December 9, 2020

Time to Wake Up 277: Donors Trust

Mr. President, I mentioned recently in one of these speeches that an identity-laundering group called Donors Trust decided to do a letter to the editor of my home State paper asserting that they were just as innocent as newborn lambs.

The Center for Media and Democracy has recently obtained the IRS form 990 for calendar 2019 for this little lamb, Donors Trust, and it has some fascinating findings.

Donors Trust took in a total of $312 million in donations in 2019– nearly a third of a billion dollars–up from $198 million in 2018. Of that, more than two-thirds came from two huge donations–two–one for $150 million and another for $69 million.

Out of the $312 million they received, $219 million came in two donations, and both of the donations were anonymous. Now, who makes anonymous donations of that size? Most people making a donation that big want their name on the building at the university. What is going on? Who has that kind of money to give away and a desire to hide themselves? One wonders.

Donors Trust gave out $162 million in anonymized grants in 2019– mostly to rightwing groups. This is up from $142.3 million in 2018. I should actually probably not say that Donors Trust gave them out but, rather, that they transmitted the funds for the anonymous donors because a donor can tell Donors Trust where the money is to go. Donors Trust then provides the expedient service of hiding the donor’s identity.

So where did this anonymous money go? Well, grants of interest include $7 million to the Federalist Society–1 year, $7 million–up from last year’s $5.9 million. Yes, this is the same Federalist Society that has selected judges and Justices for the Trump administration.

Is it not obvious that big special interests might buy their way to the Federalist Society judicial selection table with big, anonymous donations? When you farm out to secretive private organizations the power to select Supreme Court Justices and the secretive organizations take big, anonymous donations, what else are you to expect?

It would be interesting to know who paid for a voice in selecting Supreme Court Justices, and it would be interesting to know what business they may have before the Court. But all of that is shrouded in secrecy and anonymity. It would be logical to assume that $7 million bought a seat or two at that table; we just don’t know for whom or what their interests were.

Relatedly, Donors Trust transmitted $10.5 million to something called the 85 Fund, a Leonard Leo shell group formerly known as Judicial Education Project. Who is Leonard Leo? Leonard Leo ran the Justice- picking, Court-packing scheme for the Federalist Society for years until an expose by the Washington Post made it prudent for the operation to bring in a new face named Carrie Severino. It is a little bit like replacing a burned agent in a covert operation with a new agent.

The logical conclusion is that this $10 million is also related to packing the courts with special interest-chosen judges and Justices, and if so, that brings the total for that project to over $17 million, counting the Federalist Society money–$17 million in 1 year just through Donors Trust.

Of course, once you have packed the Court with agreeable Justices, you need to tee up agreeable cases for them. And guess what. Donors Trust also transmitted $2.7 million to advocacy groups that bring those cases, including the groups that presented to the Supreme Court Janus, the anti-labor case, and Shelby County, the anti-voting rights case. These are just two of the more infamous of the 80 5-to-4 partisan decisions giving big wins to Republican donor interests–just the kind of interests that have the money to push millions through Donors Trust and the motive to use Donors Trust to cover their tracks.

When this dark-money-funded enterprise is not busy at the task of packing the Court, it is busy propagating climate denial and obstruction. It has been at that particular scheme for years. Climate denial and related political obstruction, packing the courts, and electing Republicans are the three primary purposes of this dark-money enterprise.

To keep climate denial cooking, Donors Trust transmitted nearly $19 million to rightwing local so-called think tanks, collectively called the State Policy Network–a group that propagates climate denial and obstruction at the State government level–and to ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts up rightwing and climate denial and obstruction legislation for State legislators. This ALEC group is so reprehensible that even ExxonMobil withdrew its support for it–or maybe they just laundered their support through Donors Trust. We don’t know.

Not content with climate denial and obstruction at the State level, Donors Trust also transmitted $4.5 million in anonymous money to eight different national climate denial organizations. These include the Heartland Institute, notorious for comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber and sending 200,000 fake, climate-denying textbooks to school teachers around the country.

On this graphic prepared by a researcher into the climate denial enterprise, Donors Trust is front and center, right here, right in the middle of the web, and that Heartland Institute is right here, part of the network.

The other organization that it funded is the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which planted noted climate denier Myron Ebell to lead the Trump transition at EPA and usher in the disgraced Scott Pruitt as Administrator.

On a personal note, I should thank Donors Trust for transmitting $769,000 from some anonymous donor or donors to a dark-money opposition research group called Capital Research Center, which has as one of its tasks to feed misinformation about me to rightwing media outlets. I think that is my reward for calling out this whole crooked dark-money operation. And wouldn’t you know–they send out a dark-money group to defend their dark-money operation. I appreciate the attention and the irony.

Others in the Donors Trust dark-money creep show include $4 million to Project Veritas, which cooked up deceptive sting videos in Minnesota and other States to feed the false election fraud narrative of Donald Trump and the far right, and also $1.5 million to a beauty called VDARE Foundation, whose website is a vector for anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and White nationalism. I can see why someone would want to hide giving a million dollars to that.

