New Political Hit Job Targeting Wyss Is Tied, Again, to Leonard Leo’s Dark Money Attack Machine

Leo’s CRC Advisors Has Raked in More than $93 Million from Groups Funded via His Network, Including More than $1 Million from the Group at the Center of this Attack

By Lisa Graves/True North Research

A new story from Emily Birnbaum at Bloomberg rehashes the smear campaign against Hansjörg Wyss, a philanthropist who has given $1.5B to preserve public lands for public use and who has been targeted by groups closely tied to Leonard Leo. Leo is the right-wing lawyer and court-fixer being investigated as part of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee probe into secret gifts to Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas. (Leo has refused to cooperate with that investigation and denies any wrongdoing.) 

Although the piece mentions Leo, it does not tell readers how the key group orchestrating this smear, which calls itself “Americans for Public Trust” (APT), is like a front group for Leo and how much it has enriched him. 

That lucrative seeming self-dealing, orchestrated through Leo’s dark-money nonprofit network and his for-profit PR firm, was first investigated by Heidi Przybyla at Politico. That reporting revealed how Leo’s lifestyle “took a lavish turn after he became Donald Trump’s adviser on judicial nominations.” This led to the Attorney General for the District of Columbia opening an investigation into Leo, with which Leo has refused to cooperate. More details of many of these transactions are available in a related legal complaint by the progressive watchdog group, Campaign for Accountability. (Leo has denied any wrongdoing regarding that investigation, too.) 

Here are the facts. Since 2020, APT has paid Leo’s for-profit firm, CRC Advisors, more than $1.1 million ($1,170,997), which does not include any transfers of cash in 2023 due to filing timelines. Those fees account for almost 20% of APT’s expenses since it was launched in 2020. 

In all, as a new True North Research tally shows, groups like APT that get big bucks via Leo have given more than $93 million to Leo’s CRC Advisors since 2016 (Leo’s percent of the revenue taken in is secret). That figure is real news, representing fully $20 million more taken in by CRC Advisors from Leo-connected groups since the scope of this seeming self-dealing was first reported last year

Since its creation in 2020, APT has repeatedly attacked Wyss, whose foundation has supported work to improve health care access, climate protections, and economic prosperity, as well as efforts to bring more transparency to our campaign finance system. It is therefore of little surprise that these attacks emanate from funds directed by Leo’s Judicial Education Project (JEP), a 501(c)(3) group involved in submitting briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court that Leo helped capture. In 2020, when Leo announced the creation of CRC Advisors it came with the announcement that JEP had been renamed The 85 Fund. 

Leo’s ties to The 85 Fund/JEP are so deep that it was the vehicle he used to secretly pay Ginni Thomas, who is married to Justice Clarence Thomas, as the Washington Post reported last year. When asked last fall by Politico if Leo has continued to secretly pay Ginni Thomas, Leo and The 85 Fund declined to comment. Leo’s CRC has also been used to funnel secret money to Ginni. (The 501(c)(4) counterpart of JEP, the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) which was also rebranded in 2020 as the Concord Fund, has been the tip of the spear of Leo’s judicial influence operation. Concord/JCN has also directly collaborated with APT on ad campaigns, among other ties.) 

That’s not all. A deeper investigation would have revealed to Bloomberg’s readers that APT was itself launched with money funneled from Leo-controlled dark money groups. In 2020, the year Leo’s $1.6 billion Marble Freedom Trust was created, Leo’s 85 Fund gave $750,000 to a group called the “Legacy Foundation,” which then routed $589,000 to APT. That was almost the entire budget of the Legacy Foundation that year. 

What is Legacy? It is another pass-through for Leo’s attack machine. Legacy is run by a volunteer who is the vice chair of the board of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). RSLC is a 527 group whose biggest donor since 2020 is, of course, Leo’s Concord Fund/JCN. Seed money from Leo’s The 85 Fund, via Legacy, to APT constituted nearly half of APT’s launch cash. 

The rest, $900,000, came entirely from DonorsTrust, the Charles Koch-linked “dark-money ATM of the right” that keeps its donors’ identities secret. However, based on the limited information non-profit groups are required to disclose, we know that Leo’s The 85 Fund gave DonorsTrust more than $12.4 million that year to cloak the identity of some of The 85 Fund’s grant recipients. Since 2020, Leo’s The 85 Fund has used DonorsTrust to hide the beneficiaries of more than $175 million. Tens of millions have also been routed through other groups, including more than $41 million from Leo’ Marble Freedom Trust to DonorsTrust directly.  

DonorsTrust is designed to obscure the true source of its funds, while also bankrolling dark money groups that have worked to frustrate campaign finance and nonprofit disclosure laws (including groups litigating to enshrine new constitutional protections for dark-money spending). Creating and exploiting the United States’ current dark money regime, in other words, is DonorsTrust’s core function. Now, without a hint of irony, its dark-money beneficiaries like APT are leveling attacks on pro-democracy funders for acting within the rules of the system that they themselves created. Since 2021, APT has had only one funder: DonorsTrust, which has provided it with more than $4 million, in addition to the initial $900K.

