A conservative dark money group led by former president Donald Trump’s judicial adviser Leonard Leo bankrolled Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation campaign with nearly $22 million in anonymous cash, while another nonprofit Leo helps steer saw a fundraising bonanza and showered cash on other organizations boosting Barrett, according to tax returns obtained by us.
The new tax returns shed light on how Barrett’s successful, last-minute confirmation campaign was aided by a flood of dark money. They also reveal the rapid growth of Leo’s already highly successful dark money network and its tentacles in the broader conservative movement.
Corporate interests with access to nearly unlimited money have a huge stake in tilting the court to the right: in recent years, the court has played a pivotal role not only in swaying social policy, but also in shifting economic policy and corporate regulations. In Barrett’s first year, she has already sided with corporate interests on a landmark climate case involving an oil giant that employed her father for decades, and she refused to recuse herself in a donor transparency case involving a foundation tied to a dark money group that backed her confirmation.
“I Am Unaware of Any Outside Groups”
Leo is a longtime executive at the Federalist Society, a group for conservative lawyers. He formed the Rule of Law Trust (RLT) in 2018, and the group quickly raised nearly $80 million. RLT finally started spending that money in 2020, donating $21.5 million to the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), another group steered by Leo that played a key role in Republicans flipping the Supreme Court and building a conservative supermajority.
JCN spent millions pressing Republican senators to block Barack Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, and subsequently spent millions boosting each of Trump’s high court nominees — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Barrett — all while Leo was advising Trump’s judicial strategy.
In 2017, when Barrett was nominated to serve on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, asked her: “Do you want outside groups or special interests to make undisclosed donations to front organizations like the Judicial Crisis Network in support of your nomination?”
I am unaware of any outside groups or special interests having made donations on my behalf. I have not and will not solicit donations from anyone. Indeed, doing so would be a violation of my ethical responsibilities as a judicial nominee.
When Durbin asked whether she would “discourage donors from making such undisclosed donations” or “call for the donors to make their donations public,” Barrett referred him to her previous answer.
The 85 Fund
Leo also helps direct the 85 Fund, a charitable organization being used to fiscally sponsor a host of conservative nonprofits, including the Judicial Education Project, which has long been JCN’s sister arm.
The 85 Fund reported bringing in nearly $66 million in 2020, according to its latest tax return. That’s a huge increase over the roughly $13 million the organization raised in 2019, per OpenSecrets, which found the majority of the 85 Fund’s 2020 money came from DonorsTrust, a group known as a “dark money ATM,” for its use as a pass-through vehicle.
The 85 Fund donated big sums last year to groups that backed Barrett’s confirmation, including: Turning Point USA ($2.7 million), Job Creators Network ($500,000), Independent Women’s Forum ($310,000), the Susan B. Anthony List ($175,000), Concerned Women for America ($100,000), Faith and Freedom Coalition ($100,000), and Heritage Action for America ($50,000).
The 85 Fund disclosed donating to nearly four dozen conservative groups in 2020. It made a substantial donation — $5.6 million — to the Federalist Society, where Leo is a cochairman.
The organization gave $1 million to the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a group that fought in court to end the Joe Biden administration’s federal COVID-19 pandemic eviction ban. It contributed another $1 million to Passages Israel, a group known as “Christian birthright” for bringing American Christian students on trips to Israel.
The 85 Fund also donated $750,000 to RealClearFoundation, a conservative nonprofit tied to the political news aggregator RealClearPolitics. And it contributed $100,000 to the CO2 Coalition, a conservative climate denial group.