FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
Contact: Becky Timmons | firstname.lastname@example.org, (218) 206-4926
This week, as the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, True North Research is releasing its newest tally of the money raised by the court capture network tied to right-wing operative Leonard Leo. In all, these groups raised more than half a billion dollars, nearly $600 million, to capture the Supreme Court and other courts and to reshape the law since 2014 — since before Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in early 2016 through the year Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed in 2020.
Much of that money was spent to reshape the bench and the law, including keeping President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, from being confirmed to the Court in 2016, and pushing for the confirmations of three very controversial nominees of Donald Trump: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, who have swung the Court to the far right.
Last month, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) referenced our tally from prior IRS filings, $400 million, but with new data about 2020 revenue, we can say with confidence that the figure raised by Leo-tied groups is more than $580 million. This does not include any of money raised by those groups in 2021 in anticipation of a Court vacancy under President Joe Biden. IRS filings showing fundraising by Leo-connected groups in 2021 will not be known until November of this year, and the revenue of his new for-profit enterprise is not required to be publicly disclosed.
“The Leo-tied Judicial Crisis Network is buying ads claiming progressives are using dark money to capture the Court, but that is a supremely hypocritical attack,” said Evan Vorpahl, a Senior Researcher at True North Research who tallied the funds of Leo’s web of groups, noting: “Sen. Whitehouse correctly called this right-wing spin ‘squid ink’ that confuses the public about the reality that Leo’s umbrella of dark money groups has already captured a majority on the Court.”
Lisa Graves, the Executive Director of True North, added: “No one but Leonard Leo and his secret funders knows how much he helped raise or has deployed in opposition to Judge Brown Jackson’s nomination, but the attack ads show it is no small sum.” She also stated: “Leo has told funders that the faction he helped choose for the Court is poised to reverse important legal precedents. In my view, the faction is intent on reversing the reproductive freedom of American women, limiting the power of the EPA to regulate carbon as climate change worsens, and crushing the ability of federal courts to protect Americans’ freedom to vote. It is truly regressive.”
She also noted that groups supporting Judge Brown Jackson are not trying to reverse a century of precedent, in contrast to Leo’s. His groups have been fueled by secret donors who apparently prefer judicial activists who will reverse legal precedents they dislike, not neutrals like Justice David Souter, whom right-wing elites loathed because he did not deliver the results they wanted.
As part of today’s release, True North is also providing an appendix of key information about the groups that are part of the tally, including information about their agenda to reverse legal precedents that millions of Americans rely upon. Notably, True North has documented how some of the same groups that praised Trump’s promise to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court have predictably decried President Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Court. True North will be tracking the claims made by these groups and their cohorts in ads and earned media, and will be posting more key findings on its site and in its Substack newsletter.
In the accompanying appendix, True North updates the tally of the revenue originally calculated by the Washington Post in its investigation of Leo’s web. The new tally builds on prior research by True North, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), and the Post. This update provides a window into the well-financed machine that is now weaponized against Judge Brown Jackson.
At the time of the Post’s initial investigation in 2019, its investigative team found that the court capture network tied to Leo had raised more than $250 million. That figure did not include the sums raised by those groups in 2018, when the controversial Brett Kavanaugh was pushed through to the Court in one of the closest votes in U.S. history. Last year’s tally of more than $400 million similarly did not have access to the figures raised by those groups the year that Amy Coney Barrett was rushed through to the Court right before the 2020 presidential election.
That tally was prepared by True North and CMD for the testimony of Lisa Graves to the Senate Judiciary Committee. She is the President of CMD’s Board and Executive Director of True North Research. She previously served as the Chief Counsel for Nominations for the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the U.S. Courts, and as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice where she was the staff leader of DOJ’s Working Group on Judicial Selection, among other posts.
Her research and analysis have played a significant role in the debates over the nominations of Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett, and she is also featured in Jackie Calmes’ new book, “Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court.”
True North Research is a watchdog group launched in 2020, which focuses on corporations and right-wing groups that are trying to capture the courts and influence public opinion. Its leader and research team has expertise in analyzing the Leo network, the political empire of billionaire Charles Koch, and the growth of right-wing women’s groups distorting public opinion. Follow them on Substack and Twitter @itstruenorth. Alyssa Bowen, Julia Peck, and Ansev Demirhan contributed to this report.
Who Is Leonard Leo? Leo has been at the forefront of efforts to capture our federal judiciary for more than two decades. He sits at the hub of an opaque network of dark money-funded groups that have accomplished a right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court. Leo helped create the list of potential Supreme Court nominees Trump chose from, including working with White House Counsel Don McGahn to put Amy Coney Barrett in contention for the Supreme Court, as detailed in a book co-authored by Carrie Severino, the public face of the Judicial Crisis Network (more below). At a Federalist Society event as Kavanaugh’s nomination was pending, Clarence Thomas joked that Leo was the third most powerful person in America. Leo even had a photo with Kavanaugh that was captioned “Who’s the Boss?” displayed in his Federalist Society office.
A “Volunteer,” with Big Benefits? Leo helped block Democrats from filling the vacancy created by Scalia’s death in February 2016. He also worked with Trump to name a slate of Federalist Society-linked Supreme Court candidates during the 2016 election campaign, and he then aided Trump’s White House as a “volunteer.” Thus Leo was not required to file the kind of financial disclosures a federal employee would have to, revealing other income or any conflicts of interest. Leo’s role in capturing the Court has seemingly been a boon to his personal finances: the summer that Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, Leo paid off his 30-year home mortgage – 22 years ahead of schedule – and on the day cloture was invoked to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, he closed on a mansion in Maine worth more than $3 million. Leo has hosted Clarence and Ginni Thomas at that mansion, raised funds for Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) there, and entertained right-wing operatives tied to his court capture operation.
