A ‘Nonprofit’ Watchdog, Led By A Former Trump Official, Is Largely A Phantom

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For all its talk of being a champion of transparency, the group Protect the Public's Trust has been shady about its own precise nature.
For all its talk of being a champion of transparency, the group Protect the Public's Trust has been shady about its own precise nature.

For all its talk of being a champion of transparency, the group Protect the Public's Trust has been shady about its own precise nature.

Protect the Public’s Trust, a watchdog group run by a former Trump administration official, has become influential in right-wing circles over the last two years, making a name for itself by being a thorn in the side of the Biden administration.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization first surfaced in early 2021, shortly after President Joe Biden took office, and has portrayed itself as a “nonpartisan,” pro-transparency “nonprofit” dedicated to fighting government corruption and ensuring that federal officials play by the rules. It has filed a slew of Freedom of Information Act requests, ethics complaints and lawsuits targeting Biden Cabinet members and other high-ranking administration officials. It has at times succeeded in shining a light on conflicts of interest, and has even influenced questioning in congressional hearings.

But for all its talk of being a champion of transparency, PPT has been shady about its own precise nature, going as far as to misrepresent itself in public records requests.

In a FOIA request to the Department of Energy in May 2021, PPT described itself as a “501(c)(3) non-profit organization with supporters and members of the public who seek a transparent, ethical and impartial government that makes decisions in the best interests of all Americans, not 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 for donors to write off contributions.

PPT, however, has never filed a Form 990 that is required of 501(c)(3) nonprofits, according to HuffPost’s review of the IRS’s nonprofit database and several other business and nonprofit search tools.

Over its two years as a group, PPT has repeatedly changed how it portrays itself.

By September 2021, it had dropped “501(c)(3)” from its description in public records requests, calling itself simply a “non-profit organization” — a state-level designation. In a lawsuit filed against the State Department in January 2022, the group called itself “an unincorporated association of retired and former public servants and concerned citizens that is dedicated to restoring public trust in government.” More recently, in January 2023, it labeled itself simply “a collection of individuals.”

PPT did not respond last week to HuffPost’s specific questions or provide a copy of a Form 990, which tax-exempt organizations are legally required to provide within 30 days of a written request. 

“As we say on our website, PPT is a group of retired and former public servants with decades of experience in government,” Michael Chamberlain, the group’s director and a former Trump administration official, wrote in an email statement. “We have pursued our mission of exposing ethics conflicts and misconduct since we began and continue to do so. To this day, we remain an unincorporated association of individuals.”

Directly after HuffPost inquired about its nonprofit status last week, PPT changed the description at the top of its Facebook page from “nonprofit organization” to “Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).” It also updated its “About” section, which as of Monday identifies the group as a “Non-Governmental Organization (NGO),” a “Nonprofit Organization” and a “News & media website.”

HuffPost could find no business records for PPT on file with the District of Columbia or neighboring states, or in business libraries. PPT lists its address as 712 H Street NE, Suite 1682, Washington, D.C. — a storefront in Northeast D.C. that is home to Gold Spot Pack and Ship, a shipping, office supply and check cashing business. 

The organization appears to be flush with resources, enough to file dozens of lawsuits, but Chamberlain has declined in previous interviews to disclose where its money comes from. He did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about the group’s funding and staff. 

Chamberlain has had a long career in conservative politics and media, and has shared right-wingviews on social media. He led Nevada communications for former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and served for four years as a communication and outreach official at Trump’s Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Yet Chamberlain — who belonged to a Trump administration rife with scandal and corruption —  has dismissed the idea that his organization is partisan.

“We have affiliated researchers and consultants and people helping us who have backgrounds across administrations,” he told E&E News shortly after PPT’s launch. “We’re targeting people in the executive branch. So that’s the Biden administration right now.”

Those targets have included senior officials at the Interior Department, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. PPT has leveled accusations of ethics rules violations against Nada Culver, the deputy director of policy and programs at the Bureau of Land Management, for meeting with a former employer as well as maintaining financial ties to oil giant ConocoPhillips; Elizabeth Klein, now the director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, for failing to disclose the full scope of her work in the private sector; and Joseph Goffman, a high-ranking EPA official, for corresponding with two former colleagues at Harvard University.

In some cases, PPT’s work has led to internal probes. Interior’s inspector general investigated PPT’s complaint against Culver and concluded in June 2021 that she did violate agency ethics rules by meeting with a former employer, the Wilderness Society, to discuss oil and gas regulations.

PPT’s work has primarily drawn the attention of conservative lawmakers and right-wing media, including Fox News, The Daily Caller, the Daily Mail and The Federalist, which do not appear to have challenged or questioned the group’s nonprofit status.

The Daily Wire described PPT as a “nonprofit watchdog group” in a story last month.

Fox News has writtenextensively about internal emails that PPT unearthed via FOIA requests that show U.S. climate czar John Kerry’s office communicating with environmental and climate organizations. In one writeup, Fox described the emails as “the latest evidence that Kerry’s office has communicated with far-left green groups.”

More recently, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) pressed Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during a congressional budget hearing about when the agency planned to fulfill PPT’s FOIA request seeking communications between Interior officials and Haaland’s adult child.

Somah Haaland works as a media adviser for Pueblo Action Alliance, an environmental justice organization that has lobbied federal officials to block oil and gas development near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Pueblo Action Alliance is a member of Build Back Fossil Free, a coalition that organized a five-day climate protest, led by Indigenous people, at Interior’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in October 2021. In the course of that protest, hundreds of activists were arrested ― mostly on charges of obstruction and crowding ― and there were clashes between demonstrators and police. But on the whole, the event was largely peaceful.

Nevertheless, Republicans and right-wing media outlets sought to equate that protest to the violent riot and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

During his questioning, Rosendale employed Chamberlain’s talking points about the protest at Interior headquarters, calling it a “riot” that Somah Haaland “seems to have participated in.”

While a number of Biden administration officials have come to learn of PPT’s work, the White House acted perplexed last April when The Hill asked it to comment on a letter in which PPT accused then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki of “an apparent misuse of her official position when she publicly disparaged Fox News, a competitor of her reported future employer.” (After leaving the White House, Psaki took a job as a host and analyst on MSNBC.)

“What’s ‘Protect the Public’s Trust?’” a White House spokesperson said in response to The Hill’s inquiry. “Is that an insurance company?”