Voting group founded by Abrams, once led by Warnock, faces financial scrutiny

The New Georgia Project, which helped turn Georgia into a swing state, confronts allegations of mismanagement, undocumented spending.

Nov 12, 2023 - 20:59
Voting group founded by Abrams, once led by Warnock, faces financial scrutiny

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.

“We're going to do a forensic look at our records,” said Wilson, a civil rights activist and retired scholar at Albany State University. “We'll start at the beginning, and just lay it out, clean it up and redirect as necessary … so we’ll be in a position where anybody who will come — be it authorities, be it media, be it whomever — we will not be concerned about who looks at our records because we’ll have all our i’s dotted and t’s crossed. So I'm comfortable with that, you know, and I'll almost welcome it.”

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. 

“I had no reason to believe the rumors,” Wilson said. “I had gotten an anonymous call — and I don't really know where it came from — saying that [the senior administrator] had taken money.” He added that the fact Ufot, as executive director, did not file any complaints against the administrator made him feel like he could forget about the tip.

The administrator denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the alleged transactions. Nonetheless, the administrator was fired in 2019 by Ufot. POLITICO is not naming the administrator because they have not been formally accused of any offense.

“Definitely not talking about that,” Ufot said, when asked about the allegations. “[The administrator] left the New Georgia Project because [they] weren't that great at [their] job. And that's all I'm gonna say.”

Wilson said the administrator called him after their firing and expressed concern about what the allegations would mean for their future employment. He said he offered to be a job reference but hasn’t spoken to the person since.

The administrator declined to comment. Four former New Georgia Project employees said they had been told contemporaneously or after the fact that the administrator had withdrawn money from the organization without proper authorization, raising ongoing doubts about financial controls.

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.

Current New Georgia Project leaders declined to answer questions about the administrator since the withdrawals occurred before their tenures.

“I don't have any knowledge of that,” Cotton said, “And only a fool would speak on something that they have no direct understanding of.”

Johnson also declined to speak about it. “I don't have any situational knowledge of that matter of fact,” he said.

Fallout from the Wells Fargo accounts continued after the former administrator was fired, and eventually led to the removal of the group’s chief financial officer and Ufot herself.

Ufot said she received multiple fraud alerts from the bank, flagging withdrawals that the bank deemed suspicious. At first, she said, she ignored them, but when they started coming “regularly” she alerted Randall Frazier, then the group’s CFO.

“So periodically when they come through, like, whatever,” Ufot said of the alerts, “but when they started coming through, like, regularly, I contacted our CFO, and was like, ‘Help me understand what is going on.’ And then he told me to call Wells Fargo and make the fraud claims. And that's exactly what I did.”

However, Ufot said, she never officially filed the claims because “we started, and then they asked me a bunch of questions, and they wanted to shut the [company] cards down immediately, like, while I was making the claim.” She explained that others in the organization used these cards and she didn’t want to disrupt business operations without notice.

“We started to file and then I asked for a pause so that I could consult with our CFO,” she said.

Separately, New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action Fund, in both of their most recent 990 filings, are claiming that Ufot herself owes the organizations thousands of dollars from fiscal year 2021 for what Johnson said were “expenses that need to be reimbursed to the organization.”

The New Georgia Project reported that Ufot received a salary advance of $8,865 in 2021 that has not been “corrected” and New Georgia Project Action Fund noted that Ufot owed the 501(c)4 arm $4,377, according to the respective Schedule L sections of the 990 form.

Johnson said the organization was “discharging our fiduciary responsibilities as an organization. ... My expectation is, is that will be resolved in the general course of business.”

Johnson said the $8,865 paid to Ufot was, in fact, not an advance, but represented non-business expenses. The New Georgia Project is taking “all necessary steps” to get paid back, he said.

In an interview with POLITICO, Ufot said she’s never used New Georgia Project funds inappropriately or for personal expenses.

“This is also the subject of litigation and dispute — like, it's the subject of an active dispute right now between me and NGP and their lawyers,” Ufot said. “It's complete bullshit.”

Disputed spending from Ufot allegedly continued in 2022, according to two former employees and internal messages seen by POLITICO. These came in the form of Uber Eats, Apple, Hulu, Lyft and other expenses.

Ufot said that as a boss, she wouldn’t hold meetings without “food, music and child care” and that those expenses could account for some spending that current leaders consider questionable.

According to an internal memo in 2022 that was shown to POLITICO by a former administrator, the CFO, Frazier, had flagged withdrawals from the Wells Fargo accounts in emails to Ufot, other members of senior leadership and the two board chairs. Frazier also brought up other charges in 2021 as he was preparing to file the 2021 990 form to the IRS.

Shortly after he shared his concerns, on July 7, the then-chief legal officer, Aklima Khondoker, asked members of the organization’s C-Suite Signal group chat for information about Frazier’s job performance.

Khondoker wrote in the chat, which was shared with POLITICO by an administrator: “We need all emails, signal threads, texts, meeting notes, and the like concerning Randall’s performance. This would include anything related to his job as CFO, interactions with staff members, and anything that shows his lack of performance or insubordination … please feel free to send that over as soon as you can.”

Soon after, Frazier was fired by Ufot and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Khondoker, who has since resigned in the wake of Ufot’s own departure, said she couldn’t go into the details of anyone’s specific employment situation. But “more than anything, the organization did not have the right match for what it needed,” she said, referring to Frazier’s performance in the CFO role.