“Moneybags.” In a foreshadowing reminiscent of the film Body Heat, Leo’s “high school yearbook lists his nickname as the ‘Moneybags kid’ and shows a photograph of him holding a handful of cash,” as the Post noted. Leo has paid for gourmet meals for officials who are friends and helped arrange then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s dinner parties in Rome. Even Ginni Thomas has gushed about how much Leo has taught them about fine dining and wine. She made those remarks at a United in Purpose (UIP) event. It was created by convicted fraudster Bill Dallas, who made his fortune in Christian broadcasting. (Dallas no longer heads UIP.)
“He Has Many Hats … He Doesn’t Really Tell All That He Does…” Here are Ginni Thomas’ words about Leo, when she chose him to receive an award she helped create for UIP:
“I also love… Leonard Leo. Leonard Leo is with The Federalist Society. He is the reason there is a conservative legal movement across the country that has lawyers and judges who find their way to sessions where they learn things and where they get elevated. Leonard Leo has single-handedly changed the face of the judiciary under the auspices of Ed Meese and many of the people who started the Federalist Society. He has many hats, that isn’t even all he does. He doesn’t really tell all that he does, but I know enough to know the man is a force of nature. So he’s a disciplined strategist. He’s a wonderful father. Sally is a wonderful mother. They have such an amazing family. He’s an amazing cook and he knows food and wine. You should be around him more. He’s a mentor to me. A hero. Leonard Leo. Come get an award.” (emphasis added)
A Radical Revolutionary. As Ginni raved, Leo has played a singular role in a legal revolution, funded by Charles Koch and other billionaires, that threatens to reverse a century of legal precedents that helped protect the rights of modern Americans. In 2019, Leo described his success to funders at the Council for National Policy (CNP), a right-wing group founded by hard-line religious evangelicals, where he currently sits on the board of governors. Leo said:
“I think we stand at the threshold of an exciting moment in our republic. The revival of our structural constitution by the U.S. Supreme Court, a revival in those very important principles of limited, constitutional government… And this is really, I think in recent memory, a newfound embrace of limited constitutional government in our country. I don’t think this has really happened since probably before the New Deal, which means no one in this room has probably experienced the kind of transformation that I think we are beginning to see.”
Leo’s Personal Agenda: Anti-Abortion, Anti-Regulation, and More. One significant component of Leo’s agenda is to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and related precedents about personal privacy. He “figured out twenty years ago that conservatives had lost the culture war. Abortion, gay rights, contraception — conservatives didn’t have a chance if public opinion prevailed. So they needed to stack the courts… The Christian right has been written about a lot, but hardly anyone talks about the Catholic right… Four Supreme Court justices — they’re more successful than anybody,” according to Tom Carter, who was Leo’s comms director when Leo chaired the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Now six of the nine justices are Catholic; five are in the right-wing faction controlling the Court.
They are poised to advance his agenda in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case pending before the Supreme Court about a law barring abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy with no exception for rape. “It is not an understatement to say this is the case pro-life conservatives have been waiting for. It’s why many in our movement willingly shed blood in the vicious fight for the confirmations of Kavanaugh, Barrett, and Gorsuch… We have played the long game for the last 50 years. And we have finally arrived at the decision point,” wrote Rachel Bovard in “If Kavanaugh And Barrett Betray Pro-Lifers, We Must Blow Up The Conservative Legal Movement.” That was posted by the Federalist, which is led by Mollie Hemmingway, the co-author of a book about the Kavanaugh nomination, co-written by Severino, mentioned above.
Dobbs is not the only currently pending case where Leo’s court-packing could pay off for his backers. The Supreme Court is considering West Virginia v. EPA, which could destroy the power of federal agencies to regulate carbon emissions under the guise of restoring the so-called “structural constitution,” the invented “doctrine” Leo touted in his speech to CNP. Restricting the EPA’s power to mitigate climate change is a long-standing goal of Carbon billionaire Charles Koch, a longtime mega-funder of Leo’s flagship organization, the Federalist Society. After Trump won, Koch specifically touted to his billionaire network that he was working with the Federalist Society and others on his “under the dome” strategy to get Trump’s judicial nominees confirmed in order to restore the “rule of law.” That is the term of art Koch has used to describe Leo’s “structural constitution,” which is a construct that aids the fiction that reversals of judicial precedents that they do not like somehow do not count as “judicial activism” but instead sanctify the legitimacy of rolling back legal rules to when U.S. law was dominated by robber barons.
The Tally of Leo’s Web of Court Capture Groups
Methodology: In May 2019, the Washington Post‘s Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boberg exposed Leo as the central figure behind various organizations within a network working to capture the courts and remake U.S. law. At that time, the Post’s estimate was that this network had raised $250M between 2014 and 2017 to pack the court and shift the law to the right, money raised before the Kavanaugh nomination.
Last year, True North Research’s Lisa Graves testified before the Senate and detailed how Leonard Leo’s operation had raised over $400 million. This tallied the total revenue of the same organizations that The Washington Post used in their analysis, plus the Rule of Law Trust financial disclosure information, which became publicly known after the Post’s exposé on Leo.
The new updated tally that True North Research is releasing is based on the most recent available IRS filings.This new tally finds that from 2014 through 2020 Leo’s network had at least $580 million at its disposal to capture the Supreme Court and other courts and reshape the law.
This figure includes the total revenue of these same groups listed in their 2019 and 2020 tax filings, when available. Because the Concord Fund’s 2020 990 is not publicly available, True North used the group’s 2020 political spending, which was recently reported as $45.6 million in the New York Times. The updated tally also subtracts known grants made from groups in this network to each other so as not to double count revenues.
