by Abrams and her network, which audaciously set out to move one of the pillars of the Republican South into the Democratic column. Organizers and activists in other states have sought to emulate her success.
Abrams, who created the New Georgia Project in 2014 as an offshoot of another Abrams-founded nonprofit called Third Sector Development, declined to comment. Abrams hasn’t been part of the group’s leadership since 2017, when she began her first run for governor.
Warnock, who served as chair from 2017, when the group first registered as an independent 501(c)3, to January 2020, when he launched his first Senate campaign, did not respond to requests through his office for an interview. In a brief interview in the Senate subway, when asked whether he was aware of any mismanagement at the New Georgia Project, he said “not at all.”
After Abrams’ 2018 campaign for governor ended in a narrow defeat to current Gov. Brian Kemp, then the Georgia secretary of state, her forceful claims of voter suppression drew the attention of Democrats around the country. What followed was a huge influx of donations, many of them from out of state, intended to advance voting rights and voter registration. In fiscal year 2020, the New Georgia Project collected more than $36 million in donations to its two entities.
While the organization has built up political capital in the state among Democrats and a large volunteer base for canvassing and voter education events, behind the scenes there was often disarray, according to multiple former staffers. There was frequent turnover in the top finance role, allegations of money misspent or missing and complaints of inadequate tracking of expenditures. Ufot was fired at the start of 2022’s early voting period — ostensibly the group’s busiest moment.
“I went there all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I’m disillusioned now,” recalled a former C-suite employee. “I got the assumption that it was driven by ego after the 2020 elections. That there was this: ‘We can do anything we want, look at how much money we got.’ … I think these things combined with no checks and balances, not having an operations department in place that is allowed to put in policies, procedures and safeguards — which is what I thought I was hired to do — and the rapid growth has just facilitated this.”
Ufot’s staff was notified of her firing on a Zoom call before she was told, she and other staff members said. Other resignations followed, including from the chief legal officer and chief communications officer. Then came a round of layoffs as executives in internal Signal group chats discussed the desperate need to ramp up donations. In October 2022, the head of HR told staffers on a Zoom call that the company could no longer afford to make payroll, according to a video of the call made by a participant.
Francys Johnson, board chair of the New Georgia Project, the 501(c)3 arm, and board treasurer of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said the group is “taking all necessary steps” to secure the return of a $8,865 salary advance to Ufot that is detailed in the organization’s tax filings, which also identify $4,377 that Ufot allegedly owes its 501(c)4 branch.
Johnson, a noted Georgia civil rights attorney, acknowledged the organization has made “some mistakes,” but suggested the book-keeping problems and organizational issues stemmed from hiring people from underserved communities who had strong grass-roots ties but little management experience. He claimed the group’s critics have disrespect for the type of people on its staff.
“It goes back to people who disdain the kind of communities we serve and disdain the kind of people we seek to employ,” Johnson said. “They believe that we need to have a bunch of Northeastern educated folks who come down and freedom rides, we love to talk about that, and help them liberate the South, as if the South can’t help liberate itself. And so we hire people from community, we hire people who live on the margins, primarily because politics has failed them. And we have to deploy tactics that are not necessarily consistent to what POLITICO might have.”
“And in some instances, I will tell you that, you know, where we are aware of good intentions, but not nearly enough transparency, we’ve course-corrected for those things,” he added.
But multiple staff members said the recent turmoil at the New Georgia Project was only the outward expression of a climate of chaos that dated back to at least the 2018 midterm elections.
“What you saw was real, the people that were knocking doors and doing other things, incredible, incredible,” said another former high-level New Georgia Project employee. “The sad part is those are the people that were incredible. And they deserve better. The volunteers, the people that were on staff were absolutely incredible, believed in the mission, were the mission. It was a complete failure of leadership.”
The sense that New Georgia Project funds weren’t being appropriately tracked has long been a matter of internal concern. Regular turnover in the top finance manager role served to limit institutional knowledge and continuity on the budgeting side.
Management disarray was compounded by infighting. Multiple former employees claimed the organization had a toxic work environment that became unnecessarily stressful and fomented distrust between staffers. Frustrations often erupted in private Signal group chats.
Wilson, who said the ongoing internal review will look at finances and procedures dating back to the start of the organization, said he first heard of potential financial mismanagement when he received an anonymous tip that about $50,000 had been withdrawn from the organization’s accounts by a then-senior administrator who was serving as one of Ufot’s deputies prior to 2020.
POLITICO obtained records from two Wells Fargo bank accounts controlled by the New Georgia Project, which had been turned over to the state Ethics Commission as part of its probe into possible violations of its tax status. The administrator’s name appears in the memo lines of the Wells Fargo bank accounts’ transactions, a copy of which was provided by the state to POLITICO in response to an open records request. There were 16 outgoing transactions totaling $57,693 from mid-2017 to mid-2019, matching the roughly $50,000 mentioned in the tip received by Wilson.
Former employees say one focus of management disputes was the organization’s unorthodox expense system. Employees and volunteers would receive prepaid Visa gift cards to cover work-related expenses, but there was not a regular system in place to check whether the cards were, indeed, used for work expenses. There was no regular system for reviewing receipts or other documentation, according to two former employees.
The former C-suite employee said they were shocked when $11,000 worth of Visa gift cards arrived at the office and then were handed out to employees and volunteers. Other times, an employee would be sent to Kroger to buy these gift cards, they said. Some people brought back receipts but this was not a standardized practice: Just the receipts for the initial purchase of the gift cards were saved for accounting purposes, according to another employee.
When this system was questioned by senior staff members seeking more accountability, there was pushback from Ufot and other senior managers, according to two former staff members.
Ufot initially resisted talking about the issue, saying her firing would be the subject of future litigation and that she didn’t want to contribute to the misconception that Black-led organizations can’t self-govern. But she did share a different interpretation to the pushback from Johnson.
“That there is a sort of bridge generation between the civil rights organizers of the ’60s and the people who are organizing now who have a very transactional and corporate approach to Black politics,” Ufot said. “What I built at the New Georgia Project is decidedly different than that, and it invites the comparison.”