September 13, 2022

Scheme 18: Leonard Leo’s $1.6 Billion Payday

This is the 18th time that I have come to the floor to expose the dark money scheme that has captured and controlled our Supreme Court. Over the last 2 years, I have, over and over, exposed how dark money operatives, working from the shadows, have installed Supreme Court Justices handpicked—handpicked—by the minions of far-right donors. I have exposed the key front groups through which this Court-packing operation is driven and the tactics that the schemers have used to hide the dark money donors who pull its strings. And when you take a close look at the scheme, the little spider that you find at the center of the dark money web behind it is a character named Leonard Leo.

From his perch at the dark money-funded Federalist Society, Leo crafted a reputation as the Court-capture scheme’s puppet master. The key to his craft is an armada of phony front groups that shuffle dark money back and forth, around and amongst each other, to deploy as spin, as propaganda, as political ads, or as hidden campaign funding.

During Donald Trump’s time in office, Leonard Leo brokered the scheme to have the Federalist Society or— more accurately—the big secret donors behind the Federalist Society handpick Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. Remember that list we all heard about? Leo coordinated the dark money propaganda machine that kept the heat on Senate Republicans to confirm those nominees, and he supported the big donors’ doctrine factories where donor-approved fringe legal doctrines are concocted for the anointed judges to weaponize from the Bench. Look no further than the recent West Virginia v. EPA decision weaponizing the doctrine factory-concocted major questions’ doctrine. And this was no small scheme. The latest estimate from earlier this year is that these big donors put $580 million, more than half a billion dollars, into Leo’s network of Court-capture front groups.

Well, little did we know, that was just the beginning.

Last month, ProPublica and the New York Times broke the news that a reclusive, far-right billionaire supercharged Leo’s dark money operation with a $1.6 billion donation to a Leo front group. You heard that right, $1.6 billion into this dark money operation.

The man behind this new slush fund is a billionaire named Barre Seid, and even the way the donation was made was creepy and clandestine. Seid and Leo devised a plan to transfer all the shares in an electronics company to Leo’s front group, on the way to selling that company. So when that company sold for $1.6 billion, it all went straight to Leo’s group and, by the way, helped Seid avoid what would have been roughly $400 million in taxes.

 Seid has a long history of funding far-right front groups. Here is how ProPublica characterized what Seid calls his ‘‘attack philanthropy:’’

“Seid has funded climate denialism as well as a national network of state-level think tanks that promote business deregulation and fight Medicaid expansion. He’s also supported efforts to remake the higher education system in a conservative mold, including to turn one of the nation’s most politically influential law schools into a training ground for future generations of rightwing judges and justices.”

So let’s unpack all of that, starting with the climate denialism. The ‘‘climate denialism’’ that they are referencing came from a group that he funded called the Heartland Institute. I have talked about the Heartland Institute on the floor before in my ‘‘Web of Denial’’ speeches. Heartland is a dark money disinformation mouthpiece for fossil fuel interests. In 2012, Heartland compared climate scientists to the Unabomber. So you can see it is a classy bunch. According to one of Seid’s advisers, he was Heartland’s major patron, and he even convinced his business’s chief financial officer to join Heartland’s board of directors.

If that isn’t creepy enough for you, we move on to the national network of state-level think tanks that promote business deregulation and fight Medicaid expansion. That is a reference to the State Policy Network, a web of dark money front groups that pump into State legislatures the propaganda and legislation designed by fossil fuel and other corporate interests. The State Policy Network has also received millions from Donors Trust, which has been called the ‘‘dark money ATM of the right,’’ a central node of the rightwing Koch dark money network.

The service that DonorsTrust provides is to scrub the identities of actual donors. It creates dark money. Anonymity is key for these donors, many of whom have financial interests behind their political schemes that they really don’t want disclosed. If a fossil fuel billionaire, say, wants to run ads against me in Rhode Island—folks will get the joke. So the real donor’s identity gets laundered through groups like DonorsTrust and comes out under other groups with names like—I am making this one up, but they sound this way ‘‘Rhode Islanders for Peace and Puppies and Prosperity.’’ All of that, of course, leaves citizens in the dark about both the actors and the plot in the politics in which they are supposed to be active participants.

And that brings us to Seid’s project to ‘‘turn one of the nation’s most politically influential law schools into a training ground for future generations of right-wing judges and justices.’’ That is a reference to Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, a central cog in the right-wing doctrine factory.