“[Leo] has many hats, that isn’t even all he does. He doesn’t really tell all that he does…”
–Ginni Thomas (2017)
Leo’s Web of Court Capture Groups. The array of Leo-tied groups can be viewed as overlapping elements of a strategy to capture the Court and law and to maintain that capture against appointments not aligned with Leo’s wish list. These groups have deployed an array of legal names and fictional names, as well as disposable names. Some of the original groups in the tally have been legally disbanded but their function in Leo’s growing empire appears to have been replaced by a new brand name. The core components, along with known revenue, are:
For-Profit Arms. These allow Leo’s true income from aiding his billionaire backers to be legally hidden from the disclosures that would be required if he were paid through a non-profit:
- CRC Advisors (total revenue unknown/undisclosed)
- BH Group LLC (total revenue unknown/undisclosed)
Non-Profit Arms that Primarily Function as Pass-Throughs. Another component of Leo’s web is the set of non-profit groups that provide a means for donors connected to Leo to make secret tax-deductible donations to pools of funds that he and his cronies can pass-through to other groups that play specific roles in the effort to capture the courts and reshape the law:
- Wellspring Committee 2014-2018 revenue: $68.3M from undisclosed sources
- Rule of Law Trust 2018-2020 revenue: $83.7M
- BH Fund 2017-2019 revenue: $24.7M
- Freedom and Opportunity Fund 2016-2018 revenue: $11.5M
- America Engaged 2017-2020 revenue: $9.33M
Non-Profit Arms that Take Public Positions on Nominations and Legal Policies. These groups receive funds from those pass-throughs and then play a direct role in backing judicial nominees blessed by Leo (no matter how controversial) and attacking Democratic nominees to the Supreme Court or helping to remake the legal policy landscape. This includes:
Primary/general Leo groups deploying efforts to influence courts and law:
- Concord Fund/Judicial Crisis Network/Free to Learn Action July 2014-June 2020 revenue: $121.9M. (Plus 2020 spending, per the New York Times: $45.6M)
- 85 Fund/Judicial Education Project/Honest Elections Project/Law and Policy Forum/Free to Learn revenue 2014-2020: $129.37M
Specialized Leo-tied groups that focus on key issue areas or tactics, such as rallying anti-choice activists around courts or elections, advancing an anti-regulatory agenda, or advancing other parts of the right-wing agenda:
- Students for Life 2014-2020 revenue: $51M, Students for Life Action 2019 revenue: $521K
- The Catholic Association 2014-2018, 2020 revenue: $2.4M
- The Catholic Association Foundation 2014-2020 revenue: $28.5M
- Federalist Society October 2014- September 2020 revenue: $131.5M
- Reclaim NY 2014-2017 revenue: $5.6M
Non-Profit Vehicles Not in the WaPo Tally But Playing Key Roles. These include:
- Article 3 Project 2019 revenue: $259K (This is not included in the tally.)
- Independent Women’s Forum/Independent Women’s Voice 2014-2020 revenue: $20.3M (IWF) and $18.5M (IWV) (This is not included in the tally.)
- Becket October 2014- September 2020 revenue: $37.28M (This is not included in the tally.)
“[Leo] has many hats, that isn’t even all he does. He doesn’t really tell all that he does…”
–Ginni Thomas (2017)
1. Leo’s For-Profit Arms
Leo launched “CRC Advisors” (CRCA) in January 2020 with his long-time friend and ally Greg Mueller, who led the PR firm Creative Response Concepts (CRC). They described the new venture as building on CRC’s communications work, along with advising major donors and campaigns about how to “win.” In addition to the for-profit CRCA, according to Axios, Leo and Mueller intended to deploy two newly renamed non-profits, “the Concord Fund and the 85 Fund, to funnel tens of millions of dollars into conservative fights around the country.” (Those two funds are discussed below.) CRCA, which is based in Northern Virginia, also filed paperwork to operate under the names CRC Public Relations and CRC Strategies.
Both before and after Leo became an official part of the firm, Mueller’s PR work was paid handsomely by many organizations in Leo’s orbit, as they supported Trump’s picks from Leo’s list for the Supreme Court, and more. For example:
- According to the Washington Post, CRC acted as a “media consultant” for the Judicial Crisis Network’s activities supporting Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court and later touted “that online videos, television ads, pundit commentary, opinion essays and other material supporting Gorsuch had been viewed 1.2 billion times.”
- CRC was involved in promoting Ed Whelan’s attempted smear of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified that Kavanaugh had attempted to sexually assault her (and he denied it).
- CRC Public Relations also registered the URL “confirmamy.us” in July 2018, which redirects to “confirmamy.com,” a site that highlights JCN’s ads pushing her confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- CRC/CRCA and their leaders also have long ties to defending Clarence and Ginni Thomas, including promoting the Justice’s memoir. The companies also own a number of URLs about Thomas, such as “clarencethomas.org” and “justicethomas.us.”
CRC’s known past clients include the Federalist Society when Leo was its Vice President, as well as Koch’s Americans for Prosperity. CRC has deep financial ties to key Leo groups:
- In 2020, Leo’s 85 Fund paid more than $12M to CRC Advisors.
- The Catholic Association Foundation paid CRC nearly $1M between 2016 and 2020 (and it also paid Leonard Leo $240K for consulting in 2018 and 2019).
- In 2019, Leo’s Concord Fund paid CRC public relations over $4M.
- America Engaged has paid Creative Response Concepts $1.5M since 2016.
- In 2017, Leo’s BH Fund paid Creative Response Concepts $400K.
- Leo’s Freedom and Opportunity Fund paid CRC/Creative Response Concepts $850K from 2016 through 2017.