The APT “dossier” that Bloomberg amplifies targets Wyss for being born in Switzerland, despite his devotion to defending U.S. public lands and civil society since he first came here in 1958 to work on roads in Colorado. The story suggests that Wyss’ charitable giving is foreign even though he resides in the U.S. and founded a U.S. medical device firm, Synthes US, which was ultimately acquired by Johnson & Johnson. That is the source of his wealth, which he has pledged to give away in his lifetime. The charities he founded, like other U.S. foundations, also generate revenues from U.S. investments.

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg story neglects to note that other investigations have shown how DonorsTrust could have been used to hide foreign funds. A 2015 investigation by Greenpeace secured audio and emails showing how a DonorsTrust representative said that it could cloak foreign funding even with its disclaimer of only accepting money in U.S. dollars from a bank account in the U.S. Here is the recap of that investigation from DeSmog’s profile of DonorsTrust:

“Undercover journalists approached William Happer to produce a paper for a fictional oil and gas company in the Middle East. Happer suggested that funds be channeled through the CO2 Coalition, of which he was a board member. Fellow CO2 Coalition Board Member Bill O’keefe suggested that the funds be channeled through DonorsTrust. View the email chain between Happer and DonorsTrust here.

“Investigators then asked Peter Lipsett, director of growth strategies at DonorsTrust, if the Trust would accept money from the (fictional) oil and gas company based in the Middle East. Lipsett responded that, while the trust required that funds come from a U.S. Bank Account, ‘we can take it from a foreign body, it’s just we have to be extra cautious with that.’ (emphasis added and audio file linked above)

“He added that: ‘I’ll double check everything and make sure I’m wording things correctly after chatting with our CFO [Chief Financial Officer], but what he’s told me before is that the preference is to have it in US dollars, and the ideal preference is to have it originate from a US source, but the US dollars is the important bit.’

“DonorsTrust confirmed in a taped conversation with an undercover reporter that it could anonymously channel money from a fictional Middle Eastern oil and gas company to US climate skeptic organizations.” 

To be fair, U.S. law governing charities does not limit gifts from foreign or domestic sources–other than from terrorists–even though APT has tried to make hay of the European roots of Wyss and George Soros, who fled Nazi Germany. APT’s dossier apparently does not flag for reporters or the Hill the audio evidence regarding potential foreign donations in connection with its main visible funder, DonorsTrust. (DonorsTrust said it does not accept “secret donations from foreign donors” despite that audio.) Indeed, APT conceded in the Bloomberg story that it “has no evidence that Wyss crosses any lines.”

APT’s Republican allies in the House have never opened an investigation into DonorsTrust, even as they queued up a hearing on foreign influence last December. The main Republican witness for that hearing was Scott Walter, who leads the Capital Research Center (another “CRC” that is legally distinct from Leo’s CRC Advisors). Walter’s CRC has long targeted progressive funders.

Walter used his platform on the Hill to assail Wyss, leveling claims that were essentially reprised in Bloomberg’s rehash of this right-wing smear campaign. Despite the bombast of Walter’s claims, there is no evidence that any Wyss charity has violated any rule limiting charities from engaging in electioneering or barring them from giving money to electoral campaigns. 

Meanwhile, Walter’s CRC has downplayed the documented evidence of actual Russian interference in U.S. elections to the benefit of Donald Trump, despite documentation by the U.S. Intelligence Community, which has deep expertise and sources that CRC lacks entirely. Walter and CRC have also amplified the voter fraud claims of the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, even though numerous independent reviews have shown, repeatedly, that there is no significant voter fraud in the U.S., not in the 2020 presidential election or other recent cycles that have been analyzed.

Notably, Walter’s CRC is closely tied to the Bradley Foundation, which has worked with Leo to shuttle secret money to The 85 Fund/JEP to file amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, including a brief written for GOP Members of Congress. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has spoken out about this scheme repeatedly, calling it a “flotilla of amici” tied to Leo and his billionaire funders. Bradley’s grant officer who worked with Leo on getting that amicus money to JEP now works for Walter’s CRC as its director of strategic giving. Bradley is also a long-time funder of both Walter’s CRC and Leo’s Federalist Society, among other groups.

At a hearing before Sen. Whitehouse’s subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2021, Walter refused entreaties to reveal his own funders, though some of his funders are known through disclosures required of other groups. For example, the same year that Leo helped get APT the seed money to launch, DonorsTrust also gave Walter’s CRC $363K from a secret source. (That is the same year that The 85 Fund/JEP gave DonorsTrust more than $12 million to distribute to The 85 Fund/JEP’s secret grantees.)  

That’s the real anatomy of the hit job targeting Wyss that could have been told by Bloomberg

(For a more complete description of APT’s staff, including its ties to the GOP’s oppo research machine, check out Accountable’s detailed Influence Report here.) The date of the funding to CRC has been updated.

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