Home » Mike Johnson’s Shady Finances Are Already Coming Back to Bite Him

Mike Johnson’s Shady Finances Are Already Coming Back to Bite Him

When newly minted Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson was asked on Fox News last week about why he had never reported having a bank account, Johnson didn’t offer an explanation. Instead, he hammered the point that, as “a man of modest means,” he understood the plight of normal Americans.

“I can relate to everybody else,” Johnson told Fox News Sunday’s Shannon Bream.

“We can relate to every hard-working American family,” the Louisiana Republican continued. “That’s who we are.”

A thorough review of Johnson’s financial situation, however, shows economic circumstances that hardly anyone can relate to—let alone most Americans.

The Daily Beast looked at a variety of records related to Johnson’s finances stretching back more than a decade. And that review not only undercuts Johnson’s suggestions of relatability; it also reveals irregularities in his financial disclosures and public statements about his professional life, finances, and biography.

A number of these findings also appear in a new ethics complaint from left-leaning nonprofit and transparency advocacy group End Citizens United. That complaint, which was filed with the House Ethics Committee on Monday, lays out multiple potential violations in Johnson’s financial disclosures, including undisclosed gifts and blind spots in his spouse’s income. The Daily Beast has uncovered other inconsistencies about her income, along with new irregularities regarding the source and timing of Johnson’s own earnings as a lawyer for right-wing causes. He has also filed contradictory financial statements about those earnings.

Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, provided a statement calling it “laughable” that Johnson doesn’t report any savings or retirement accounts, alleging the new Speaker’s murky disclosures are “clearly violating federal laws.”

“The American people deserve to know whether the Speaker of the House has financial conflicts of interests, but Speaker Johnson is clearly violating federal laws by hiding critical information from the public,” Muller said. “It’s laughable to believe that the person leading government funding negotiations doesn’t have a reportable savings or retirement account. But beyond his own potential financial mismanagement, failing to disclose travel and his spouse’s sources of income is against the law and the Office of Congressional Ethics must investigate and hold him accountable.”

Minutes before this story published Monday evening—and a full 24 hours after the deadline The Daily Beast provided for comment—a Johnson spokesperson called to say that, due to an internal miscommunication, the office had not had time to review the detailed questions we provided Friday afternoon. The Daily Beast will update this story if we receive comment.

Extreme wealth creates conflicts in Congress. There are no two ways around that fact. While those conflicts can be far-reaching and complex, at its core, the issue is about transparency. The public can judge whether a politician is acting in their own self-interest because the public can look at a politician’s interests.

The public can also use financial disclosures for some sense of each member of Congress’ relative wealth. While rich politicians may deserve more scrutiny, less advantaged politicians also require examination. The legal issues that have come to bear for Rep. George Santos (R-NY) largely stem from the fact that he is not wealthy, allegedly committing an array of federal crimes simply because he needed more money.

That doesn’t mean Johnson has defrauded anyone or would be susceptible to influence. However, his financial history, as reviewed by The Daily Beast, is evasive, confusing, and anything but forthright. It’s difficult for any American to understand Johnson’s financial situation—let alone relate to it—because Johnson has provided very little information.

Rep. Mike Johnson is seen outside a House Republican Conference election meeting in Longworth Building on Tuesday, October 24, 2023.

Tom Williams/Getty

He’s provided so little information, in fact, that he appears to be violating disclosure laws.

Jordan Libowitz, communications director for watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that “it’s hard to tell just how much money Johnson has made,” because his financial statements “quite literally don’t add up.”

“Everything we learn about Johnson’s finances raises more questions. When comparing his state filings to the federal ones to what’s been previously reported, things quite literally don’t add up,” Libowitz told The Daily Beast.

Libowitz also wondered why, given Johnson’s financial profile, his money doesn’t appear in his disclosures.

“It’s hard to tell just how much money Johnson has made and why, when he lives in such a low cost of living area, that money doesn’t show up in his disclosures,” he said. Libowitz noted that while Johnson is not accustomed to the kind of scrutiny he now faces as Speaker, he can’t “wave his hands and make this go away.”

