Donald Trump

Mystery Shrouds Nonprofit Linked to Wealthy Chinese Exile: Steve Bannon Leaves, Records Kept Secret

Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images
  • The mystery surrounding a nonprofit group tied to wealthy Chinese exile Guo Wengui, an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, has grown over the past year.
  • Steve Bannon, a China hawk who once served as a top advisor to Donald Trump, is no longer on the board of the Rule of Law Society, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
  • A separate but related 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Rule of Law Foundation, has, meanwhile, refused to disclose financial documents it had pledged to make public.

The mystery surrounding a nonprofit group tied to wealthy Chinese exile Guo Wengui, reportedly the key figure in a network accused of spreading disinformation about Covid vaccines and elections, has grown over the past year.

Steve Bannon, a China hawk who once served as a top advisor to Donald Trump, is no longer on the board of the Rule of Law Society, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. A separate but related 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Rule of Law Foundation, has, meanwhile, refused to disclose financial documents it had pledged to make public. Such nonprofits are required by the Internal Revenue Service to make these types of documents public.

Both the Rule of Law Society and Rule of Law Foundation promote themselves as organizations that "protect individuals speaking out against corruption and illegal activities in China."

Bannon, one of the most ardent advocates for Trump's "America First" ideology, left the group last summer, according to people familiar with the matter. A person close to Bannon said he left the board as his schedule filled up with other priorities, including his live show "War Room Pandemic." 

Bannon's departure also came around the time federal prosecutors charged him with allegedly defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors through his "We Build the Wall" fundraising campaign, a person added. He was arrested on Guo's yacht and pleaded not guilty in August 2020. Then-President Trump later pardoned Bannon.

It is unclear whether he left the group's board before or after his arrest. The people who explained Bannon's situation declined to be named in order to speak freely about a private matter.

Scrutiny of the Guo-linked nonprofits has grown as the rivalry between the United States and China has become increasingly more intense amid trade battles and the spread of Covid-19, which originated in China. Under Trump, who was advised by Bannon during the 2016 campaign and during his early days in office, the U.S. launched a trade war with China. The U.S. has continued its tough stances on China during the Biden administration.

Bannon has known Guo Wengui, also known as Miles Kwok, for years. The two have worked on several projects aimed at undermining and countering the leaders of China's Communist Party.

The websites for the Rule of Law Foundation and Rule of Law Society feature disclaimers that say they aren't affiliated with Guo. But the sites also feature pictures of the exiled businessman, and the Rule of Law Society's site notes that he is a founder, partner and spokesman for the group.

Guo and Bannon launched the venture in late 2018. The Chinese businessman told The New York Times at the time that he was aiming to put $100 million toward the effort. Guo told the Times that he and Bannon were "partners." Bannon was listed as chair of the Rule of Law Society in documents filed to New York's Attorney General's office.

The New York Times Magazine previously reported that Guo fled China in 2014 in anticipation of corruption charges. After he blasted China's leadership, warrants were reportedly issued for his arrest on charges that included corruption and bribery.

Forbes reported in 2015 that Guo had a net worth of over $1 billion. The Wall Street Journal reported that fundraising for a media company linked to Guo and Bannon was under investigation by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Bannon previously had a contract for at least $1 million with Guo Media, according to Axios.

Bannon did not respond to requests for comment. Guo could not be reached for comment.

Other departures

Beyond Bannon, other key figures are no longer involved with the nonprofits.

Kyle Bass, a hedge-fund manager and vocal China hawk, told CNBC that he resigned from his position as chair of the Rule of Law Foundation over a year ago to pursue other board opportunities.

"I love the mission of bringing the rule of law concept to China and to helping the good Chinese diaspora use the law to their advantage," Bass said in a text message. "With most of the board members in NYC, I was a world away in Texas," he added.

Jennifer Mercurio, who was once general counsel, secretary and director of the Rule of Law Foundation, according to the group's 2019 990 tax return, told CNBC in an email that she stopped working for the foundation in February 2020. Mercurio did not respond to a follow-up email asking why she no longer works there.