Donors Trust has a tag-along entity that sends a lot of money into the same places–the Charles Koch Foundation. In fact, it is a little hard to tell where this Koch Foundation ends and where Donors Trust begins.

Donors Trust has provided significant financial support to the Koch political operation’s major front group through the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is here on the graphic. It is like a reunion going through this research. And Donors Trust, in turn, has received financial support from the Charles G. Koch Foundation. So money out to the Koch political operation and in from the Koch Foundation. I don’t know why the Koch Foundation couldn’t just have given the money directly.

It has been reported that the Koch network has provided Donors Trust with most of its backbone, even to the point of being described as part of the Koch network, and the Donors Trust employees have extensive histories within the Koch network of political front groups. The Center for Public Integrity reported this gem: “At a private Koch fundraising meeting in the summer of 2010, Donors Trust hosted cocktails and dessert for . . . a `target-rich environment’ of wealthy donors.” Sweet indeed.

So when we look at this Charles Koch Foundation, we are looking at something interlinked with Donors Trust, and sure enough, there is also overlap in where the money goes.

In 2019, this Koch Foundation gave out $141 million, up from $127 million in 2018. For the State-level climate denial State Policy Network we talked about, it gave $2.5 million across 13 so-called think tanks, and it gave nearly half a million dollars to that same ALEC– American Legislative Exchange Council–we talked about.

Other Koch grants of note include over $22 million to George Mason University, whose role as a hothouse for developing deregulatory and climate denial theories is well documented in Nancy Maclean’s terrific book, “Democracy in Chains.” This $22 million continues a relationship that helped put Koch operative Neomi Rao from George Mason into the Trump White House and then onto the DC Circuit Court of Appeals to do the Koch operation’s business from behind robes.

Remember those special interest front groups that tee up legal cases for the judges and Justices who have been ushered onto the courts? The Koch Foundation turns up there too. The Koch Foundation has spread $6.2 million around 10 separate amici curiae–friends of court, so-called– that showed up in a case called Americans for Prosperity v. Becerra. And what do you know? Yes, Americans for Prosperity is that Koch political operation’s main front group–such a small world.

Why would Koch political interests want to fund amici in a case where a Koch front group is already the plaintiff? Well, let’s look at that case. The “Becerra” in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra is the California attorney general, a nominee for HHS Secretary now, I gather. The case is an abstruse technical challenge to how the IRS shares tax information with States.

Why this gathering of the Koch-funded clan of front groups around this little technical case? Because the lifeblood of all this dirty operation is dark money. Indeed, today, our Supreme Court is the Court that dark money built. So the dark money operation sees a chance to enshrine dark money in the American Constitution. The dark money forces that built this Court want the Court to expand the First Amendment to protect anonymous, dark money political spending by secretive billionaires and corporate interests. This is the case where they intend to make their move. It is waiting in the Supreme Court right now. Who knows, maybe it has been waiting for Justice Barrett.

Lined up as amici curiae in this otherwise nondescript case, in the order of their Koch Foundation funding, are: the Cato Institute–I can’t read this well enough to point them out, but these are inhabitants of this graph as well–$2.4 million from the Koch Foundation; Texas Public Policy Foundation, $1.5 million; Pacific Legal Foundation, $1 million; New Civil Liberties Alliance, $1 million; Buckeye Institute, $104,200; Independent Women’s Forum, $100,000; Pacific Research Institute, $100,000; Philanthropy Roundtable, $30,000; Institute for Justice, $12,584; and National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, $8,156. When you look at the kind of money that is being doled out, I think the Institute for Justice and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation have some cause to complain that they got treated so poorly with such small donations from such a big operation.

The gathering of that clan is not the only clue that something is up. Big players in the dark money racket, like the fossil fuel titan Marathon Petroleum and the massive climate obstructer that calls itself the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are already objecting to requests for information about their dark money operations by asserting that such a right exists. They are already asserting that such a right exists, while the dark money schemers are lining up in this case to make that push to the Supreme Court. Wouldn’t it be convenient if they helped build a Court willing to agree with them and establish this new right to dark money influence?

This whole dark money mess smells to high heaven. Why big donors feel they have to hide? Why this complicated network to play Whac-A-Mole with different groups who can show up? Why the orchestration of Supreme Court briefs with groups that purport to be separate? Why the whole scheme? It is a recipe for corruption. It prevents citizens from understanding what is going on in their own democracy. It empowers the worst forces in politics. It is the mechanism through which climate denial has been effectuated, and it is wrapping its tentacles more and more tightly around our U.S. Supreme Court.

And Donors Trust–that sweet little lamb–is at the center of the web dolling out hundreds of millions of dollars–some lamb. Donors Trust is a wolf in lamb’s clothing or perhaps better to say Donors Trust provides the lamb’s clothing that cloaks the wolves so that they can feed more voraciously and anonymously on America’s body politic. I yield the floor.