“The questions will keep piling up until he answers them,” he said.

In the most general view, Johnson’s personal income—$205,000—puts him as an individual in the top 10 percent of income earners nationally. For his own constituency, he’s in the top 5 percent. Johnson also earns about seven times the median for his neighbors in Bossier Parish, Louisiana—one of the poorest states in the country with the 10th-lowest cost of living, according to 2023 government data.

Johnson’s household income, however, is more difficult to pin down. That’s partly because of omissions related to his wife’s income. Some of those omissions fall within ethics rules, but others—like failing to report the actual sources of her income and omitting a private company she owns—appear to cross certain disclosure lines.

Even without knowledge of his wife’s contributions to the household income, Johnson’s own finances are difficult to parse, largely because of his own contradictory financial statements. His cash stream over the last 15 years has been multifarious and, at times, nearly impossible to understand. Crucially, one of the most confounding periods overlaps with his election to Congress. Concurrent disclosures with the state of Louisiana, along with news reports and his own public comments, only muddy the waters more.

But, according to the End Citizens United complaint, some violations appear cut and dried.

For instance, Johnson did not report gift travel on two financial disclosures, as required. In 2020, Johnson and his wife received an $18,000 all-expenses paid trip to Israel, staying at a five-star hotel on the dime of the 12 Tribes Film Foundation. And in 2022, Johnson spoke at a religious conference in Kentucky, an April Fool’s Day trip covered by the fundamentalist Christian group Answers in Genesis. (Johnson once represented that religious group in a lawsuit.)

Johnson disclosed those gifts to House Ethics officials, as required. But when those officials approved the trips, they sent letters reminding Johnson that he needed to include the gifts on his financial disclosure that year. In both cases, he failed to report them on his annual disclosures.

A third trip—where Johnson addressed a secretive and highly influential right-wing organization, previously reported by The Daily Beast—was never disclosed at all.

Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director at government watchdog Documented, observed that some of these issues may be explainable oversights, such as forgetting to include his gift travel on his financial disclosures.

“This looks more like a careless omission than an intentional coverup,” Fischer told The Daily Beast.

But Fischer added that other potential omissions “are more serious,” like a failure to properly report assets or income, or the third trip, which was never disclosed as gift travel. Fischer emphasized that these are not petty issues to begin with—like potential conflicts of interest and sources of financial support—and accountability is all the more critical given Johnson’s ascendancy to Speaker.

“Perhaps these ethics disclosures were an overlooked afterthought when Johnson was a congressional back-bencher from a safe district. But he’s now second in line for the presidency,” he said.

“What’s so puzzling is that these are not unanswerable questions,” Fischer continued. “Does Johnson have reportable assets, or is he really living paycheck to paycheck? Who covered the costs for his 2019 Council for National Policy trip?”

While Johnson’s personal financial situation appears to lend simplicity to his disclosures—no assets, no securities, no trades, no qualifying bank accounts—that simplicity is superficial and illusory. He has held concurrent positions with several law firms and nonprofits, sometimes with undefined revenue streams. And those firms frequently have clients whose financing is often hidden behind anonymous donors, making it hard to determine the true amounts and sources of his income.

For instance, take Johnson’s first federal disclosures.

Johnson’s candidate report, submitted and then amended in June 2016, shows three sources of earned income in 2015: a $128,000 salary from Kitchens Law Firm, a $25,000 state legislature salary, and $18,000 in legal fees via his private law firm.

But in a separate section for single-source outside compensation, Johnson also claims he received more than $5,000 from two additional groups.

One of those groups was the state’s largest anti-abortion nonprofits, called Louisiana Right to Life, where Johnson served as director and legal counsel. Johnson attributed his earnings to “legal services.” However, the state legislature had ordered him not to take compensation or “anything of economic value” from that organization in February 2015, citing a conflict of interest.

Photograph of Mike Johnson with Republican colleagues.

Mike Johnson looks toward colleagues after being nominated Republican speaker of the US House of Representativesin Washington, DC on October 24, 2023.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

The order only applied to work related to lobbying the state legislature, so Johnson could theoretically have accepted payment from LRTL for other legal services. But the lack of clarity in the public record makes it impossible to know why LRTL was paying him—or how much he was paid.

