Ben Carson’s name and face adorn the walls of dozens of schools in the U.S. and a medical school in Nigeria. Mayors have handed him keys to their cities. His charity, founded in 1994, created a national day in his honor each year, celebrated by the children who sit in elementary school reading rooms named after him.
All of this is part of a well-honed enterprise that promotes Ben Carson — presidential candidate, political commentator, paid speaker, author, neurosurgeon and champion of children, reading and God.
He has folded into Carson Enterprises his presidential campaign, which has excelled at fundraising, bringing in almost $32 million through the end of September — more than any other 2016 Republican candidate. That fundraising prowess continues, even as his poll numbers decline. His campaign manager, Barry Bennett, said Thursday they raised about $20 million since the beginning of October, matching their extraordinary summertime pace. Speaking fees over a nearly two-year period raked in $4.3 million. And his nonprofit continues to raise money.
It’s hard to see where one Carson stops and another begins.
“I think as people get to know me they’ll be able to see exactly who I am,” Carson said in an interview with The Associated Press in late October. “I don’t worry about that.”
These blurred lines are significant. Since he declared his candidacy, Carson has traveled the country for his campaign, to promote his new book, to attend events for his charity and to give paid speeches.
Carson’s campaign imposed boundaries to separate his politicking from a two-week publicity tour promoting his latest book. His book tour website also links to his official campaign website. And Carson’s book sales benefit significantly from his political rise. Since he declared his candidacy, more than 52,000 copies of versions of his signature book, “Gifted Hands,” have sold, according to industry statistics from Nielsen BookScan.
Most political candidates focus only on their campaigns to avoid potential violations, said Lawrence Noble of the Campaign Finance Center, a Washington nonprofit group that promotes transparency in politics. For instance, if a candidate is getting paid to speak at an event, he or she has to make sure not to mix that with campaigning, he said. Continuing with paid speeches, book promotion tours and charity events and keeping those separate from the campaign is a challenge.
“It’s very difficult to do, and the dangers are high,” Noble said.
Carson has continued to give paid speeches since he declared his bid for the presidency, and in some cases, he’s had political events around the same time.
Since May when he declared his candidacy, he’s been paid to speak at seven events, bringing in between $210,000 and $500,000, according to a financial disclosure he was required by law to file in June. Carson was not required to disclose the exact amounts because the speeches hadn’t taken place at the time he filed. When asked about the exact amounts, Carson’s spokesman said the campaign would not be providing that information. “Don’t see the need beyond what is required by FEC,” Doug Watts said in an email, referring to the Federal Election Commission.
What Carson says at these paid speaking events is critical to evaluating whether Carson violated any campaign laws, Noble said. But most of the paid-speaking events are not open to the public.
Another GOP candidate, Carly Fiorina, has been criticized for giving paid speeches after declaring her candidacy. But her campaign told ABC News that the money she earns from the speeches goes directly to charity.
Recently, Carson was paid between $15,001 and $50,000 to speak to a group of young chief executive officers in Cincinnati, but his campaign did not announce his trip, because it was not a public event. The organization, YPO Cincinnati, declined to allow reporters to attend the event.
“By contract with Dr. Carson, this program is closed to all media,” said Cindy Petrie, administrator of the YPO Cincinnati chapter.
After the event, however, Carson spoke to the media about reducing poverty, the national debt and terrorism.
And on Sept. 22, in Dayton, Ohio, Carson was paid between $15,001-$50,000 to speak to an anti-abortion group, according to his public financial disclosure. The executive director of the nonprofit that hosted Carson said the group also paid for his travel. Paul Coudron said his organization booked Carson for its annual event a year ago.
“He did have two other events in the area, as a matter of fact, that same day, much to our surprise, actually, when we found that out relatively close to the day of the event,” Coudron said. He would not disclose how much the group paid for Carson’s travel costs.
The sponsor of the speaking event cannot subsidize campaign travel, Noble said. That could jeopardize the organization’s tax-exempt status.
Carson’s spokesman, Doug Watts, said that Carson’s room and transportation to and from the anti-abortion group’s event were covered by the Washington Speakers Bureau, which booked the paid speech. And Carson’s travel to and from Dayton was paid for by the campaign.
“We segregate as much as feasible,” Watts said.
Carson has been vocal about his anti-abortion position for years and has equated abortion to slavery.
He’s made more than $600,000 speaking before 22 other anti-abortion groups in the past 22 months, according to his public financial disclosure.
In 2014 and 2015, Carson has been paid to speak at some political events as well, such as local Republican fundraisers. None of the other major presidential candidates has been paid to speak at similar events, according to an Associated Press review of candidates’ public financial disclosures.
Since Carson declared his candidacy for president, he has not been paid to speak by local political organizations. Two of these paid speeches, however, were after he announced a presidential exploratory committee in March. One paid speech was for the Cornell University Young Republicans and another was for a Hays County, Texas, Republican party fundraiser.
This is an ethical “shade of grey,” said Jim Thurber, with the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “There’s no law against it, no regulation against it, but it’s — in my opinion — ethically questionable.”
Some of the organizations that have paid Carson to speak have also contributed to his charity, the Carson Scholars Fund. The charity awards $1,000 college scholarships for 4th through 12th graders. It also funds “Ben Carson reading rooms” around the country, spaces where children can read for pleasure, typically with a poster of Carson and quotes from him on the walls.
While Carson has received praise for the Carson Scholars Fund, he started another charity that didn’t quite get off the ground. In 2002, Carson started BEN, the Benevolent Endowment Network, a nonprofit to provide financial assistance to patients without health insurance for complex medical procedures, such as neurosurgery for children. The name changed to Angels of the O.R., but there is little evidence in the charity’s tax forms that it doled out grants from the money it raised. Some years, the bulk of the money went to pay a consultant. The largest single grant was issued in 2009, $80,000 to the Baltimore Community Foundation, an umbrella organization for charity donors. That year, Carson was on the board of the charity that received the grant as well. One of the original board members, Kurt Schmoke, a former Baltimore mayor, said he never attended a board meeting. The charity recently dissolved.
Carson has also served on a number of boards, including Costco and Kellogg, which have contributed thousands of dollars to his charity.
Carson has taken a leave of absence from the board while he campaigns to be the Republican presidential nominee. But he continues to attend charity-related events. In May, after he declared his candidacy, Carson attended the annual Pittsburgh chapter’s banquet, held at Heinz Field. The next day, Carson attended another award ceremony for his charity at Battle Creek Central High School in Michigan. The charity’s website posted a picture of him at the event signing a copy of his book for teenagers, “You Have A Brain.”
The charity did not respond to questions about whether it purchased any of Carson’s books for fundraisers or whether it pays for him and his wife to travel to the awards ceremonies.
Carson was president of his charity when the nonprofit spent $21,482 in 2011 to throw him two 60th birthday parties. One of the two parties was billed as a fundraiser. But after the cost of the event, the charity only raised $5,778.
On Nov. 16, some schools around the country celebrated the annual “Ben Carson Reading Day,” a day established by the charity while Carson was serving as its president. This year, the charity commissioned a children’s book about Carson’s life, which sells for $10 on the charity’s website. The company that produced the children’s book, Main Stay Publishing, promotes it on its website as their latest product for “presidential candidate Ben Carson.” Carson’s spokesman said there was no coordination with the charity on the children’s book.
Associated Press writers Jeff Donn in Boston, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Dan Sewell in Cincinnati, Lisa Lerer, Michael Biesecker, Julie Bykowicz, Steve Peoples and researcher Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.
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