Johnson said the organization doesn’t speak about internal operations or personnel matters.

These disputes followed two fundraising boom years during which, former employees said, the New Georgia Project’s fast growth strained its guardrails.

In 2019, the New Georgia Project and New Georgia Project Action fund raised only $1.6 million and $1.8 million, respectively. But in 2020, the coffers ballooned to $24.5 million and $11.9 million for each organization. The organization also restructured in 2020, adding a host of C-suite employees. Ufot, who was already heading the organization, officially became CEO (with a $60,000 raise to roughly $187,000 per year), in addition to new hires CFO Chineava Georgia and then-COO Kendra Cotton, according to 2020 990 forms and LinkedIn accounts. In 2021— when the project was basking in the triumph of helping carry the state of Georgia for Democrat Joe Biden and elect two Democratic senators — fundraising dipped, but both arms took in $12.5 million and $3.6 million, respectively.

During this time of growth, multiple New Georgia Project employees said the board operated in a hands-off fashion.

After Warnock left in January, 2020, he was replaced with Johnson. In 2020 and 2021, the 501(c)3 reported only two board members, Johnson and former NFL player Takeo Spikes, and the 501(c)4 arm reported members Wilson and Johnson.

Khondoker, who served as chief legal officer during that time, said she had little contact with board members. Six other former employees, including in senior roles, described the same hands-off approach.

“Johnson is a well-known, well-respected civil rights lawyer, he handles some of the most critical and pivotal cases in the state of Georgia,” she said. “Now, when it comes to management styles, again, I didn't work closely with him. We didn't speak very often. ... if you're a member of the board, you probably want to connect with your chief legal officer more, but that's just not what happened.” 

“Frank Wilson, I know less about, but I do know that he is our civil rights elder and leader. ... Again, we didn't really communicate,” she added.

Another former employee said there weren’t enough board members for the organization to be functional.

In August, 2022, just as the midterm elections were approaching, Johnson suddenly became more involved in New Georgia Project operations and started to take issue with Ufot’s management, according to three former employees. 

Ufot blames Johnson for the group’s problems, saying he “sabotaged” the organization’s work and the company culture she built.

“I think that it injected fear and confusion into operations,” Ufot said. “I didn't know that our board chair and my successor had gone to not just senior leaders, but organizers and other staff ... asking people if they intended to stay after I left. That creates a hostile work environment, and it instills a spirit of fear. It's contrary to the culture that I built over the past nine years. And it made people wonder what the hell is going on?”

Johnson did not respond to a question submitted over email about the board’s level of involvement in management decisions.

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.

Johnson and Cotton, in interviews, disputed the notion that the gift-card system lacked proper documentation but did not elaborate.

Khondoker, the former chief legal officer, said the New Georgia Project hired many people who couldn’t afford to front work expenses or may not have had bank accounts to process expenses quickly. The gift card system was a “middle-ground” solution that helped those employees, she said.

Two former employees who wanted to change the system agreed with the intent of the pre-paying for expenses, but also insisted there should have been a companywide system to add documentation to ensure the money went for business-related expenses.

The pushback against a more accountable practice led to frustration and suspicion of leadership.

“I do understand now why the pushback against [a more accountable gift-card system] and I think when things are in chaos, it makes it easier to act in a way that you aren't held accountable,” said the former C-suite employee.

This employee also said they failed and struggled to implement other simple office management tools. New Georgia Project bought Asana, a project management software, but it was never used, this employee said.

The leaders also resisted using a software for which people could upload and manage vendor contracts, this employee said. The disorganization around vendor contracts led to several instances in which vendors either were not paid or not paid on time. There were also after-the-fact disputes over prices, according to seven former employees.

A disagreement between Johnson and Ufot erupted over a $1.5 million marketing contract. According to five employees, Johnson was upset by the choice of firm and the overall cost of the contract.

Ufot is unapologetic: “It was a $15 million campaign that they charged us $1.5 million for. Because they believed in what we were doing,” Ufot said, adding that the firm was chosen because of its competence in the marketing space as well as for being “unapologetically Black and female.”

Johnson said, “we just fundamentally disagreed” when asked about the contract. And Cotton added that the disagreement wasn’t predicated on finances but on strategy.

Johnson refused to say whether this contract decision or any other played a role in Ufot’s firing, echoing a previous answer that the organization doesn’t comment on personnel decisions.

“I want to answer all your questions. I want to be an open book, and I want to do all of that,” Johnson said. “But there's certain aspects of this that, you know, being an open book is second to being a good chairman of the board. And, keeping faith with our employees and our agreements that we have [that] we've said would govern our relationship and so others may break those relationships and abuse that trust, but we won't.”

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.”

Ufot was fired on the first day of early voting in Georgia last year, despite having already pledged to depart the organization by the end of December, according to four former New Georgia Project employees.

“We can't promise perfection. We've made some mistakes along the way. As every organization grows, it will have pains,” Johnson said. “We will have leadership transitions: we had one when Stacey Abrams, who founded our organization, decided to run for governor and stepped away from leadership. We've had leadership change again with Rev. Warnock when he stepped away to run for [the Senate]. We've had it in the transition of Nsé, as our executive director, CEO. And quite honestly, I feel more confident that the good idea that we started in 2014 is still a good idea. And the fruit is bearing witness to the same.”