For instance, Johnson’s congressional disclosures show that while he continued to get paid by that group, he reported those earnings as outside income, separate from employment income, despite his position as director and general counsel. As a result, those disclosures only reveal income from LRTL of $5,000 or more, so the public does not know how much money Johnson truly received from a group with an adjudicated conflict of interest, when he received it, or why.

But it gets murkier when his congressional disclosure is contrasted with his state disclosures covering the same time period. Unlike his federal forms, Johnson’s state disclosures list no income at all from Louisiana Right to Life in 2014, 2015 or 2016. And the group’s appearance on his federal disclosure doesn’t appear to be a mistake, because Johnson reported the earnings on his original form as well as an amended version a few days later.

That amended version added a second source alongside LRTL, claiming Johnson received yet another $5,000 or more for “legal services” from law firm Keogh, Cox and Wilson. But searches of the internet and public legal databases reveal no link between Johnson and that law firm. Further, his association with that firm does not appear on any of his state disclosures. In fact, his 2016 state disclosure specifically declares that he received less than $1,000 in outside attorney fees that year—another apparent contradiction with what he included on his federal forms.

While Johnson tried to pass off being a “constitutional lawyer” in his Fox News interview as some kind of simple, charitable endeavor, the reality is far more complicated. In fact, the very nature of Johnson’s professional choices as an attorney make it difficult to discern how much money he was making, as well as when and how he was paid—or who really paid him.

This is critical. Johnson has reported simultaneous affiliations with multiple law firms. He frequently represented nonprofit clients with hardline ideological and political agendas, backed with anonymous donors, so it is hard to see the true source of his income. And that income has sometimes been much more than Johnson has implied.

At one point, Johnson was billing $200 an hour for a state contract that quadrupled after he joined the Louisiana legislature.

For instance, Johnson’s first disclosure after his election to the House, covering 2016, revealed a handsome salary bump from Kitchens Law Firm while he was running for federal office. Johnson’s candidate disclosure had previously listed a $128,000 salary for 2014 and 2015, but when he took on the extra outside responsibilities of a congressional campaign, Kitchens paid him more than $180,000.

But Fischer noted that the $50,000 spike that year may have triggered additional reporting requirements. According to Federal Election Commission statutes, compensation paid to a candidate in excess of the amount normally received for those services is considered a contribution to the candidate.

And Johnson actually got even more money that year. In addition to that $50,000 bump, his first congressional filing disclosed a personal loan from Citizens National Bank for between $50,000 and $100,000, in July—for a combined influx of more than $100,000. On top of that, Johnson also reported receiving at least $5,000 from five other outside income sources that year, all for “legal services.” Those include LRTL and Keogh, mentioned above, along with three new entities—Whaley Law, Duncan Law, and an individual named Gayle Lee.

Johnson still didn’t list a bank account, however. And again, his state disclosure covering that same year, 2016, doesn’t reflect those payments at all, declaring less than $1,000 in “other income.”

But 2016 grows more complicated.

When Johnson filed his financial disclosure covering the 2017 calendar year, he disclosed an “attorney fee award” valued between $15,000 and $50,000. That award, however, was actually earned in 2016, according to the disclosure. Johnson described the payment as coming from his “co-counsel,” but did not specify the firm. There are at least five possibilities.

The delay means the public doesn’t know the source of a substantial amount of income Johnson earned while running for Congress—in a year where Johnson had already increased his income to an unknown extent, while he was running for Congress.

There are some clues about the possible source. One is the services he provided for Keogh, though legal database searches don’t reveal possible cases in the timeframe. Johnson’s original disclosure for 2018 also listed delayed attorney fee payments from 2016, which he attributed to Keogh. (He changed that in an amended filing.) However, the total—$2,692.26—doesn’t match the $15,000-$50,000 from 2017.

But Johnson also won sizable fees from another 2016 lawsuit that drew a great deal of public attention.