- And, among other things, since 2014, CRC has been paid $9M by the Federalist Society.
CRCA’s revenue from 2020 to date is unknown, and how much Leo has paid himself through his CRCA is also not public.
BH Group LLC
BH Group is a private LLC consulting firm created following the death of Scalia. As of the last known report about its ownership, at least 35% of it has been owned by Leo, who also listed BH Group as his employer in an FEC filing.
BH Group was also revealed to be the “mystery donor” behind a $1 million contribution to the Trump Inaugural Committee to help underwrite his inauguration parties. However, the true, original donor of that seven-figure sum is unknown to the public though it is likely known to BH Group, its owners, and possibly Trump. Leo began advising Trump in 2016.
Between 2016 and 2018 BH Group received $4M cumulatively from other Leo-tied groups: the Judicial Crisis Network, the Judicial Education Project, and the Wellspring Committee. In 2018, another Leo-tied group called “Rule of Law Trust” also paid BH Group $4M. In 2019, BH Group pulled in nearly $1.6M from Concord Fund and $935K from the 85 Fund.
Some of BH Group’s funders are known because non-profit groups are required to disclose their major contractors or grants. However, key groups passing money to BH Group are groups that front for undisclosed funders, keeping secret the names of funders that give them large sums that they in turn give to BH Group.
BH Group is a private, for-profit LLC that does not disclose its revenue and it does not disclose how much Leo has made from its activities.
It does not have any public presence sufficient to ascertain if it is involved or not in the attacks on Biden’s Supreme Court nominee. BH Group has had no website or social media presence.
2. The Fundraising/Pass-Through Groups Tied to Leo
Wellspring Committee (Defunct)
The Wellspring Committee was a 501(c)(4) controlled by Neil and Ann Corkery, which funded the Judicial Crisis Network to the tune of $50M during the Garland, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh nominations until it shut down operations in December 2018 after investigative reporting exposed that it had a massive secret donor or donors.
Wellspring was created by Ann Corkery in 2008, and it secured early and substantial funding from Charles Koch’s network of billionaires before that it was rebranded “Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce” and then the “Seminar Network.” It is now called “Stand Together.”
Following Scalia’s death, the Wellspring Committee’s annual revenue shot up from just over $9M to over $32M in 2016, with $28.4M of that from a single donor. Wellspring then turned around and pumped the Judicial Crisis Network with $38M between 2016 and 2017.
Rule of Law Trust
After the Wellspring Committee shut down operations, a new major funder of the Judicial Crisis Network was created: a new 501(c)(4) calling itself the Rule of Law Trust (ROLT), which was formed by Neil Corkery and which listed Leo as the sole trustee.
In 2020, CREW obtained a 990 of ROLT that reported over $80M in revenue in 2018, its first year of operation. Nearly all of its $2.7M in expenses went to Leo’s BH Group, LLC (the for-profit entity co-owned by Leo). Other paid contractors were Jonathan Bunch, a former senior leader of the Federalist Society who has worked closely with Leo on judicial appointments and joined CRCA with him. Another $300K went to “YAS LLC,” a group registered to Maria Marshall, a vice president of CRCA, another former Federalist Society employee, and a board member of the Orthodox Christian Network.
The following year, in 2019, ROLT began with more than $77M in the bank and it reported raising exactly zero dollars. It gave grants to another Leo-tied group called America Engaged (more below). It also used some of its secret funding to fund a project of the State Policy Network called “People United for Privacy,” which was launched to aid the right-wing effort to shield contributors to nonprofits from public disclosure. It also received $500K from Wellspring in 2018.
In 2020, ROLT gave out more than $36M in three grants, including over $21M to the Judicial Crisis Network, which is now heavily attacking Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. The other two large, multi-million dollar grants went to DonorsTrust, which was created to keep right-wing donors secret, and Fidelity Charitable, which keeps donors secret upon their request. In 2020, Leo’s “85 Fund” received a massive amount of funding, $48M, from DonorsTrust, which could have come in part from ROLT or could have come from other sources. The source is secret.
BH Fund is a 501(c)(4) registered in 2016, launched with a mysterious $24M contribution. Leo is its president and former Federalist Society vice president Jonathan Bunch is its treasurer. The purpose of BH Fund is not totally clear, but it appears that it was loaded with cash in 2017 which it then disbursed, primarily to other Leo groups over the following two years.
After receiving its initial $24M, the group barely raised any money in 2018 and 2019. BH Fund provided 100 percent of the budget for America Engaged in 2017 and nearly half its 2018 budget, and also transferred a large sum to the Freedom and Opportunity Fund in 2017. In 2019 BH Fund gave $6M to the Judicial Crisis Network and another $5.5M to the Fidelity Charitable Fund, a donor-advised fund that numerous right-wing groups, including groups in Leo’s network, have used as a vehicle that obscures the money trail between organizations and individuals.
Additionally, UnKoch My Campus revealed that Leo coordinated a $10M grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to George Mason to rename its law school after Antonin Scalia in 2016. BH Fund was behind an additional $20M contribution, but the identity of that donor has not been publicly confirmed. UnKoch’s researcher has stated that evidence suggests the donor was Barre Seid, a Chicago industrialist who has funded Leo’s agenda and is also connected to Leo through the “Chicago Freedom Trust.” These donations have ensured that Leo has significant control over curriculum, hiring, and directing some expenditures at this public law school.
BH Fund’s 2020 IRS filing is not publicly available, though it has been requested from the IRS, but the two years prior show that the group appears to have scaled down, with just $47K in revenue in 2019. As of this writing, BH Fund is listed as pending inactive in Virginia.
BH Fund appears to be another disposable pass-through vehicle temporarily deployed by Leo and his allies. Its IRS filings show that it was related to the Freedom and Opportunity Fund.
