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Saturday, April 29, 2023

Truth Social whistleblower Will Wilkerson is working at Starbucks - The Washington Post

He blew the whistle on Trump’s Truth Social. Now he works at Starbucks.

"The former high-ranking executive of Trump’s media company says he’s shared 150,000 internal documents with federal investigators. Many of his new strip-mall coworkers have no idea who he is.

Will Wilkerson, a former executive for Trump Media and Technology Group, outside a Harris Teeter in North Carolina where he trains baristas at Starbucks. (Matt Ramey for The Washington Post)

SOMEWHERE IN NORTH CAROLINA — About six months ago, Will Wilkerson was the executive vice president of operations for former president Donald Trump’s media business, a co-founder of Trump’s Truth Social website and a holder of stock options that might have one day made him a millionaire.

Today, he is a certified barista trainer at a Starbucks inside a Harris Teeter grocery store, where he works 5:30 a.m. shifts in a green apron and slip-resistant shoes, making Frappuccinos for $16 an hour.

“It’s an honest day’s work,” he says, sitting near the flower kiosk of the supermarket in a North Carolina suburb, which he asked not be named due to fears of harassment. “I love what I do.”

Wilkerson, 38, has become one of the biggest threats to the Trump company’s future: a federally protected whistleblower whose attorneys say has provided 150,000 emails, contracts and other internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and investigators in Florida and New York.

Wilkerson last year publicly accused Trump Media and Technology Group of violating securities laws, telling The Washington Post he could not stay silent while the company’s executives gave what he viewed as misleading information toinvestors, many of whom are small-time shareholders loyal to the Trump brand.

The company fired him shortly after, saying he had “concocted psychodramas” but not responding to the specifics of his claims. This month, the company’s chief executive, the former Republican congressman Devin Nunes, sued Wilkerson for defamation in a Florida circuit court, claiming he had been subjected to “anxiety,” “insecurity,” “mental anguish” and “emotional distress” as a result of Wilkerson’s comments.

Wilkerson’s whistleblowing case has gained little of the attention the other legal challenges facing the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee have gotten, including the criminal charges Trump faces related to hush money payments to the adult-film actress Stormy Daniels.

But his testimony and trove of records have challenged the main engine of Trump’s post-presidential business ambitions, a venture that once commanded multibillion-dollar valuations with lofty promises to overtake the titans of American tech.

The company’s attempt to merge with a financial outfit known as a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, has been frozen for months due to a pending SEC investigation that predates Wilkerson’s public comments and has blocked the company’s ability to unlock a critical source of cash.

The SPAC, Digital World Acquisition, said in an SEC filing last month that it had replaced its chairman and chief executive, Patrick Orlando, and was facing “unprecedented headwinds.”

Orlando’s termination came one week after The Guardian cited Wilkerson’s testimony in a report alleging that federal investigators were examining whether $8 million in investments had violated money-laundering rules. Orlando did not respond to requests for comment.

The Post provided a detailed summary of this story to Trump Media and Digital World, seeking comment. Trump Media spokeswoman Shannon Devine said in a statement, “This report lazily regurgitates already discredited hit pieces, defamatory allegations, and false statistics about Truth Social’s record levels of traffic,” without addressing any specific claims. Digital World’s interim chief Eric Swider said The Post’s reporting contained “several material inaccuracies” but declined to say what they were.

On Truth Social, the social network where Wilkerson posted Trump’s first “truth” last year, he is regarded as a Judas-like traitor and pasted into memes showing his head on the body of a snake.

Will Wilkerson posted the first post, or "truth," on former president Donald Trump's Truth Social profile in February 2021. (Video: Will Wilkerson)

But at Starbucks, he said in an interview, almost no one seemed to know anything about the whole ordeal. He explained his situation to one person, his direct supervisor, who he said is a “very sweet lady, but she doesn’t really understand the legal system in the United States, you know, and what that means.”

One recent morning, the woman told a Post reporter that Wilkerson is “nice” and “calm” and pointed to a printout that suggested the cafe’s customer-service ratings had gone up since he’d begun.

“Obviously, I don’t shout from the rooftops here about my past history and my whistleblower status,” Wilkerson said. Many of his co-workers are still in high school.

Sometimes, though, he can’t prevent the two parts of his lives from intersecting. When he recently had to ask for a week off, Wilkerson told his store manager he needed the time because he was a witness in a federal investigation. (“Sounds serious,” the man replied, as Wilkerson recalled, before penciling him in.)

If the SEC takes action against Trump’s company and eventually collects sanctions, Wilkerson could be eligible to make millions of dollars through the agency’s whistleblower reward program, depending on the amount of assessed penalties. But such payouts are far from guaranteed, and it’s unclear whether it’ll make up for the money he lost by speaking out. Wilkerson’s lawyers, Phil Brewster, Patrick Mincey and Stephen Bell, argue that his firing was corporate retaliation, which is prohibited by U.S. law.

