Meet the so-called “nonprofit” organization targeting the Biden administration
Protect the Public’s Trust, a watchdog group led by a former Trump administration official, has gained influence in right-wing circles over the past two years and made a name for itself by being a thorn in the side of the Biden administration.
The Washington, DC-based organization first emerged in early 2021, shortly after President Joe Biden took office, and has billed itself as an “impartial,” transparent “nonprofit” organization dedicated to fighting corruption in government has and ensures that federal officials play along rules. It has filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests, ethics grievances and lawsuits targeting members of the Biden cabinet and other senior administration officials. She has managed to shed light on conflicts of interest at times and even influence surveys hearings in Congress.
But for all its talk of being an advocate for transparency, PPT has been shady about its own precise nature, going so far as to misrepresent itself in public records.
In a FOIA Inquiry to the Department of Energy in May 2021, PPT described itself as a “501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with supporters and members of the public who strive for transparent, ethical, and impartial government that makes decisions in the best interests of all Americans, no former employers and special interests.”
A 501(c)(3) is a specific type of nonprofit designation awarded by the IRS to certain charitable, religious, or educational organizations. These groups are exempt from federal taxes and allow donors to write off contributions.
However, PPT has never filed a Form 990, which is required by 501(c)(3) nonprofits, according to HuffPost’s review of the IRS’s nonprofit database and several other business and nonprofit search tools.
In the two years as a group, PPT has repeatedly changed its self-image.
Until September 2021, it had dropped “501(c)(3)” from its description in public records and simply referred to itself as a “non-profit organization” — a state-level designation. in one legal action The group, which was filed against the State Department in January 2022, called itself “an unincorporated association of retired and former government employees and concerned citizens dedicated to restoring public confidence in government.” More recently in January 2023it referred to itself simply as “a collection of individuals”.
PPT last week did not respond to HuffPost’s specific questions or provide a copy of a Form 990 that tax-exempt organizations are required by law to submit within 30 days of a written request.
“As we say on our website, PPT is a group of retired and former government employees with decades of experience in government,” wrote Michael Chamberlain, the group’s director and a former Trump administration official, in an email statement. “We have pursued our mission of uncovering ethical conflicts and wrongdoing since the beginning and continue to do so. To this day we are an unincorporated association of persons.”
Immediately after HuffPost inquired about its nonprofit status last week, PPT changed the description at the top of its Facebook page from “nonprofit organization” to “nongovernmental organization (NGO).” It also updated the “About Us” section, which as of Monday identifies the group as “Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)”, “Non-Profit Organization” and “News and Media Website”.
HuffPost could not find any business records for PPT in the records of the District of Columbia or neighboring states, or in business libraries. PPT lists its address as 712 H Street NE, Suite 1682, Washington, DC – A northeast DC store that houses Gold Spot Pack and Ship, a mail order, office supply, and check cashing store.
The organization appears to have enough resources to file dozens of lawsuits, but Chamberlain has declined previous job interviews disclose where his money comes from. He didn’t respond to HuffPost’s questions about the group’s funding and staff.
Chamberlain has enjoyed and shared a long career in conservative politics and the media right wing views on social media. He managed communications in Nevada for former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and served four years as a communications and public affairs officer at Trump’s Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos.
But Chamberlain – who belonged to a Trump administration full of scandals and corruption – has rejected the idea that his organization is partisan.
“We have affiliated researchers and consultants and people who help us and who have backgrounds from different administrations,” he says told E&E News shortly after the launch of PPT. “We’re targeting people in the executive branch. So this is the Biden administration right now.”
These targets included senior officials from the Interior Department, Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. PPT has at times made valid allegations of ethical violations: against Nada Culver, the Assistant Director of Policy and Programs at the Bureau of Land Management, e.g Meeting with a former employer and maintaining financial ties to oil giant ConocoPhillips; Elizabeth Klein, now director of the Home Office’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, z do not disclose the full extent of their work in the private sector; and Joseph Goffman, a senior EPA official, for Correspondence with two former colleagues at Harvard University.
In Culver’s case, the Home Office Inspector General investigated PPT’s complaint and completed in June 2021 that Culver broke the agency’s ethics rules by meeting with a former employer, the Wilderness Society, to discuss oil and gas regulations.
PPT’s work has primarily attracted the attention of conservative lawmakers and right-wing media outlets, including Fox News, The Daily Caller, The Daily Mail and The Federalist, who do not appear to question or challenge the group’s nonprofit status have.
The Daily Wire described PPT as a “non-profit monitoring group” in a Story Last month.
Fox News has written detailed via internal emails unearthed by PPT about FOIA requests showing how the Office of US Climate Change Charity John Kerry communicates with environmental and climate organizations. In an article, Fox described the emails as “the latest evidence that Kerry’s office has been communicating with far-left green groups.”
More recently, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) pressed Home Secretary Deb Haaland during a congressional budget hearing on when the agency planned to fulfill PPT’s FOIA request to achieve communication between interior officials and Haaland’s adult child.
Somah Haaland works as a media consultant for the Pueblo Action Alliance, an environmental justice organization that has lobbied federal officials to block oil and gas development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Pueblo Action Alliance is a member of Rebuild fossil-free, a coalition that organized a five-day indigenous-led climate protest in October 2021 at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, DC. Hundreds of activists were arrested during this protest – mainly for disability and crowding. and clashes erupted between protesters and police. Overall, the event was largely peaceful.
Still, Republicans and right-wing media tried to equate this protest on the violent riots and riots in the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
During his questioning, Rosendale employed Chamberlain conversation topics about the protest at Home Office headquarters, calling it a “riot” in which Somah Haaland “apparently took part”.
While a number of Biden administration officials learned of PPT’s work, the White House responded at a loss last April when The Hill asked es, to comment on a letter in which PPT accused then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki of “an apparent abuse of her official position in publicly disparaging Fox News, a competitor of her alleged future employer.” (After leaving the White House, Psaki took a position as a presenter and analyst at MSNBC.)
“What is ‘Protect the Public’s Trust’?” a White House spokesman responded to The Hill’s query. “Is that an insurance company?”