Freedom and Opportunity Fund (Defunct)
The Freedom and Opportunity Fund was a 501(c)(4) that expressly described itself as a sponsor of Donor Advised Funds. It launched in 2016, with Leo listed as its president. The Freedom and Opportunity Fund filed its last tax filing in 2018.
The group appears to have operated as a vehicle for funds to make their way to right-wing groups pushing through Trump’s judicial nominees. It was a major funder of the “Independent Women’s Voice” (IWV), which backed Trump’s Supreme Court nominations. The Freedom and Opportunity Fund gave IWV $2M in 2016 and another $2M in 2017.
IWV and its related “Independent Women’s Forum” (IWF) have also received recent funding from the 85 Fund and the Judicial Crisis Network. IWF/IWV came to the defense of Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of attempting to sexually assault Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
The Freedom and Opportunity Fund’s IRS filing noted that it was related to America Engaged.
America Engaged is a 501(c)(4) registered in 2016. Leo is on the board of directors and is the group’s president, and Neil Corkery holds the books. Other directors, per its 2020 non-profit tax filing, are C. Boyden Gray, Todd Graves, and Jonathan Bunch. The group is listed as related to the Freedom and Opportunity Fund.
America Engaged has scaled down its operations, its revenue has decreased from $5M in 2018 to just over $200K in 2020.
America Engaged seems to have primarily functioned as a pass-through for funds to other right-wing groups supporting Leo’s handpicked nominees to the Supreme Court. It gave more than $4M to Koch’s Freedom Partners, which strongly supported Trump nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. It also gave nearly $1M to the National Rifle Association as it backed Gorsuch. It also provided funding to Susan B. Anthony List (referenced further below), an anti-choice group active in court battles that has been funded in part by the Leo network.
3. Advocacy/Policy Groups in Leo’s Court Capture Ensemble
Core Leo Groups
Concord Fund/Judicial Crisis Network
Leo’s “Concord Fund” got its start as the “Judicial Confirmation Network” (JCN). As True North Research has previously documented, after the 2004 election, JCN was conceived at a small dinner party Leo attended with Neil Corkery and others. including Justice Antonin Scalia. It was created in anticipation of the Supreme Court vacancies that George W. Bush ultimately filled with Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Corkery was one of three original board members, with Gary Marx (a Ralph Reed operative) and James Hirsen (an advisor to Mel Gibson’s splinter Catholic sect, which has been led by Gibson’s father). Corkery has acted as a treasurer of several Leo-linked groups, in addition to helping to lead the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.
JCN was originally based out of the home of Neil and Ann Corkery, close allies of Leo. Later renamed “Judicial Crisis Network,” the group became known as the Concord Fund during Leo’s reshuffling in January 2020. The Concord Fund still uses the legal alias “Judicial Crisis Network,” which continues to be the public face of the organization and is led by attorney and former Clarence Thomas law clerk Carrie Severino.
JCN recently announced a $2.5 million ad campaign painting Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as a “liberal activist” backed by what it calls progressive “dark money” groups. Severino has also argued that Jackson should promise to recuse herself from the Harvard University case on affirmative action. Severino has also asserted that Congress should not rush Jackson’s nomination process, even though she made no such demands when Republicans rammed through Coney Barrett’s nomination right before the 2020 presidential election.
In 2018, the Daily Beast reported that JCN operated alongside the Federalist Society’s offices, where Leo was Vice President. JCN has functioned as the go-to defender of Federalist Society nominees to the federal bench, and has played a leading role as a key attack dog on Biden and Obama judicial appointments. Leo’s former media director Tom Carter said, “JCN is Leonard Leo’s PR organization, nothingmore and nothing less.”
“JCN is Leonard Leo’s PR organization, nothing more and nothing less.”
After Trump took office, JCN swelled with cash, primarily via one dark money source, the Wellspring Committee.
Notably, in 2019, the Concord Fund paid CRC over $4M, and also paid BH Group nearly $1.6M and Ann Corkery $270K. Concord’s 2020 IRS filing is not yet available, but the New York Times listed the Concord Fund as one of the ten largest spending nonprofits aligned with the GOP and reported that it spent $45.6M in 2020. It is not clear how much money it raised that year.
Concord Fund has also been a key funder of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which help elect Republican AGs and state Supreme Court justices. RAGA infamously helped organize the “March to Save America” political rally preceding the January 6th insurrection. (Concord Fund has also filed a fictitious name certificate in June 2021 to operate as the “Free to Learn Action,” which has helped drive the frenzy over so-called “Critical Race Theory.”)
85 Fund/Judicial Education Project
The 85 Fund is another 501(c)(3) entity tied to Leo and led by Severino, which was formally created by Neil Corkery. Senator Whitehouse has called it the “corporate twin” of JCN.
Historically the group, which formerly went by the name “Judicial Education Project,” has filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in Severino’s name. These briefs sided with Republicans and the Trump administration on issues like abortion, climate change, the Affordable Care Act, and the Voting Rights Act. In January 2020, Leo rebranded JEP as the “85 Fund.”
The 85 Fund has also filed legal aliases for the group to operate as the “Honest Elections Project” (HEP) as well as the “Law and Policy Forum.” HEP is led by former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Snead. It is at the center of the right wing’s efforts to advance Trump’s agenda to rewrite voting laws in ways that suppress the vote and that push voter fraud claims. HEP has presented “model” bills to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Koch-funded corporate bill mill. It also filed a fictitious name certificate to operate under the brand “Free to Learn,” which then ran ads attacking public school policies.