Ross Heinemyer, who previously possessed the foundation's "books and records," no longer works there, he told CNBC in a LinkedIn message. He did not respond to follow-up requests for comment as to why he is no longer employed there, only to say that he no longer has access to the foundation's documents.

Documents kept out of view

The Rule of Law Foundation's 990 disclosure from 2019, the most recent year available, does not provide much information on who finances it or how it spends its money. 

The group finished raising over $4 million in 2019. The filing says it spent just under $50,000 on salaries and around $340,000 on other expenses. It finished the year with just over $3.8 million in assets. The filing does not list who contributed or how many donations it received that year. It remains unclear where the remainder of the foundation's assets went in 2020 and beyond.

In reviewing the foundation's 990 disclosure to the IRS, CNBC found a line that says "all governing documents, conflict of interest policy, financial statements and tax documents of the organization are available for public inspection at the organization's office."

A CNBC reporter on Friday visited the office on the east side of Manhattan to request copies of the documents that the foundation says are available to the public.

The address of the New York office listed on the tax document matches the one that officially calls itself "The Himalaya Embassy." The Daily Beast visited the office earlier this year and reported that the building was custom designed in 2015 by Argentine billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian. It also notes Guo has converted the building's residential floors into office spaces for his associated media and nonprofit groups.

Both the Rule of Law Foundation and Rule of Law Society have the same principal address, N.Y. disclosure reports show. The organizations are both listed in a report by Graphika highlighting what it says is a "network [that] acts as a prolific producer and amplifier of mis- and disinformation, including claims of voter fraud in the U.S., false information about Covid-19, and QAnon narratives."

Exterior of the Himalaya Embassy in New York.
Brian Schwartz | CNBC
Exterior of the Himalaya Embassy in New York.

As a CNBC reporter approached the front door of "The Himalaya Embassy," a man opened the door, seemingly by mistake, and allowed the reporter to walk into the lobby.

A security guard then stopped the reporter and asked why he was there. The reporter explained that he wanted to review the documents that were said to be available to the public. He then showed the guard a screenshot of the line from the 990 that says the documents can be reviewed at the group's New York offices.

The security guard then asked if he could take the reporter's phone to show the heads of the foundation, who were apparently at the office at the time. The reporter declined and texted the security guard a screenshot of the 990 form instead. The security official then asked the reporter to leave the building so that the guard could bring the request up to the foundation heads.

The guard later emerged from the building and claimed that those he spoke with were "shocked" that the 990 disclosure said the documents are available for public review.

"It was shocking to them. You should've saw their reaction when they read it. They were shocked," the guard said. The security guard also said that whoever he spoke with said that CNBC needed to email the organization to set up an appointment.

Exterior of the Himalaya Embassy in New York.
Brian Schwartz | CNBC
Exterior of the Himalaya Embassy in New York.

The reporter then provided the security guard with his business card and asked whether the group could provide their email address. The security guard reentered the building to retrieve the email address. The reporter then spotted through a window an unidentified man wearing what appeared to be Apple AirPods sitting in the building.

The guard later came back outside to say CNBC needed to reach out to the foundation over the email addresses listed on their website and make an appointment. The guard then said the foundation wouldn't accept the business card because they were worried about Covid infection.

Both foundations did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

CNBC also reached out to Janover LLC, an accounting firm that the filing says prepared the disclosure to file to the IRS. They declined to assist.

"I don't even recognize the name of the client you were referring to, we have over 8000 clients.  Regardless, since you are a journalist, you're well aware that we legally cannot provide any documents without a subpoena," Mark Goodman, a managing partner at the firm, told CNBC in an email. "Further, we have no responsibility to ensure that any documents are made public.  Just the opposite, we have a fiduciary duty to our clients to maintain confidentiality."

A unidentifiable man is seen inside the Himalaya Embassy in New York.
Brian Schwartz | Reuters
A unidentifiable man is seen inside the Himalaya Embassy in New York.
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