Top Trump Backer Financed Supreme Court Confirmation Fights Through Shadowy Network
Leonard Leo is the top judicial lobbyist in the country and a well-known booster of the president. But the reach of his influence is just starting to come into focus.
A top conservative judicial activist used a sprawling web of interconnected groups to not only help fund President Donald Trump’s inauguration but to help pave the way for the confirmation of his Supreme Court nominees.
The effort has been a resounding success, but Americans remain largely in the dark about who provided the tens of millions of dollars to bankroll it.
Previously unreported documents obtained by The Daily Beast provide the first glimpse into the finances of a key node in that network, traced to Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo, a major player in Washington’s wars over the makeup of the federal judiciary.
Those documents, like others revealed over the last few months, provide a deeper glimpse into the expanding role that Leo’s played in advancing the Trump administration’s agenda on legal matters in particular. And they underscore the degree to which anonymous, high-dollar donors have bankrolled the advocacy behind Trump’s highly successful efforts to reshape the federal judiciary.
“The picture that’s emerging of Leonard Leo is that of a man who saw the Trump presidency as an opportunity to branch out,” said Robert Maguire, the research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a close follower of Leo’s Trump-era advocacy efforts.
“Over the last two years,” Maguire told The Daily Beast in an email, “we’ve seen him go from being a very behind-the-scenes actor, known for being able to rally conservative donors to fund legal fights, to someone who has taken a more central role.”
Through groups including the Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network, Leo has spearheaded independent support for Trump’s federal court nominees, in particular Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But the full extent of the network Leo built is only now becoming clear.
Most of the arms of that network are nonprofit groups, meaning details of their finances and operations can go unreported for nearly two years, when annual reports to the Internal Revenue Service are due. One such report recently obtained by The Daily Beast provides new details on an arm of Leo’s advocacy network that was, until recently, completely unknown.
America Engaged is a 501(c)(4) “dark money” nonprofit group that lists Leo as its president. A mission statement provided to the IRS describes it as “a public policy organization dedicated to promoting the Constitution of the United States and its core structural features—checks and balances, decentralized authority, enumerated powers, federalism.”
America Engaged was formed in 2016, and brought in less than $50,000 through the end of that year. But in 2017, its income skyrocketed to $2.3 million. All but $100 of that income came from a single donor: another Leo-affiliated group called the BH Fund, which itself was funded last year by a single anonymous donor who gave a whopping $24,250,000, according to documents obtained by MapLight.
America Engaged used that money to finance grants to three other organizations: the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association; Freedom Partners, an arm of the Koch political network; and Americans for Limited Government, a Virginia-based free-market nonprofit group. All three of those groups publicly backed Gorsuch’s nomination the same year they received support from America Engaged.
The group also paid $150,000 to CRC Public Relations, a prominent conservative consultancy that spearheaded the PR campaign for Trump’s Supreme Court picks. Among CRC’s tactics were attempts to deflect sexual-assault allegations against the judge by promoting unfounded allegations that a former classmate, not Kavanaugh, was responsible for the assault that Christine Blasey Ford dramatically recounted before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Multiple other arms of Leo’s advocacy network also reported paying CRC in 2017, including the BH Fund itself, which reported paying CRC $400,000.
In addition to America Engaged, the BH Fund gave $400,000 to another Leo-led organization called the Freedom and Opportunity Fund. That group runs three entities known as donor-advised funds—charitable-giving vehicles that act as conduits between donors and the organizations they wish to support, an arrangement that can effectively mask the sources of those funds.
Both America Engaged and the BH Fund listed the Freedom and Opportunity Fund as an affiliated organization in their respective 2017 tax filings. The latter group’s 2017 tax filing is not yet publicly available, but in 2016 it reported donating $60,000 to an Arizona-based dark-money group called Prosper Inc.
According to a recent financial-disclosure filing, former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) sat on Prosper’s board until September 2018, when he was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Prior to that appointment, Kyl had been both the top lobbyist for the Judicial Crisis Network, a Leo-affiliated advocacy outfit that led the push for Trump’s Supreme Court nominations, and the Senate shepherd for Kavanaugh’s nomination. Because of that, Kyl faced calls to recuse himself from voting on the Supreme Court nominee. He resisted those calls and cast doubt on Kavanaugh’s accusers, before casting a crucial vote for confirmation.
The flows of money to, from, and among those and other arms of the Leo network can make it difficult to trace the actual sources of funding for his advocacy efforts. And some of that money has flowed directly to a Trump political group: the committee set up to pay for his 2017 inauguration.
The inaugural committee received a $1 million contribution from a company called BH Group LLC. Little is known about the firm—incorporation records list its address as a virtual office in Arlington, Virginia—but Leo had previously listed BH Group as his employer in filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Little else can be gleaned about BH Group from public records. And that sort of opacity, Maguire says, is characteristic of Leo’s larger advocacy efforts.
“Since Trump’s 2016 victory,” Maguire wrote, “Leo has been tied to a seven-figure contribution that went to Trump’s inauguration—the source of which remains anonymous—and a growing set of dark-money groups with millions of dollars to spend, all while he exercises a great deal of influence over the Trump administration’s judicial nomination process.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to Leo as the President of the Federalist Society. He is the Executive Vice President.