The 85 Fund’s finances have swelled in recent years, increasing its revenue by nearly $60M from 2018 to 2020. In 2019, the 85 Fund pulled in nearly $14M, of which $10.7M came from a single source. That same year, it also paid CRC $5.8M and paid Leo’s BH Group nearly $1M.
In 2020, the 85 Fund ballooned to $66M. It received 30 grants totalling a $48M from a single source, DonorsTrust, which reported that this was for the 85 Fund to use on specific projects, including:
- $5M for the “court education project”
- $1.5M for the “Federalist Project”
- $1M for “judicial education projects”
- $750K for a project with Charles Koch’s Mercatus Center at George Mason University
- $450K for the “Ethics and Public Policy Project”
- $400K for the Public Interest Legal Project
- $100K for “the Independent Woman Project”
Also, in 2020, the 85 Fund received $9M from another single source. That year it paid more than $12M to Leo’s CRC Advisors.
4. Issue-Specific Leo Groups
- Anti-Choice Groups
Students for Life of America/Students for Life Action
Students for Life of America (SFL) is a strident anti-choice 501(c)(3) non-profit. Leo sits on the board along with Greg Mueller, president and co-founder of CRC Advisors. SFL states that it launched full-time in 2006 and was initially aimed at organizing anti-choice groups at high schools and on college campuses, but it has since increased its scope significantly.
The group’s mission is to overturn the Supreme Court’s precedent in Roe v. Wade. It filed a joint amicus brief in Dobbs, and is promoting a “Post-Roe blueprint” in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling. SFL’s signature “model” legislation is the “Life at Conception” bill, a total abortion ban with no exception for rape or incest. It also filed an amicus brief in support of far-right anti-abortion zealot Mark Dickson, who helped draft municipal ordinances blocking abortion clinics and “paved the way for the Texas abortion ban,” according to The Washington Post.
In recent years, SFL’s revenue has increased dramatically, and last year the group raised over $11.5M, almost doubling since 2017. SFL actively backed the confirmation of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett. Hawkins was among the right-wing operatives at Trump’s announcement of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination at the Rose Garden event, which became a Covid super spreader event.
In 2019, Students for Life Action (SFLA), a related 501(c)(4), was created.
In the run-up to Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings, the leader of the two groups, Kristan Hawkins, published two attacks in prominent right-wing outlets. One, titled “Biden’s Supreme Court nominee is an abortion extremist,” called Brown Jackson unqualified and accused her of supporting “partial birth abortions,” a misleading right-wing term for a second-trimester abortion procedure that the Supreme Court determined was constitutional in 2000 in a case called Stenberg v. Carhart. That case was decided when Brown Jackson clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer. In the other op-ed, Hawkins claimed that Brown Jackson had “a constitutional problem” and a “blindness to the law itself” because of her support for the reproductive rights protected by long-standing Supreme Court precedent. SFLA also appears to have staged a protest against Brown Jackson outside the Court during her confirmation hearings in the Senate.
SFLA also sent a letter to all U.S. Senators urging them to vote against Brown Jackson based on its claims about abortion and school prayer. The group is also running a digital ad campaign targeting key Republican Senate judiciary members Tillis, Grassley, Graham, and Cornyn.
SFLA’s ads repeat its misleading claims about “partial birth abortions” and again label Brown Jackson an “abortion extremist,” despite the fact that SFLA supports the most extreme restrictions on reproductive rights of nearly all anti-abortion groups.
The Catholic Association and The Catholic Association Foundation
The Catholic Association (TCA), a 501(c)(4) and its affiliated 501(c)(3) The Catholic Association Foundation (TCAF) are also cogs in Leo’s network. Both have deep ties to Neil Corkery. Corkery has been listed as holding the accounting books for TCAF, while Daniel Casey was listed as secretary, treasurer, and a board member through 2019. Casey helped launch JCN, and he has long ties to Leo.
TCA and TCAF are led by Ashley McGuire, a longtime fellow with the Becket Fund and the author of a recent anti-trans book. TCAF has filed amicus briefs in Dobbs, and other cases advancing a religious-based right to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans.
TCA has a relatively small budget, pulling in under $500K annually in recent years, but TCAF’s budget has steadily increased from $1.7M in 2015 to more than $6M in 2019. TCAF has also been almost entirely funded through the dark money conduit DonorsTrust. In 2020, TCAF received $5.5M from DonorsTrust. In 2019, it received $6.3M through DonorsTrust and that comprised almost 100 percent of the group’s total budget that year.
Notably, TCAF paid CRC nearly $1M between 2016 and 2020 and paid Leonard Leo $240K for consulting in 2018 and 2019. Back in 2016, as Leo helped orchestrate efforts to block Merrick Garland from being confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, TCA also paid Leo $120K for consulting. That year, Leo held the position of Vice President of the Federalist Society and also “volunteered” to choose Trump’s slate of potential Supreme Court nominees.
TCA and TCAF have also provided grants for other groups in Leo’s orbit. TCA gave $200K to the Independent Women’s Forum in 2016. TCAF also disbursed $500K through DonorsTrust in 2020, and has given $230K to SFL between 2017-2020 and $100K to the Becket Fund in 2017.
Between 2017 and 2020, TCAF also gave $668K to Catholic Information Center (CIC), a group Leo sits on the board of which is tied to the Opus Dei sect of the Catholic Church. It also gave $225K to the Leonine Forum, another group said to be connected to Opus Dei and tied to CIC and Leo. And, TCAF also gave $184K to National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, which Leo leads.
- The Anti-Corporate Regulation Arm of Leo’s Network
The Federalist Society
Much More than a “Debating Society.” As True North Research has previously documented, the Federalist Society was created in 1981 as a “debating society,” and it described itself as “libertarian” long before Charles Koch helped mainstream that agenda. It also identified itself as “conservative.” Antonin Scalia was one of its first advisors, before President Reagan made him a judge. The Federalist Society then backed him for the Supreme Court. Even in its early years, becoming a law school advisor to the Federalist Society was a veritable fast-track to a nomination for a federal judgeship, as with Scalia, Robert Bork, and Frank Easterbrook.
