A secretive network spending millions of dollars to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court picks terminated multiple 501(c)(4) nonprofit nodes last year while funneling money to an even more opaque limited-liability company, further obscuring the network’s funding sources.
At the crux of that network is Leonard Leo, Trump’s top outside judicial adviser and a longtime executive at the Federalist Society who helped shepherd Trump’s Supreme Court picks through the confirmation process. Leo holds leadership positions with multiple groups in the network.
Judicial Crisis Network, a “dark money” group that operates as the preeminent vehicle for deep-pocketed donors to funnel millions of dollars to support or oppose judicial nominees in Supreme Court confirmation fights, has served as the public face of the network while a web of secretive groups operate behind the scenes.
The bulk of Judicial Crisis Network’s funding over the past decade came from the Wellspring Committee, a secretly-funded group that served as a longtime linchpin of the opaque network before shutting down at the end of 2018.
Wellspring took in $2.3 million during its final year, distributing most of that through grants before shutting down completely at the end of 2018.
Terminating on Dec. 31, 2018, Wellspring distributed its remaining $34,777 to Judicial Crisis Network, a significant drop from a roughly $15 million grant in 2017. That year, Judicial Crisis Network spent $10 million to boost Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation, mostly on TV ads.
On top of Judicial Crisis Network’s millions of dollars in ad spending, Kavanaugh’s nomination also got a boost from its sister tax-exempt charitable nonprofit, Judicial Education Project, which reported “significant education and media efforts regarding the Supreme Court vacancy and Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation process” in its newly-released tax returns covering 2018.
Like Judicial Crisis Network, the Judicial Education Fund keeps its donors anonymous. But OpenSecrets traced more than 99 percent of its 2018 revenue to a single anonymous donation of $7.8 million through Donors Trust. That group is a pass-through vessel known as the Koch network’s “dark money ATM” for funneling money to conservative and libertarian groups from wealthy donors while keeping the donors’ identities hidden.
Judicial Education Project’s tax returns reveal a $675,000 payment to BH Group, a limited-liability company that made a mysterious $1 million donation to the Trump inaugural committee after his election in 2016 and has raked in more than $2.37 million from secret donors through the web of interlocking groups.
While nonprofit groups are required to disclose at least some financial information to the public in annual tax returns, LLCs are subject to even less disclosure requirements, leaving many questions about BH Fund unanswered.
BH Fund, a nonprofit closely tied to the LLC and Leo, took in just $500,000 in 2018 but ended the year with more than $18.5 million in assets at its disposal. BH Fund also reported a $2 million grant to another Leo-tied group called America Engaged. All of America Engaged’s funding for 2018 came from that grant and a single $5 million anonymous donor.
In addition to shuffling money among interlocking groups tied to Leo, nonprofits in the network also shelled out millions of dollars to consultants and other dark money groups, many of which supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
America Engaged funneled another $3 million to the Koch Network’s Freedom Partners, up from $700,000 the prior year.
Formed in 2016, the Freedom & Opportunity Fund reported millions of dollars in grants before terminating in 2018. One $1.8 million secret donor made up most of the fund’s revenue during its final year. Meanwhile, Freedom & Opportunity gave $660,000 to Main Street Growth and Opportunity, $530,000 to the Center for Individual Freedom, $200,000 to Free Our Internet and $100,000 to FreedomWorks.
Conservative groups aimed at women who boosted Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation drew funding from the network, too. Judicial Education Project gave $300,000 to the nonprofit Independent Women’s Forum while Wellspring gave another $250,000 to Susan B. Anthony List and $250,000 to Winning for Women, which was launched in 2017 as a conservative counterweight to EMILY’s List.
Wellspring’s biggest grant in the year before its termination was $500,000 to People United for Privacy, a member of the Koch network’s State Policy Network that launched ad campaigns pushing against donor disclosure rules that might expose the identities of big donors secretly bankrolling Wellspring’s network.
Outside of a $250,000 from the Judicial Crisis Network during its the 2017-18 fiscal year, none of the groups in the network’s inner circle reported 2018 grants to the National Rifle Association after funneling millions of dollars to the gun-rights group during the prior two years as it started running ads boosting Trump and his Supreme Court picks. Judicial Crisis Network has given the NRA $1.25 million since 2016 while America Engaged gave $950,000 to the NRA in 2017. The Judicial Education Project reported giving another $750,000 to the NRA Freedom Action Foundation in 2017, making up the bulk of its funding that year.
Multiple nodes of the network continued to report paying millions of dollars to Creative Response Concepts, a public relations firm that gained notoriety for helping create Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that attacked 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam war record.
Anna first joined the Center for Responsive Politics in September 2015. She works with CRP’s foreign influence and FARA data as part of the Foreign Lobby Watch Project, tracks FCC and digital political ad data, and is responsible for CRP’s politically active nonprofit and nondisclosing “dark money” group data. She holds degrees in political science and psychology from North Carolina State University and a J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.