Students say GOP candidate’s foundation “victimized” needy kids to boost his own image

N.H. Senate hopeful Corky Messner touts scholarships for "inner city" students. Fact-checkers: "Four Pinocchios"

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published August 6, 2020 12:39PM (EDT)

Corky Messner (Corky Messner Official Campaign/
Corky Messner (Corky Messner Official Campaign/

A coalition of Democratic student groups called on Trump-backed New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Corky Messner to disband his charitable foundation after The Washington Post reported that it provided only one student with a scholarship over 10 years.

Messner, a Colorado lawyer who worked as the general counsel for Chipotle to amass a net worth between $14 million and $53 million before running in New Hampshire, has repeatedly touted the foundation on the campaign trail. While Messner claimed that the foundation gives out scholarships to "inner city" students each year, only one student appears to have gotten financial help between 2009 and 2019, while Messner received ample press attention for his charitable giving. Messner's claims earned him "Four Pinocchios" from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler.

This week, a coalition of student groups that includes the College Democrats of America, College Democrats of New Hampshire and High School Democrats of Colorado, signed a letter to Messner calling on him to dissolve the foundation they say was used to "deceive vulnerable, hard-working students and defraud the foundation's donors."

"You raised hundreds of thousands of dollars telling donors they were helping provide higher education scholarships to low-income students, soliciting untold numbers of scholarship applications from students in need, and then spending most of the money you raised to boost your own image and to publicize your Colorado law firm," the letter said. "That's wrong, unethical, and unforgivable. And it's even more disturbing to learn you have been using this foundation to advance your campaign for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire."

The student groups called on Messner to donate the remaining assets of the foundation to a "real" charity.

Messner has repeatedly touted his foundation in campaign materials and press releases. His campaign pushed the foundation especially hard when Messner announced his candidacy for the seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, telling reporters the foundation "provides scholarships and other forms of assistance to students from diverse backgrounds."

"Corky has mentioned the Messner Foundation many times because he is proud of what it has accomplished," senior campaign adviser Michael Biundo said in a statement to Salon.

"My intent with that foundation is to help young people who are growing up in the inner city or otherwise in difficult circumstances and help them go to college with scholarships," Messner said during a Merrimack County Republican Committee Happy Hour event in May. "And, you know, we have a process, a committee that looks at applications and makes those selections each year. One of the reasons I did this, quite frankly, was I grew up in a blue-collar family and we didn't have much."

Some of Messner's supporters have touted his charitable giving on his behalf.

"Corky realizes the future of America is vested in the next generation. To that end the Messner Foundation provides scholarships to high school seniors with diverse backgrounds," said a letter to the editor of a New Hampshire newspaper in January.

Messner has drawn favorable press coverage because of the foundation for years. In 2010, he told the Denver Business Journal that he launched the foundation to "award scholarships to low-income high school seniors," with the first scholarship going out in 2011.

Earlier this year, Messner told New Hampshire Republicans that the foundation was funded by "mostly my personal money." 

"You know, we do some things in the law firm around the country to raise money for the foundation," he said. "But ultimately we don't raise that much so it's essentially my money that goes into it to help these kids."

In fact, there is no evidence that Messner has made any personal contributions to the foundation.

His law firm, however, is closely involved with the foundation, having provided the original $100,000 contribution back in 2009, according to a tax filing. A partner at the law firm has promoted the scholarships in television ads.

But the $100,000 "just sat there" for years, despite Messner's claim that scholarships would begin in 2011, the Post reported.

Philip Hackney, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told the Post that foundations are required by law to distribute at least 5% of their assets each year.

"I'm troubled by the fact that they did nothing for the first four or five years," he said. "That doesn't pass muster."

The foundation made its first donation in 2014, but that was not for a scholarship grant to an "inner city" student. Rather, it was a $50,000 contribution to the Colorado Academy, an elite private school attended by Messner's sons. The campaign told the Post the money was for a baseball field, but the Post reports it was among $700,000 in donations the school received that year. In 2014, the school had an endowment of $22 million.

Messner's campaign said that the scholarship program had not yet started in 2014.

"It was a discretionary donation that predated the creation of the Foundation's scholarship program," the campaign told the Post in a statement. "Corky believed the gift [to Colorado Academy] was in keeping with the Foundation's stated mission to cultivate the next generation of business and community leaders, and appropriate for a college-preparatory school that attracts gifted scholar-athletes."

But an archived version of the Messner Foundation's website from that year shows that it claimed to distribute scholarships at that time.

"The Messner Foundation identifies underprivileged high school students," the site said. "The Messner Foundation not only helps its Scholars financially, but provides life experiences as well."

In 2015, the foundation began to raise money by raffling off luxury cars. In 2015, the foundation reported selling nearly $210,000 in raffle tickets and paying out $113,000 in expenses, including $84,000 on purchasing a Tesla. The raffles also promoted Messner's law firm.

The foundation offered no scholarships that year. The campaign told the Post that "it took several years to come up with a sustainable funding source and a process fair to applicants." A letter published by the Post shows that the foundation sought approval from the IRS for its scholarship program in 2016 and received it in 2017.

The foundation gave out its first scholarship in 2016, providing about $5,500 to high school student Majarlika Diane Villaruel-Mariano. That year it also spent $63,000 to purchase a Jeep to raffle off.

The foundation provided Villaruel-Mariano with about $48,000 over three years, according to filings from those years. She was the only student to receive a scholarship in the first 10 years of the foundation's existence.

The Denver Scholarship Foundation, which had included the Messner Foundation as a possible source of financial aid, removed the listing from its website.

"We removed it in 2018 because we couldn't verify that it was still an active scholarship," Latia Henderson, director of marketing at the Denver Scholarship Foundation, told the Post. "We aim to only include verified scholarships in our directory so it's been removed for now."

The foundation does not appear to have raffled off any cars in 2017 or 2018, but restarted the raffles in 2019 just as Messner was considering a Senate campaign. The raffle received drew positive press attention ahead of his announcement.

The Messner campaign told the Post that Villaruel-Mariano received a total of $78,000, including funds not yet reported in public tax filings. The campaign said it provided another student, Arnold Acosta, with $4,886 in 2019 and 2020 and will provide additional funds.

"A third student was selected, but chose not to accept the scholarship," the campaign said.

The raffles, which heavily promoted the law firm, were expensive. The Messner Foundation has spent more than $45 to raise $100, according to the Post, with just 32% spent on charitable programs.

"The car raffles have not generated the hoped-for revenue, given the expense of car purchases, covering the winners' tax liability, and raffle promotion," the campaign told the outlet.

The Messner campaign responded to questions from Salon about the tax filings and his response to the students by attacking Kessler's report.

"Glenn Kessler's story falsely claimed the Messner Scholarship Foundation was not actively funding students' education," Biundo said in a statement. "Kessler is an activist and has a long history of not letting the facts get in the way of his political agenda. In fact, Kessler' s own story contradicted itself, mentioning that Messner's Foundation had awarded $78,000 to one student and now was funding a second student's studies."

The Democratic student groups said Messner of took advantage of students facing staggering amounts of debt in order to raise his profile.

"By standing up a fake vanity foundation and claiming it would provide many low-income students, who already have so many extra challenges to overcome, with scholarships, you took advantage of the college-affordability crisis, all to further your own image," they said in a letter to Messner. "Equally problematic is the way you victimized unsuspecting students, advertising the Messner Foundation scholarship to many high schools as if you and your foundation would actually help their students. ... Using a nonprofit foundation purportedly aimed at helping low-income students for your own personal and political gain is unforgivable."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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