By 1986, “more than half the 153 Reagan-appointed Justice Department employees and all 12 assistant attorneys general [were] members or ha[d] spoken at Federalist Society events.” One of its leaders predicted: “Twenty years from now we will see our Cabinet secretaries and federal justices coming from the Federalist Society.” Almost 40 years later, six of the current justices on the Supreme Court were either members of or have been frequent speakers at its events.
Most of Trump’s circuit court nominees have deep ties to the group. For example, 5th Circuit Judge Edith Jones credited the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo, and its director, Eugene Meyer, with putting five new Trump judges on that 17-member circuit court in less than a year. At that event, as the Senate began hearings on the nomination of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas joked that Leo was “the third most powerful man in the world.”
The Federalist Society Gala in 2019 featured Sen. McConnell bragging about capturing the
Court and how “we have flipped the 2nd Circuit, the 3rd Circuit, and we will flip the 11th Circuit.”
He also proclaimed that blocking Garland in the 2016 election year was the most important decision of his life (apparently more important than who to marry or to have children). And, in a foreshadowing of his efforts to push Barrett onto the Court despite this election, he told the Federalist Society crowd that his new motto was: “leave no vacancy behind.”
Big Secret Donors, Huge Corporations, and Corporate Agendas. The Federalist Society’s two largest “known” funders are DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which were created specifically to hide the identity of the real donors. According to DeSmog, these secretive “Donor Advised Funds” — and, really, the secret donors — have given the Federalist Society a combined total of well over $35 million in recent years.
The Federalist Society’s biggest donor whose identity is known is the Bradley Foundation. That foundation is a $700M fund from the inherited wealth of anti-labor industrialists. Its board is led by billionaire Art Pope, who is a long-time board member of Charles Koch’s political operation, Americans for Prosperity. Bradley has also secretly funded the Judicial Education Project’s amicus briefs to the Court, as True North Research has documented.
Other donors that have given the Federalist Society seven-figure sums include the Koch family foundations, Robert Mercer’s foundation, and the Searle Freedom Trust, created from the Metamucil fortune. Both Koch and Searle also fund amicus briefs. Koch Industries, one of the biggest privately held corporations in the word, is also a long-time donor to the Federalist Society. The group accepts funding from other fossil fuel companies and other industries.
The Federalist Society’s Anti-Regulatory Agenda. Even though the Federalist Society contends that it does not lobby on public policy issues, some of its most powerful members and issue section leaders are GOP election lawyers who work to limit Congress’ power to pass laws like McCain-Feingold to limit dark money.
The Federalist Society is also stacked with corporate attorneys whose day jobs are to defend some of the biggest corporations in the world. Through its articles and events, the Federalist Society advances an agenda to limit the ability of Congress and federal agencies to regulate corporations, including polluters, and to thwart mitigation of climate change. It routinely masks a pro-corporate agenda with neutral-sounding language in order to limit the government’s ability — that is the ability of We the People, acting through our elected representatives — to regulate corporations to improve the working conditions and general welfare of average Americans.
Leo joined the Federalist Society in 1991 after he graduated from Cornell Law School. He later became its Vice President and held that post for years until he left its employment in late 2019 to create the CRCA operation and restructure JCN and JEP into the Concord Fund and the 85 Fund. He continues to help lead the Federalist Society as a leader of its board of directors.
The Federalist Society has paid CRC nearly $9M since 2014.
The Washington Post included “Reclaim NY” in its tally because Leo sat on its board. This 501(c)(3) was funded by the Mercer fortune, none of its tax filings after 2017 are available publicly, but its website appears to indicate that it still operates in some capacity. It was chaired in the past by both Steve Bannon and Rebekah Mercer. As the Post reported, the year after Leo joined the group the Mercers became the largest financial backers of the Federalist Society, where he was working as Vice President, for the two following years.
5. Related Outfits Tied to Leo’s Network, But Not Tallied
There are also other groups in Leo’s main orbit which were not included in the original Washington Post tally — but the groups themselves have played roles in his efforts to remake the Court and the law to suit his personal views. The role these groups have played defending the Supreme Court nominees that were hand-picked for Trump’s slate by Leo or in attacking Biden’s nominee is summarized below.
Article III Project
The Article III Project (A3P) is a 501(c)(4) that was launched in 2019 by GOP operative Mike Davis, the former chief counsel for nominations for Sen. Chuck Grassley and a former law clerk for Neil Gorsuch when the latter was on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. A3P appears as if it was fully funded by the Concord Fund when it launched.
Davis has close ties to the Federalist Society and played a key role in packing the court with Leo’s right-wing ideologues. At a 2018 Federalist Society event, Leo called Senator Grassley (then the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee) “a longtime friend of the Federalist Society.” Leo also raved that Davis was due a “tremendous debt of gratitude” and was a “central figure” in the Kavanaugh confirmation battle. Davis played a key role in the hearings for both the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh nominations to the Supreme Court.
Upon launching A3P, Davis said his group would “work hand-in-glove” with Severino and JCN.
Notably, following the 2018 midterms, Davis, while working for Grassley, emailed a staffer for Sen. Lindsey Graham, acknowledging that he was coordinating with Leo on judicial nominations. “Now that we picked up 2 or 3 seats, I’d like to push to have [redacted]. Grassley is onboard with this. Leonard Leo is fully onboard to support [redacted] from the outside, per my call with Leonard today. Would Graham be willing to talk to [redacted]?”