The early hype of Trump Media had made it into a financial blockbuster. An initial public offering raised $300 million for Digital World, while a group of private investors pledged another $1 billion. Investors had sent the stock price of the SPAC soaring to a high of $175 on the strength of its proposed merger with Trump Media. In September, shortly before Wilkerson’s firing, Forbes magazine had estimated that Trump’s stake in Trump Media was his “single most valuable asset,” worth roughly $730 million.

In the months since, the venture’s value has nosedived. Each Digital World share is now worth about $13. In a financial disclosure filing this month, as required by his new presidential candidacy, Trump said Trump Media was worth between $5 million and $25 million and that his income from it had been less than $200.

Still, the former president and his allies have declared Truth Social a resounding success. Nunes, the former Republican congressman who now is Truth Social’s CEO, said in an interview this month that the site is “blowing up the status quo,” and Trump said in a “truth” this month that it has allowed him to “get the word out like never before. As soon as I ‘speak’ on Truth, the WORD immediately spreads everywhere. MAGA!”

But the company, which had told investors it would reach 50 million users by 2024, appears to be only a fraction of the way there, according to the site’s own publicly visible follower data. Truth Social’s global traffic last month fell to roughly 7 million visits, 40 percent below its August peak, according to estimates from the online analytics firm Similarweb. For comparison, the video site Rumble had 169 million visits in March, and Twitter had more than 6.6 billion.

Though Trump posts to the site at all hours, his Truth Social audience has grown only slightly in the last six months, from 4 to 5 million — a tiny fraction of the 87 million who followed him on Twitter before he was banned after the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump’s Twitter account was reinstated in November after Elon Musk’s takeover, raising anxieties among Truth Social investors that he would race back to tweeting as the 2024 presidential campaign heats up. So far, however, Trump has remained true to Truth Social, despite it being only the 2,479th most popular website in the United States, according to Similarweb — viewed less often than the animal-news blog The Dodo, an AARP games webpage and, as Jimmy Kimmel noted on his late-night show, a website for photos of celebrities’ feet.

Wilkerson grew up in Los Angeles, where his grandfather, Billy Wilkerson, had been a controversial legend: The founder of the Hollywood Reporter, and owner of some of the Sunset Strip’s most famous nightclubs, he had been a chief instigator of the anti-Communist Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s that came to define America’s red scare.

Will Wilkerson got into the L.A. music scene and, after high school, promoted nu-metal bands like System of a Down, helping send around stickers and swag. The work led him to odd jobs at radio stations along the Pacific Coast and, ultimately, to a producer role at the syndication company Premiere Networks, where he met Andy Litinsky and Wes Moss, two former contestants on “The Apprentice,” the competition-reality show where Trump was host.

The three men, Wilkerson said, had kept in touch over the years, trading business ideas. When they met one weekend in Atlanta to hammer out a proposal for a portable milk-frothing device they’d called the Super Shaker Latte Maker, Litinsky said he had a better idea: Using the then-novel financial maneuver of a SPAC to fund a media company that could capitalize on Trump’s post-presidential fandom and fame.

Wilkerson helped draft the company’s first plan for “Trump’s New Media Empire,” and he was part of the team that pitched Trump over cheeseburgers at Mar-a-Lago, his opulent Palm Beach estate, three weeks after the insurrection. They promised Trump an online platform where he would never be silenced, canceled or fact-checked. What’s more, Wilkerson said, they offered him 90 percent of the company without him having to invest a single cent. (Trump’s recent disclosure filing confirmed he still owns 90 percent.)

Inside the company, Wilkerson said he became a “Swiss Army knife,” tackling the start-up’s many financial and technical demands as it sealed a partnership with Digital World, patched together a social network and navigated Trump’s unpredictable temper.

“One day, you know, he would be in a very, very happy mood,” Wilkerson said. “The next day he would read something in the paper and just yell, just be livid. That’s who we were dealing with.”

By last summer, Wilkerson’s own feelings on the company had soured, and he’d begun to worry that the same small-time investors the founders had counted on were now at serious risk. He alerted the SEC to his concerns via a whistleblower tip form in August, then spoke with The Post and the Miami Herald for stories published in October. Trump Media fired Wilkerson shortly after learning he’d spoken with a Post journalist, saying he’d made “unauthorized disclosures” to The Post.

Over the next few months, Wilkerson said he sent out hundreds of job applications, hoping to find something in tech or radio but never getting past the first few calls. He suspects the drama around his whistleblowing — and the company’s attacks on his integrity — might have persuaded employers to stay away.

In December, running out of money and options, he applied at Starbucks and got a call back the next day. Though he’d listed his Trump Media executive role on his resume, he suspects it was his past barista experience, at a Whole Foods coffee-juice bar in L.A. in his 20s, that got him the job.

Trump Media, meanwhile, has faced its own struggles. Digital World said in an SEC filing Wednesday that it is cooperating with investigations by the SEC and the Department of Justice as well as an inquiry from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority related to events from before the SPAC declared its intention to merge with Trump Media in 2021. Finra declined to comment.