In January 2016, Johnson won a suit against the state of Kentucky on behalf of the aforementioned Christian extremist group, Answers in Genesis. As a result, the state paid Answers in Genesis $190,000 in attorney fees. In an interview transcript posted online, Johnson touted the $18 million tax rebate that he won for the group, referencing a “nice little attorney fee award for our non-profit.”

While that might answer one question, it raises another—which nonprofit?

Johnson’s legal work is inseparable from some of the clients he represented. Many clients were taken with clearly stated religious, ideological, and political goals.

While Answers in Genesis likes to promote itself as a nonprofit, it’s actually a messier operation. Its owner also controls for-profit companies, both of them related directly to the Noah’s Ark theme park at the center of Johnson’s lawsuit. Answers in Genesis’ tax filings show dramatic changes for one of those private companies after the lawsuit. In June 2015, “Ark Encounter LLC” held $13.3 million in assets, which dropped to $676,000 over the next year, but then the following year surged to $25 million.

That company’s earnings exploded after the lawsuit, which, again, was a dispute over an $18 million state government tax rebate. The company posted essentially no revenue in 2014 or 2015, then earned $22 million between June 2016 and 2017, and $40 million between June 2017 and 2018. Johnson personally characterized this effort as being solely about religious freedom.

As the End Citizens United complaint notes, Johnson received gift travel to speak at an Answers in Genesis conference in 2022, but did not list it on his financial disclosure.

Johnson’s own role in that lawsuit, however, is also complicated. That’s because he wasn’t representing them as the Office of Mike Johnson, but as his own nonprofit. Johnson ran a public interest legal consortium called “Freedom Guard,” which he described in state disclosures as “non-compensated” pro bono work. (In August 2015, Johnson said, “Our attorneys are standing by to defend your ministries and your freedoms pro bono!”) And Freedom Guard argued that lawsuit on behalf of Answers in Genesis.

Although Freedom Guard registered as a nonprofit with the state of Louisiana, the entity does not appear in Internal Revenue Service searches or in other robust public nonprofit databases. If the group has filed any federal financial disclosures stating its revenue and expenses, they aren’t readily available. While Johnson has disclosed his position with Freedom Guard, he has never disclosed income from the group.

Freedom Guard’s website—FreedomGuardNOW.org—was captured dozens of times in internet archives, as far back as March 2014. But aside from the page’s title listing Johnson by name, those archived pages are blank. The address now redirects to a gambling website.

Johnson was juggling his pro bono work with another religious legal job. In July 2010, Johnson was named founding dean for a Christian law school that never opened its doors. He commanded a salary large enough that the president of the college, Louisiana College, reportedly had to give himself a raise to $198,556 in order to out-earn Johnson.

Later in 2010, Johnson refinanced his home mortgage twice within five months, according to Caddo Parish property records, then took out another $70,000 line of credit in June 2011. That line of credit, as well as one of the mortgages, was also from Citizens National Bank.

At the time, Johnson was fundraising for Louisiana College. It spent millions on the doomed law school, which never got accredited—a problem the president pinned on Johnson.

“The President stated that M. Johnson, Esq. did not complete the College’s 2012 level change application to [the accreditation board] timely or correctly, and that M. Johnson, Esq., was the reason the level change request was denied,” a board member for Louisiana College wrote in a Dec. 5, 2012 letter.

Johnson resigned in August 2012, then got out of town, at least briefly. He accepted a job with another conservative Christian nonprofit—The Liberty Institute, based in Plano, Texas—and in December 2012, Johnson and his wife bought a home in the area, according to Collin County real estate records. But two months later they bought another home in Shreveport and offloaded the Collin County property.

Most of the violations named in the End Citizens United complaint involve Johnson’s wife, Kelly Johnson, and The Daily Beast has independently uncovered additional irregularities.

The complaint notes that Johnson’s disclosures sometimes appear to omit sources of his wife’s income, in violation of ethics rules. The complaint also alleges that Johnson omitted his wife’s stake in her private company, another potential violation.

The Daily Beast found other discrepancies. For instance, Johnson’s 2019 disclosure says his wife received $36,400 from her nonprofit, “Onward Christian Education Services.” However, the group’s tax filing covering that same calendar year says that her OCES income was $50,026.

