Adam Kinzinger Quietly Stepped Away From Scandal-Plagued Ukraine Aid Group ‘Months’ Ago

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to note that the Daily Caller News Foundation verified text messages regarding Ripley’s Heroes.

Former Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger quietly stepped away from a U.S.-based company providing aid to Ukrainian forces months before media reports revealed the organization is facing federal inquiry, according to a spokesperson for CNN, where Kinzinger now works.

Kinzinger joined Ripley’s Heroes, a limited liability company founded in April 2022 by retired Lt. Col. Hunter “Rip” Rawlings to provide nonlethal aid to Ukrainian troops, as an unpaid adviser in September, according to an announcement. After other volunteers in Ukraine alleged that an executive at Ripley’s Heroes lied about his military service in Ukraine and media reports showed that Ripley’s Heroes is under federal investigation, CNN told the Daily Caller News Foundation that Kinzinger had not served on the company’s board of advisers for months.

“Adam is not on the board of advisers of Ripley’s Heroes and hasn’t been for several months,” a CNN spokesperson told the DCNF.

Kinzinger served in an advisory position and did not receive any money, according to the announcement. He met with members of Ripley’s Heroes, including Rawlings, and James Vasquez, the organization’s chief strategy officer (CSO), as early as June, tweets show.

Kinzinger previously called Vasquez a “freedom fighter” and petitioned Twitter administrators to verify Vasquez’ account, calling him “legit,” a month after lobbying PayPal to restore services for Vasquez and Ripley’s Heroes, tweets show. But Vasquez, an American Army veteran, is accused of illegally carrying weapons and misrepresenting his military service in Ukraine during the ongoing war with Russia.

Despite posting frequently on social media about his service alongside Ukrainian Armed Forces soldiers and deploying to the front lines, other volunteers who have interacted with Vasquez called him a play-actor, telling the DCNF he routinely embellished his combat activities. Vasquez called himself a “lower tier commander” and carried weapons while never officially a member of a military unit, by his own admission, according to tweets.

Ripley’s Heroes has since removed Vasquez from a page featuring descriptions of “The Heroes” the organization supports, but Vasquez’s bio is still visible on an archived version of the webpage, and Vasquez’s LinkedIn page still listed him as CSO at Ripley’s Heroes.

Ripley’s Heroes Being Investigated For Potential Illicit Transfers

Other foreign volunteers in Ukraine suggested Ripley’s Heroes lacked transparency, calling into question the organization’s integrity, according to social media posts, media reports and interviews conducted by the DCNF.

Volunteers said Ripley’s Heroes purchased $63,000 in night-vision and thermal optics, including military equipment subject to U.S. export restrictions due to their potential to aid adversarial forces, according to The New York Times.

Federal authorities initiated an investigation into the shipments, the NYT reported on March 25, citing U.S. officials. The report did not specify a timeline, only that the probe began recently. (RELATED: Watchdog Received Nearly 200 Complaints Related To Ukraine Aid)

Volunteers told the NYT that Ripley’s had delivered the equipment without supplying required paperwork documenting buyers and recipients. Rawlings provided transaction documents to the NYT showing that the State Department was not notified that Ripley’s purchased the equipment.

Export of items that have both commercial and military uses is regulated by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), according to the International Trade Administration. The State Department administers rules, known as ITAR, that control the export and sale of defense items and defense services.

Individuals wishing to export articles covered by ITAR must seek a license from the State Department, according ITAR provisions.

It is not clear from the NYT report what category of item or service Ripley’s sought to export from the U.S., and neither Ripley’s Heroes nor Rawlings himself responded to the DCNF’s multiple requests for comment. In one social post, Vasquez appears to display a U.S.-origin M4 rifle.

“The Departments of State and Defense conduct rigorous end use monitoring of sensitive U.S. equipment. Ukraine’s Armed Forces are responsible for equipping units, including with security assistance provided by partners,” a State Department spokesperson told the DCNF, referring any further questions to Ripley’s Heroes.

BIS did not respond to a request for comment.

“Not Credible”

Rawlings told the NYT in March his company had raised more than $1 million in donations so far.

