PLUTOCRATS FOR POPULISM

03.29.16 5:00 AM ET

Billionaires Try to Buy the Supreme Court

Republicans say ‘let the people decide’ the next justice, but 1 percenters are helping them block Merrick Garland so they can place a conservative on the bench.

“Let the people decide” is the refrain of Republicans opposed to holding hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland, but they’re being bankrolled by an anonymous collection of billionaires—1 percenters so cowardly that they’re hiding behind tax laws to avoid revealing their identities.

Case in point: the “Judicial Crisis Network,” the right-wing front organization doing ad buys across the country to oppose Judge Garland getting a hearing. JCN is one of many 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations on the right and the left, and C4s don’t have to disclose their donors.That is the major reason that political spending by C4s increased more than 8,000 percent between 2004 and 2012.

That doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about C4’s like JCN, however. Thanks to a 2015 investigation by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, we do know it was started in 2005 (as the “Judicial Confirmation network” meant to promote Bush’s judicial appointees) by a group of arch-conservatives including Ann Corkery. Corkery isn’t listed on the JCN’s website, perhaps because the group doesn’t want “the people” to know she is also member of the far-right, literally self-flagellating Catholic order Opus Dei; a former director of Bill Donohue’s ultra-right Catholic League; and a board member of Hobby Lobby’s law firm, The Becket Fund, although her bio has been removed from Becket’s website too.

Conveniently, Corkery also directs JCN’s leading funder, the Wellspring Committee.

Who funds the Wellspring Committee? Well, here’s where things get interesting.

Turns out, Wellspring was founded in 2008 by none other than the infamous Charles and David Koch, together with their political Svengali, Richard Fink. According to Kenneth Vogel, author of the book Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp, Wellspring raised $10 million from attendees at the Kochs’ donor seminars, right after it was founded.

How much and from whom we don’t know.

And that’s precisely the point. Indeed, so secretive is the Wellspring Committee that Jane Mayer’s masterful 449-page tome on the Kochs, Scaifes, and other mega-donors doesn’t even mention it. One insider told Vogel, “Wellspring would never have put their name on anything.”

And these are the people saying “let the people decide.”

From the beginning, Wellspring was set up as a dark-money conduit, effectively laundering billionaire donations so no one would have to be accountable for them. Wellspring donated $7.8 million in 2008, for example, in part to other Koch-funded fronts like Americans for Prosperity.

But Wellspring was different in one key respect. Unlike most of the libertarian “Kochtopus”—which would eventually fund the Astroturf Tea Party movement—Wellspring worked closely with the Republican establishment. Corkery herself was a co-chair of the National Women for Mitt Finance Committee. The operations were initially run by Rick Wiley, a former Republican National Committee official. Wellspring also coordinated with Republican mega-donors, including Sheldon Adelson’s Freedom’s Watch.

The marriage didn’t last long, though. After the 2008 election loss, the Koch brothers turned back to their roots, funding front groups like Americans for Prosperity and Center to Protect Patient Rights to oppose Obamacare and the Tea Party movement to oppose mainstream Republicans.

From 2008 to 2011, Wellspring raised $24 million but not one donor’s name is known. (There are rumors that its funders now include the Templeton Foundation and hedge fund mogul Paul Singer, both contacts of Corkery’s.) Intriguingly, however, 10 of Wellspring’s grantees (in the period 2008-11) also received money from the Koch-funded Center to Protect Patient Rights, and Wellspring works with consultants who used to work with Koch Industries.

Whoever is paying for it, we do know that Wellspring is giving JCN $7 million a year, the lion’s share of that group’s budget, and that Corkery’s husband Neil is JCN’s treasurer. JCN, in turn, announced a $3 million campaign to oppose any Supreme Court confirmation hearings—just the latest of its big spends on judicial battles across the country.

In other words, the leading opponents of Judge Garland’s confirmation aren’t citizens concerned about democracy, but a front organization started by a secretive religious extremist and funded by anonymous members of the Koch brothers’ network. Let the people decide, indeed.

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Oh, and by the way, C4s like Wellspring and JCN can only spend up to 49.9 percent of their expenditures on politics: the rest is supposed to promote “social welfare.” But since a judicial campaign isn’t technically a political campaign, these expenditures actually count as Wellspring’s non-political “social welfare” expenses. Because of course this has nothing to do with politics.

The further one digs into this miasma of hypocrisy, wealth, and secrecy, the more incestuous it all becomes. For example, it turns out, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, that Neil Corkery, in addition to JCN, was also “president of its allied Judicial Education Project, and executive director of a charity called the Sudan Relief Fund, all of which paid him salaries; but he also drew paychecks from at least four other organizations: the anti-gay union National Organization for Marriage, ActRight Action, the Catholic Association Foundation, and Catholic Voices. His total earnings were almost $450,000 and his weekly workload was 105 hours in the first half of 2012.” He is also linked to the C4 group called the Annual Fund, itself launched in 2010 with a $2.4 million grant from Wellspring.

Sometimes the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” isn’t really that vast.

It is, however, deeply hypocritical. If the mantra of the anti-Garland crowd is “let the people decide,” why won’t they let the people know who they are? Why the layers of obfuscation and secrecy? If the Wellspring Committee funders really care about democracy, they’ll stop hiding behind tax regulations and shell corporations, and proudly disclose who they are and what they want to do.

Unless, of course, they know the people would decide to run them out of Washington.