The cog was not always named Antonin Scalia Law School. In 2016, George Mason received $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation, plus another $20 million from an anonymous donor, orchestrated by that same Leonard Leo, and one of the strings attached was that George Mason rename its law school after Scalia.

When folks at George Mason University, a public university, pushed for answers about all of this, the university, after a legal battle, had to disclose that renaming the law school wasn’t the only string attached to that $20 million donation. Leo and his donor wanted input over faculty hiring. And that legal battle also unearthed the name of the anonymous donor: Barre Seid.

And all of that brings us back to Seid’s $1.6 billion to the Leonard Leo dark money apparatus. Remember that with $0.6 billion, Leo was able to orchestrate a dark money takeover of our Supreme Court, stacking it with far-right Justices, who have already delivered massive victories for their donors: overturning Roe v. Wade, undermining the government’s power to combat climate change, throwing out century-old commonsense gun regulations. If he can do that with $0.6 billion, imagine what kind of damage he will be able to do with $1.6 billion to squirt out as dark money through his armada of phony front groups.

Leo’s already dispensed $153 million to Rule of Law Trust, which appears to exist solely to funnel money to other dark money groups and another $16.5 million to his own Concord Fund. If you have been watching these ‘‘Scheme’’ speeches, you will remember that the last time I addressed the scheme in this Chamber, I laid out how the Concord Fund and its corporate twin, the 85 Fund, are the central nodes in a collection of phony front groups that deploy fictitious names, fictitious names to mask their connections. The coordinated and colocated front groups, Concord Fund and 85 Fund, operate through the fictitious names Judicial Crisis Network and Honest Elections Project, among other fictitious names. So, yes, you have got this right. In this dark money netherworld, the front groups have front groups.

With this new billion-dollar slush fund, Leo can take those efforts to entirely new levels: more voter suppression, which is the job of Honest Elections Project; more abortion bans, which was the accomplishment of Dobbs; more climate denial, which was powered by West Virginia v. EPA and the earlier EPA decision by the Supreme Court about the Clean Power Plan; more power for corporations, which is, of course, the constant goal of this dark money operation; more disinformation; and more dirty dark money in politics—sluiced around inside this covert apparatus until it gets squirted out through even more phony front groups.

This dark money slime will ooze everywhere. With pivotal elections coming up this fall, this slime will ooze out through your television sets, through your mailboxes, through your telephone, all of it designed to smear and lie to benefit far-right donor interests. The phony front group squirting out the slime will have innocuous-sounding names, but make no mistake, hiding behind many of them will be Leo and his secretive billionaire backers.

While this tactic isn’t new, it has been perfected by the rightwing. It began with the Koch brothers, who spent the last decade pumping dark money into our politics, producing a decade of successful climate obstruction, until finally we got the Inflation Reduction Act passed with the first real climate measures Congress has ever passed, but because of the Koch brothers’ pressure, we had to rely entirely on Democrats to get that bill passed. We did not get one Republican vote in the Senate. We did not get one Republican vote in the House.

Constant assaults on workers’ rights, endless attacks on the Affordable Care Act, and, of course, the rightwing billionaires own big payoff, big tax cuts for billionaires—it is probable that for all of the money that got thrown into this dark money apparatus by rightwing billionaires, some of them probably made more money than that back from the tax cuts that were delivered for them under the Trump administration. This is a it-pays-to-play dark money operation. And the result is that all this dark money has reduced the once Grand Old Party to the political operation of a handful of extremist megadonors.

The dark money assault on our democracy is not over. Right now, Leonard Leo, his rightwing donors, and their dark money apparatus are devising the next phases of the scheme. They have already captured the highest Court in the land, but they will not stop until they have enacted their entire radical agenda. They will turn their sights on State courts, on city councils, on local school boards—anywhere they can find a way to subvert democracy with dark money.

So now is the time to fight back, and the first step is to pass the DISCLOSE Act. It is way long past time that we shine the light on the dark money schemers. You may recall that in the Citizens United decision, by a vote of 8 to 1, even that Court said that dark money is corrupting. That is an established principle of the Citizens United decision. Well, if it is corrupting, we ought to get rid of it, because the American people deserve to know who captured their Supreme Court and who keeps flooding our politics with dark money. When you spend that kind of money, there is a motivation, and voters, citizens, deserve to know.

To be continued.