An online media network that promotes election and coronavirus-related conspiracy theories is soliciting donations and telling donors their contributions will be tax-deductible – even though its foundation’s tax-exempt status has been revoked by the IRS.
The Worldview Weekend Broadcast Network – which has given a platform to conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell and other right-wing figures who have pushed falsehoods about the 2020 election – collects donations through a nonprofit organization, the Worldview Weekend Foundation, which they say funds some of its operations.
The IRS revoked the foundation’s tax-exempt status in May after it failed to file tax returns for three consecutive years, according to the agency’s records. That means that donors who give money to the foundation can’t deduct those contributions from their taxes unless the IRS reinstates its status.
But more than seven months later, the organization is still actively soliciting donations and telling potential donors their contributions will be deductible. This week, a large pop-up ad on the website declared that “your tax deductible contribution is vital to continue operations,” while a banner ad urged supporters to “make your end of the year tax deductible donation!”
The network asks for donations in a form at the bottom of every page on its website, which states three times that contributions are “100% Tax-Deductable” (sic). And its audio and video broadcasts and social media posts often include similar requests for donations and claims about deductibility.
A lawyer for the Worldview Weekend Foundation told CNN that it is planning to apply for retroactive reinstatement of its tax-exempt status within the next month. If the organization’s reinstatement application is approved by the IRS, donors will be able to deduct donations made after its status was revoked.
“We are confident that the Foundation will ultimately receive a favorable determination from the IRS in respect of its retroactive reinstatement application,” the organization’s lawyer, Jake Kasser, wrote in a statement.
Still, according to the IRS website, a nonprofit “that is automatically revoked is not eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.” And five tax law experts told CNN that until the foundation successfully gets its status reinstated, its solicitations are misleading at best.
“It’s wrong for a charity to claim the contribution is deductible when it isn’t,” said Philip Hackney, a former IRS lawyer and a University of Pittsburgh law professor who specializes in nonprofit law. “It’s interesting that an organization trafficking in lies is also trafficking in a lie about the deductibility to generate their contributions – something you can obviously check and confirm is not true.”
How Worldview Weekend spreads falsehoods
The experts said that the IRS is unlikely to impose penalties or fines against Worldview Weekend for claiming its donations are tax-deductible. The foundation could possibly face legal action from state attorneys general in states where it is soliciting donations, or donors who feel misled by its solicitations – but neither is likely to be an issue for the organization if it is successful in getting its status retroactively reinstated, the experts said.
Kasser, the foundation’s lawyer, said it had been struggling for years with the IRS misclassifying it and failing to respond to its filings and communications. He said that the IRS had previously revoked the foundation’s tax-exempt status in 2018 over a misunderstanding, and that the organization had filed a return for 2018, although the agency hadn’t acknowledged it or answered the foundation’s question about it. An IRS spokesperson said the agency could not comment about specific organizations.
Meanwhile, the foundation may be running afoul of state laws. A spokesperson for the Tennessee secretary of state said that the foundation, which lists its address as a post office box in a suburb of Memphis, has not registered with the secretary’s office. Tennessee regulations require charities based in the state to register before soliciting online donations.
“By law, organizations cannot solicit in Tennessee if they do not comply with registration requirements or make false statements to donors,” the spokesperson, Julia Bruck, wrote in an email. Civil penalties for charities that don’t comply with state law can reach up to $5,000 per violation, and unlawfully obtained contributions have to be forfeited to the state in some cases, she said.
Kasser said that the foundation’s attempts to register with the state had been denied “because of the issues caused by the IRS with respect to the Foundation’s tax returns” over multiple years. “Once resolved, the Foundation will take all necessary actions to comply with state registration requirements,” he said.
While Worldview Weekend isn’t as prominent as other right-wing news outlets like Breitbart or One America News Network, it has helped promote some of former President Donald Trump’s most vocal allies, including MyPillow CEO Lindell and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Last year, the network produced Lindell’s “documentary” series in which he falsely claimed hacking by China had changed millions of votes from Trump to President Joe Biden. In November, it filmed an interview between Lindell and Trump at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
In addition to election denial, Worldview Weekend has also repeatedly aired segments with false claims about coronavirus vaccines. “FDA ‘Approves’ ‘Vaccine’ That Has A Higher Rate Of Harm And Death Than Does Covid-19,” declared one headline in September.
On the network’s website, stories about vaccines and election fraud are posted alongside promo codes for discounts from Lindell’s pillow company and appeals to donate to the foundation. Brannon Howse, Worldview Weekend’s president and founder, has said that contributions to the foundation go to paying expenses for spreading the network’s content.
“WVW Foundation helps to underwrite the expenses of much of the bandwidth that we have to pay for,” Howse said in one broadcast in August, days after the IRS publicly posted the revocation of the foundation’s tax-exempt status. “Our Worldview Weekend Foundation exists in part to help us give away free radio shows and TV shows.” In another podcast episode last year, he said the group’s streaming costs had increased fourfold as traffic grew, adding that the network has “seen incredible growth.”
The foundation brought in about $281,000 in contributions in 2016 and $273,000 in 2017 – more recent numbers aren’t available because of the lack of filings. The organization’s mission, the latest filings say, is to “do all things necessary for the promulgation of the biblical ethic of decency in America, and to promote, advocate, enhance, and preserve the traditional family in our society.”
That statement might seem to clash with Worldview Weekend’s coverage, such as claims that the “American Medical Establishment and Government Are Overseeing a Eugenics Program That Will Lead to an Even Bigger Holocaust.” But nonprofit experts said that the fact that an organization promotes a controversial viewpoint doesn’t mean it isn’t eligible for tax exemption.
“The flat earth society can be a charity,” said Eric Gorovitz, a tax lawyer with the firm Adler & Colvin. “The fact that its claims are wrong isn’t relevant to its qualification for exemption.”