GOP Puppetmaster Expands His Dark-Money Operation

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Conservative activist and judicial puppetmaster Leonard Leo is building out his dark-money network.

A counsel at one of Leo’s primary nonprofits recently registered two new dark-money organizations with subsidiaries whose names just so happen to be very similar to groups through which Leo has run some of his most effective activism campaigns.

“The network’s infrastructure is expanding to keep up with new projects, and there will be more to come,” a person close to the network tells Rolling Stone.

The move comes amid increased scrutiny on Leo and his dark-money network in the wake of his crowning achievement: the Supreme Court decision eliminating the federal right to an abortion. With Leo’s network facing a reported attorney general probe and subpoena threats from Congress, he and his allies may be trying to shield their right-wing advocacy operation from legal fallout, watchdog groups say.

“As Leonard Leo faces increasing scrutiny for his shady nonprofit network, it’s no surprise he’s desperately trying to rebrand,” says Caroline Ciccone, president at the watchdog group Accountable.US. “But no matter how many sketchy new groups he comes up with, he can’t rebrand the extreme agenda he’s still attempting to force on everyday Americans.”

Leo, who co-chairs the Federalist Society, the influential conservative lawyers network in Washington, is known as the architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority. Leo served as former President Donald Trump’s judicial adviser — helping him select three justices while simultaneously directing the dark-money campaigns to boost their confirmations. His network has spread money around to help bring cases before the Supreme Court, determine which cases the justices consider, and influence the court’s decisions.

With success has come public attention. Leo’s summer home in Maine has become the site of regular protests. He’s also attracted legal scrutiny. Last summer, Politico reported that the Washington, D.C., attorney general launched an investigation into whether Leo has misused nonprofit laws for personal enrichment, following a watchdog complaint pointing out that nonprofits under Leo’s control have paid tens of millions to his for-profit firms.

In November, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to authorize a subpoena after Leo refused to provide lawmakers with a full accounting of all gifts and payments that he has directed to Supreme Court justices and their spouses. The vote followed reports that Leo steered secret consulting payments to Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, and arranged Justice Samuel Alito’s seat on a private jet — paid for by a billionaire hedge-fund chief — as part of an undisclosed luxury fishing trip in Alaska in 2008.

Leo has publicly refused to cooperate with the reported D.C. probe, with his lawyer arguing that the district’s attorney general, Brian Schwalb, has “no legal authority to conduct any investigatory steps or take any enforcement measures.” Leo has also refused to comply with the promised Senate subpoena, saying in a statement: “I will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution.” (The subpoena has not yet been issued.)

A devout Catholic, Leo is one of the most powerful political operatives in the United States. In 2021, he was gifted an unprecedented $1.6 billion dark money fund, with the purpose of shifting American society further to the right.

In a recent report on the strained relationship between Leo and Trump, The Washington Post wrote that Leo “has told others he no longer talks to Trump’s advisers and is largely focused on spending billions to reshape the country in a more conservative direction with a focus on non-election issues.”

Still, he is best known for his efforts to remake the Supreme Court, particularly under Trump.

Leo’s Supreme Court advocacy campaigns, which date back to 2005, were long run through the Judicial Crisis Network. Its sister charitable arm was known as the Judicial Education Project. In 2020, Leo and his allies rebranded those organizations as the Concord Fund and 85 Fund, respectively, and designed the groups to act as fiscal sponsors, or hubs for new advocacy and educational groups. The structure makes it easy to launch new organizations or campaigns; forming a new group is as simple as registering a trade name. (The rebranded organizations registered the Judicial Crisis Network and Judicial Education Project as trade names.)

The 85 Fund and the Concord Fund were both named in the watchdog complaint to the Washington, D.C., attorney general, Schwalb. Not long after the complaint, the 85 Fund moved its corporate registration to Texas, withdrew its charter from Virginia, and withdrew its D.C. registration, business filings show.

More recently, Leo’s team created two new nonprofit hubs.

“This might be an effort to muck up the D.C. attorney general’s investigations and potential Senate subpoenas,” says Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director at the watchdog group Documented. “Creating new legal entities won’t entirely stop those probes, but it could help insulate Leo’s network from the consequences.”

Hypothetically, Fischer says, an order enjoining one of the existing Leo groups from conducting certain activities in D.C. “wouldn’t have much bite” if the group’s activities have been absorbed by a new entity.

O.H. Skinner, a counsel at the 85 Fund, formed the two new nonprofits in Virginia on Dec. 21, business records show. The groups are called the Publius Fund and the Lexington Fund.

Skinner subsequently registered some familiar new trade names within those groups. The Judicial Education Project Fund is part of the Publius Fund, while the Judicial Crisis Network Fund is in the Lexington Fund.

The new organizations also have trade names affiliated with the Honest Elections Project, a Leo network entity that’s worked to restrict voting access, as well as the Alliance for Consumers, the Leo group that Skinner leads.

The list of new trade names suggests a merger of sorts between Leo’s network and a nonprofit called Save Our States, which has led the fight in the states to defend the Electoral College — the anti-democratic system that decides the United States president — and to block states from joining the “National Popular Vote interstate compact.”

Save Our States’ executive director, Trent England, was recently listed as a counsel at the 85 Fund.

The trade names also include two variants of the name “American Parents Coalition” — suggesting Leo’s network may be expanding its efforts to push the education system to the right. His existing network already includes an “anti-critical race theory” group called Free to Learn, which has been involved in local school board elections.

“It looks like there is a PR effort underway to distance Leo from Trump … but the reality is that Leo is fanning the flames that could help fuel Trump’s run, incubating groups targeting parents and consumers to push the country to the far right,” says Lisa Graves, executive director at True North Research, which researches Leo’s network. “His targeting of suburban school boards looks like Moms for Liberty’s repressive agenda without the baggage, to fuel GOTV [efforts] that would help Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”

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