In 2022, Ripley’s Heroes spent $25,000 on remote-controlled intelligence gathering vehicles, but shipping records show they never arrived, the outlet reported. Rawlings said they were stuck in Poland.

A text conversation posted online by a third party in February appears to show a volunteer referring to the reconnaissance vehicles held up in Polish customs. The individual claims that Ripley’s is “shady” and stopped working with the individual after a problem with a third party, and that Ripley’s promised to reimburse $28,000 for the undelivered equipment.

“[Ripley’s Heroes] paid over $10k on the UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles) and another $7 … on shipping to have them [sitting] in Polish customs for a month,” an individual alleged in a text conversation purported to be with Vasquez. The same message said Ripley’s had raised about $1 million total.

The DCNF was able to authenticate the messages, which appear to match the NYT’s reporting.

April Huggett, a volunteer who transports donated equipment to soldiers on the front lines, worked with Ripley’s Heroes regularly, tweets from January show. But, in March, after another volunteer made statements about Vasquez misrepresenting his service with the Ukrainian army, she put forth additional claims that she helped raise 5,000 Canadian dollars, or approximately $7,000 in American dollars, for Ripley’s Heroes to purchase a truck and was not notified of the purchase or privy to any transaction receipts.

“They give out stuff but they always lowered the number from what the request was,” Huggett told the DCNF. “So if I [sic] unit asked for [six] helmets and bullet proof vests, they would give them three.”

Ripley’s posted just one financial report on its website, in April 2022, shortly after it was incorporated, a page on the website shows. In the first month of existence, Ripley’s said it raised $248,000, of which all but a 3% transaction fee went to program-related expenses.

As of March, Ripley’s was still waiting on approval from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to designate the for-profit company as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization, Rawlings told the NYT.

However, Rawlings declined to provide spending or proof of nonprofit application, such as the Form 1023 companies must submit to the IRS that petitions for a company to shift from for-profit to non-profit, to the NYT or donors who requested it. That means it’s not clear where or how money flowing into Ripley’s Heroes is spent.

The DCNF has requested the IRS to provide a copy of any 1023 submitted on behalf of Ripley’s Heroes.

Transitioning an organization from a company to a nonprofit raises suspicion within the IRS regarding the motive of the owner, Daniel Kurtz, an attorney serving nonprofit clients, told the DCNF.

“A business can act like a charity — it can do whatever it wants to do — but its goal is to make money for its owners,” Kurtz said.

The application for tax exempt status could take several months, although the IRS at times can expedite processing in response to real-world events, and requires the founder to divest ownership of the company, he said.

But, in January, Vasquez said in a social media post was “pending” tax-exempt status in the U.S. and had achieved Ripley’s achieved “501” status in Ukraine and soon in Poland, presumably a reference to status as a tax-exempt organization. The company planned to reimburse taxes once achieving nonprofit status, Vasquez said in the tweet.

However, Kurtz said Vasquez’ explanation belies belief.

“It’s not credible,” Kurtz told the DCNF.

Moreover, Rawlings created a second company, Iron Forge Solutions, in October that is co-located with Ripley’s Heroes in Great Falls, Virginia, according to state records. Iron Forge would provide Ripley’s Heroes and other aid organizations in Ukraine with transportation, Rawlings told the NYT.

He insisted that no conflict of interest existed, even though his allegedly prospective non-profit would in theory be paying his for-profit organization for services, according to the NYT. Iron Forge would ultimately provide the money back to the charities, Rawlings explained.

“There clearly is potential for a conflict of interest” given the opportunity for Rawlings to funnel donor money from a nonprofit to a firm delivering a profit, Kurtz told the DCNF.

However, more than once Vasquez referred to Ripley’s Heroes as a “foundation,” not a company, tweets show.

Kinzinger is not the only Washington official Ripley’s Heroes or an employee of the firm sought to engage in its allegedly charitable cause.

On Oct. 28, Vasquez met with Kyle Parker, whom Congress in 2018 appointed Chief of Staff of the Helsinki Commission, a body established by Congress in 1975 that helps shape U.S. policy toward the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, according to tweets. “Discussion topics included requirements for the next Lend Lease, tactical requirements on the ground in Ukraine and ITAR regs that need to be amended,” Vasquez said.

Ripley’s Heroes did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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