The Patriot Freedom Project has raised around $900,000 to support alleged Jan. 6 Capitol rioters. The group says the funds support defendants, but families have raised concerns about transparency.



The FBI calls the January 6 attack on the Capitol an act of domestic terrorism. But for some on the pro-Trump right, those who have been arrested are not criminals. They're seen as patriots and political prisoners. And that framing has led to fundraisers for the defendants involving big money. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has this story on one of the biggest fundraisers and what charity experts identify as red flags.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: In right-wing media, Cynthia Hughes is a leading advocate for what she calls the patriots - people charged in connection with the violent attack on the Capitol.


STEVE BANNON: I want to bring in now a very special person, someone we've got to know very well. And she's a real fighter - Cynthia Hughes - that has led the fight for the prisoners of 6 January.

DREISBACH: That's Steve Bannon, the former top Trump adviser, introducing Hughes on his "War Room" podcast. And here's Hughes asking for big donations for her nonprofit, the Patriot Freedom Project.


CYNTHIA HUGHES: We need somebody to drop us $500,000 today - today, Steve - because we need to have our own attorneys on these cases.

DREISBACH: One of those cases is against a longtime family friend of Hughes. She calls him her adoptive nephew. Prosecutors say he's an avowed white supremacist, which he disputes, and Holocaust denier. A judge found that he was so dangerous, he should remain in jail pending trial. He's pleaded not guilty. Hughes describes the Patriot Freedom Project as part legal fund, part support group and part charity for the families of people arrested by the FBI.


HUGHES: We've already paid the rent for some of these families. We've already sent money to some of these families who need help with school supplies, school shoes, the coming school year.

DREISBACH: The Patriot Freedom Project's pitch to donors seems to be working. By early December, the group said it had raised almost $900,000. It also said the group had spent less than half of that money, and that has led to complaints from some family members of January 6 defendants.

MOLLY: There is not enough transparency.

DREISBACH: This is Molly. She asked NPR to withhold her last name because of concerns about harassment of her family. Her cousin is currently locked up pending trial on charges stemming from the riot. He's pleaded not guilty also. And she said she's worried about whether favoritism plays a role in distributing the nonprofit's funds because the group has not publicly set a clear criteria for who gets money and why.

MOLLY: People deserve to know where their money is going. They want to know where it's going. They want to know that it's helping.

DREISBACH: A relative of another defendant told NPR they agreed with Molly's criticism. A spokesperson for the group disputed those claims. But complaints have now surfaced in right-wing media, too. Here's Gavin McInnes, founder of the far-right group The Proud Boys, talking on his web show.


GAVIN MCINNES: My personal belief is one should not donate to these big groups just because you saw them on Steve Bannon's "War Room."

DREISBACH: There are a lot of controversial nonprofits out there. Regardless of the politics, we found what charity experts called red flags. Take the group's board of trustees. It's supposed to be independent because it sets budgets and does oversight. The Patriot Freedom Project's three trustees are Hughes herself, Hughes' sister-in-law and Hughes' 24-year-old son, who shares an address with his mother. The sister-in-law and son did not respond to our messages. And since the Patriot Freedom Project is based in New Jersey, it's also supposed to register as a charity with the state. We asked the attorney general there if the Patriot Freedom Project had filed the required paperwork. They said no. I talked about all this with Laurie Styron. She's evaluated nonprofits for almost two decades at the group Charity Watch.

LAURIE STYRON: Certainly, from a governance perspective, Charity Watch would give them a failing grade.

DREISBACH: Another concern - Cynthia Hughes has filed several lawsuits over the last decade where she publicly disclosed having trouble paying bills, poor credit scores and the ripple effects of her personal bankruptcy in the 2000s. The cases were either settled or dismissed. Styron said again the case has raised questions about the independence of the trustees.

STYRON: How likely would it be - right? - for a completely independent board of directors at a charity to actually elect someone with this kind of personal financial history and legal history to be the head of the nonprofit?

DREISBACH: I took those concerns to the Patriot Freedom Project president, Cynthia Hughes. She directed me to a spokesperson, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity and not for broadcast. The spokesperson argued that the group was a model of transparency, that the group's lawyers are making sure they follow the law, that no one has taken a salary yet. And the spokesperson argued it was an asset that family members make up the group's trustees, comparing it to a mom-and-pop shop. They declined to comment on Hughes' legal history. We did confirm that some families and lawyers have received money from the Patriot Freedom Project, like Joe McBride. He's an attorney that works with the group, and he said he doesn't know the intricacies of their finances, but he trusts Cynthia Hughes.

JOE MCBRIDE: That money is going to go to good use. I don't know what good use that will be, but it will go towards something that's January 6 related. She will honor her commitments to her donors no matter what.

DREISBACH: McBride also told NPR to tread carefully when reporting on criticism of the group.

MCBRIDE: Because if it's wrong, I'm telling you right now, there are going to be a lot of people out there who are going to want retribution for defamation because she's done so much good for so many people.

DREISBACH: In a statement, the Patriot Freedom Project said, quote, "we will never stop fighting for these people, their families and children. And if the government-funded media doesn't like it, we'll do it even more." Laurie Styron of Charity Watch said given what's publicly known about the Patriot Freedom Project, donor beware. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "ZAHNLUECKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.