With its Trump Media deal frozen by the pending investigation, Digital World blew through its initial one-year merger deadline, leading the SPAC to try and failseveral times to schedule shareholder votes to extend the deadline. Without those votes, the SPAC has forced to borrow millions of dollars from its sponsor, ARC Global Investments II, to keep the deal afloat, SEC filings show.

Trump Media has also begun pushing for help from Washington. In February, the company’s general counsel, Scott Glabe, a former Homeland Security official in the Trump administration, wrote a letter urging top Republicans in Congress to investigate the SEC for its “egregious conduct and blatant politicization” in delaying the company’s merger, saying the “endless investigation … clearly constitutes an unprecedented attempt to kill the deal without any finding of wrongdoing.”

After the Guardian’s report that federal prosecutors in New York were examining $8 million in Trump Media investments, CEO Nunes sued Wilkerson, the Guardian and a Florida journalist who had covered the story, saying Wilkerson’s goal had been “defaming Nunes” and that the report made Nunes “appear odious, ridiculous and contemptible.”

Nunes’ lawsuit argues that the journalists had published “statements that were a product of their imagination” and that “the entire story is fabricated.” Wilkerson contends that he has documents supporting key claims in the report, including the allegation that the $8 million had come from a family trust with no public profile and a bank in the Caribbean island of Dominica.

Wilkerson said his fellow executives inside the company had been uneasy about the loans because Orlando, who had helped facilitate the transfer, had declined to offer any detailed information about its origins.

In a video Will Wilkerson sent to the SEC, Digital World and Trump Media executives toast an investment deal on Oct. 26, 2021. (Video: Will Wilkerson)

In one March 2022 email, which Wilkerson has shared with investigators and The Post, Trump Media’s chief financial officer, Phillip Juhan, said that the company had no contact information for anyone at the family trust more than a month after the money had been transferred. The Trump Media spokeswoman was asked about this email but did not address it in her statement, and Juhan did not respond to a request for comment.

A few days after the report, Digital World announced in an SEC filing that its board of directors had “terminated” Orlando as its chairman and CEO and installed a new management team to help “restore confidence” to its roughly 400,000 shareholders across 30 countries.

Digital World, which lists the address of its executive offices as a UPS store in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood, said in a filing this month that it is now paying for office space in Humacao, Puerto Rico, owned by the consulting firm managed by Swider, the SPAC’s interim chief. An address listed in the letter corresponds to a gated community inside the sprawling coastal resort of Palmas del Mar. The cost, $15,000 a month, also covers “secretarial and administrative support,” Digital World told the SEC.

In its filing this week, Digital World said it had accrued more than $17 million in debts by the end of last year, up from $480,000 at the end of 2021, and that its cash on hand had dropped from more than $327,000 to about $989.

The SPAC also said it needed to complete the merger or seek further extensions by June 8 or its “existence will terminate,” in which case it would be required to return the money to shareholders. In a filing, the company said it “cannot assure shareholders that there will be sufficient funds” for the purpose of paying for its own liquidation costs or outstanding bills, and that the money in its trust account could “become subject to the claims of our creditors which would have higher priority than the claims of our public stockholders.”

Digital World’s unpaid debts could end up rolling onto the small-time, Trump-loving investors if the deal falls apart, said Michael Ohlrogge, a law professor at New York University who researches SPACs.

“The vast majority of SPACs just don’t rack up these kinds of expenses … and the shareholders could be in some danger of getting pursued by the unpaid vendors,” he said. “It could be an interesting and somewhat fitting end for Trump’s SPAC: that it ends in failure and liquidation and sticks its shareholders — presumably many or most of whom are his political supporters — with the bill.”

Wilkerson said he still looks at Truth Social sometimes, where he has a special “verified” account with 38,000 followers, and feels a pang of sadness about the way things turned out. He said he has sent messages to Litinsky and Moss, who he still regards as friends, but has yet to get a response. The men did not respond to separate requests for comment from The Post.

Wilkerson says he enjoys Starbucks: He gets to talk to nice people, likes his co-workers and doesn’t have to worry about Trump screaming at him through the phone. “I’m proud of what I do, no matter what it is,” he said. “Nothing’s beneath me.”

After a Post journalist took photos of Wilkerson at work last week, though, some of his co-workers began Googling his name and coming up to congratulate him and cheer him on. “Now most of the store knows my story,” he said.

Wilkerson expects detractors will say that he’s gotten what he deserved. On Truth Social, the user “Gi_Bill1962,” who says he is a Trump supporter and Digital World shareholder, posted a recent “truth” saying, “The backstabbing @Will Wilkerson thought he was gonna have his 15 minutes of fame!” alongside three crying-laughing emoji.

But Wilkerson said he doesn’t regret trying to protect shareholders by sharing information that, had he said nothing, “would have probably never seen the light of day.”

“I made the conscious decision. I knew the risks … especially in regards to retaliation. But I don’t think I could have sat back and stayed quiet, even if I was compensated handsomely for doing so,” he said. “I’m here and I’m not going away. … Ultimately, you know, I just want to do what’s right.”

Truth Social whistleblower Will Wilkerson is working at Starbucks - The Washington Post

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