A3P raised just over $250K in 2019, and it appears as if they were almost entirely funded by the Concord Fund that year. Concord gave A3P $83K according to their 2018 tax filing (covering the period of July 2018-June 2019) and another $166K in their 2019 filing. Controversial lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who later became notorious for aiding Trump’s voter fraud claims, was listed as A3P’s treasurer. GOP consultant Ian Prior — the leader of an entity called “Fight for Schools” which is helping to promote the frenzy around so-called “Critical Race Theory” — is now listed as the group’s secretary in state filings. Prior previously worked as the comms director for Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.
During the current debate over Biden’s nominees to the Supreme Court, A3P’s strategy includes a new ad campaign tarring their opponents with misleading claims accusing Senate Democrats of being hypocritical on diversity in court nominations. The reality is that Biden’s court appointments have been some of the most diverse ever, including appointing the first Muslim man to be a federal judge and openly LGBTQ woman to the federal appeals court. In stark contrast to Trump’s overwhelming white male nominees, which Davis helped shepherd, 75 percent of Biden’s nominees have been women and 65 percent have been people of color.
A3P has also been pushing misleading claims, similar to those of Sen. Josh Hawley, that Brown Jackson has been lenient on child predators. And, while it attacks Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson — who, if confirmed, would be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court — A3P has also been running ads calling on Democrat Senators Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin to retire and support Black candidates for their seats.
Independent Women’s Forum, Independent Women’s Voice and the Independent Women’s Law Center
The dark money duo, Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a 501(c)(3), and Independent Women’s Voice (IWV), a 501(c)(4), are right-wing groups that use the veneer of their brand names’ reference to “independence” to promote right-wing policy and politicians.
IWF has taken undisclosed amounts from corporations and then backed their products, as with Juul, with disclosing those payments, which True North Research has dubbed “pay-to-play.” The group also has long and recent financial ties to right-wing billionaire Charles Koch. IWF/IWV’s positions are routinely consistent with the anti-regulatory agenda advanced by Koch’s Americans for Prosperity. That is the Koch’s political operation, which was previously housed with IWF when both groups were led by Nancy Pfotenauer, who was a top lobbyist for Koch Industries and has since played the role of spokesperson for Koch Industries.
IWF/IWV have also received more than $4.75M in funding from the Leo network since 2014 ($4 million to IWV from the Freedom and Opportunity Fund, $610,000 to IWF from the 85 Fund, and $150,000 to IWV from the Judicial Crisis Network). The Freedom and Opportunity Fund contribution equated to about half of IWV’s revenue in 2016 and 2017, as reported in the Washington Post.
IWF and IWV have also played an active role in supporting GOP-backed Supreme Court nominees. They appear to have spent a substantial amount of money to help force Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court. Their fellows and staffers viciously attacked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the Stanford psychologist who credibly accused Kavanaugh of attempted rape, even though Kavanaugh denied it. IWF and IWV also rallied behind Amy Coney Barrett during her nomination process, including staging an “I’m with Her” event outside of the Supreme Court as part of their “[broad] strategy of casting criticism of Barrett as anti-woman,” as described by The Intercept.
Now these groups are opposing Judge Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court. IWLC provided talking points (obtained by Documented) to GOP members of Congress ahead of the nomination accusing Democrats of “diversity hypocrisy” for opposing Trump’s nominees, while refusing to hold themselves to the same logic. IWF and IWV, who celebrated Trump’s promise to nominate a woman to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacancy in 2021, claimed that Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court was “discriminatory,” “toxic,” “pandering at its worst,” and “neo-racism.”
An IWF fellow has also contributed in a piece published by the right-wing Washington Examiner to the spread of the QAnon-adjacent smear, pushed by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), that Judge Brown Jackson is soft on child porn offenders.
Becket, formerly the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is a 501(c)(3) group led by William Mumma and Montse Alvarado. The board includes Leonard Leo, who is said to heavily influence the group. It has received major funding from anti-abortion hedge funder Sean Fieler.
Becket was described as “one of the most successful litigators seeking to curtail LGBTQ rights and abortion access” by The Progressive.
Becket is also one of the key filers in what Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has coined the “flotilla of amici,” a number of well-connected and anonymously funded groups that lobby the courts through coordinated amicus filings. Notably, Becket was counsel for the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, which ruled that federal regulations securing access to contraceptives in an employee’s health insurance plan violated a right of religious freedom supposedly guaranteed to corporations. The Hobby Lobby case laid the groundwork for private companies’ declared religious beliefs to override the rights of human beings who work for them.
Becket has long opposed the rights of gay Americans, and in 2008 ran a full-page ad in The New York Times calling opponents of California’s Proposition 8 — the referendum to outlaw same-sex marriage later found unconstitutional — “thugs” engaged in a “religious war” against the Church. More recently, Becket represented Catholic Social Services before the Supreme Court in its successful effort to bar LGBTQ couples from fostering children in their care network.
Becket also has ties to Leo’s close associates. JCN’s Severino was a law clerk at Becket, and Roger Severino, her spouse and a Trump appointee, was Becket’s COO and chief legal counsel. Human Rights Campaign has called him a “radical anti-LGBTQ activist.”
In 2017 Becket awarded Leo the Canterbury Medal, its top honor.
Becket used to be neighbors with its ally, the Susan B. Anthony List, a 501(c)(4), which has also been active in backing Leo’s slate of judicial nominees that were chosen as part of his court capture plan. SBA List has received funding from America Engaged. Notably, SBA List has launched a $10M ad campaign ahead of oral arguments on Dobbs, and the anti-choice group is also planning to score how Senators vote on Brown Jackson’s nomination. SBA List is also driving calls to Senators to oppose her confirmation.