Additionally, the group did not file its first two annual tax statements (2019 and 2020) until June 2022—despite having registered as a nonprofit with the state of Louisiana in 2019, and despite Johnson reporting her salary from the group on his own federal forms for both years.

The nonprofit also appears to function primarily as a salary generator for Kelly Johnson.

Photograph of Hakeem Jeffries handing the Speaker gavel to Mike Johnson.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries hands the gavel to newly elected Speaker of the House Mike Johnson after the House of Representatives held an election in the U.S. Capitol on October 25, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Over the last four years, she has earned $162,076 from Onward Christian Education Services, tax filings show. Kelly Johnson’s salary accounts for 85 percent of the group’s total expenses. The group has reported between $50,000 and $70,000 in donations annually, but because the nonprofit does not disclose its donors, it’s unclear who is funding her salary.

Kelly Johnson handles the group’s books and signs the tax forms. She blamed the failure to file in 2019 and 2020 on a “communication gap and misunderstanding of the filing requirements,” telling the IRS that OCES functions as an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, but “upon review we realized the organization may not meet a sufficient number of the criteria.”

It’s unclear why the group didn’t file independent tax returns for those years, when Mike Johnson’s own disclosures attributed his wife’s salary to Onward Christian Education Services—not the Southern Baptist Convention.

But Kelly Johnson also controls a separate private company with a similar name, called “Onward Christian Counseling Services.” The company is not listed as a subsidiary of the nonprofit, and it was created in 2017—two years before the nonprofit—business records show. While those business filings say the company is headquartered at the Johnsons’ church, it functioned as his wife’s personal entity.

“If Speaker Johnson’s wife’s interest in the Company is valued at more than $1,000 or generated more than $200 in unearned income, he is required to disclose that interest on his PFDs,” the ECU complaint says, noting that Johnson has never disclosed her interest in this entity, and “has never reported a single asset held by his spouse in any of the eight reports he has filed.”

For years, the LLC’s website—which was taken down late last month—boasted that she “maintains a busy speaking schedule.” Those engagements have included “addressing church groups, women’s conferences and large public events on a variety of relevant and timely topics,” the site said. “Contact us today to book your next event. (Fee may varies [sic] depending upon event size, length and topics.)”

The suggestion that she has earned money for speaking through her private company raises ethics concerns, according to the End Citizens United complaint. Congressional filers must disclose the source, type, and amount of their spouse’s “honoraria”—including speaking fees—if it totaled $200 or more in a year. But Mike Johnson has never disclosed honoraria payments to his wife.

“Together, these statements strongly suggest that the Speaker’s wife has received reportable payments for her speaking engagements and thus, Speaker Johnson should have reported those payments as honoraria,” the complaint states.

ECU also noted that if Kelly Johnson’s stake in her company is greater than $1,000 and earns her more than $200 annually, that stake must be disclosed. But the LLC doesn’t appear on any of Mike Johnson’s disclosures. While it’s possible that the LLC income is listed as her self-employment, that would indicate she had no income at all from the company in 2022. It might also overlap and conflict with the nonprofit’s own statements about her income.

But Kelly Johnson has also worked for another nonprofit—the same one that created a conflict of interest for her husband.

In 2018, Kelly Johnson took over her husband’s former role as LRTL’s north Louisiana director. The next year, however, she scaled back to an advisory position, and is still listed as North Louisiana Advisor on the group’s website. (Archived Nov. 4.)

Johnson’s disclosures, however, don’t show LRTL as a source of his wife’s income for the years 2018 through 2020. That only appeared in 2021 and 2020. However, Johnson chose not to disclose the amount she earned—which, according to ethics rules, is his right.

Fischer, of Documented, said that Johnson should “own his mistakes” and correct any issues in his prior reports.

“It’s not like these ethics issues are trivial or highly personal matters—the public has a legal right to this information, and elected officials have a legal obligation to provide it,” he said. “Giving evasive answers and blaming the media for asking questions isn’t going to make these issues go away.”


November 2023