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A conservative activist’s behind-the-

scenescampaign to remake the nation’s courts


Leonard Leo helped conservative nonprofits raise $250 million from mostly
undisclosed donors in recent years to promote conservative judges and causes

By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg May 21, 2019

Leonard Leo stepped onto the stage in a darkened Florida ballroom, looked out at
a gathering of some of the nation's most powerful conservative activists and told
them they were on the cusp of fulfilling a long-sought dream.
For two decades, Leo has been on a mission to turn back the clock to a time
before the U.S. Supreme Court routinely expanded the government’s authority
and endorsed new rights such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, as
President Trump’s unofficial judicial adviser, he told the audience at the closed-
door event in February that they had to mobilize in “very unprecedented ways” to
help finish the job.
“We’re going to have to understand that judicial confirmations these days are
more like political campaigns,” Leo told the members of the Council for National
Policy, according to a recording of the speech obtained by The Washington Post.
“We’re going to have to be smart as a movement.”
Leo’s remarks: ‘We stand at the threshold’
The Washington Post obtained audio of Leonard Leo speaking to members of the
Council for National Policy.
“No one in this room has probably experienced the kind of transformation that I
think we are beginning to see,” Leo said.
At a time when Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are rapidly
reshaping federal courts by installing conservative judges and Supreme Court
justices, few people outside government have more influence over judicial
appointments now than Leo.
He is widely known as a confidant to Trump and as executive vice president of
the Federalist Society, an influential nonprofit organization for conservative and
libertarian lawyers that has close ties to Supreme Court justices. But behind the
scenes, Leo is the maestro of a network of interlocking nonprofits working on
media campaigns and other initiatives to sway lawmakers by generating public
support for conservative judges.
The story of Leo’s rise offers an inside look into the modern machinery of political
persuasion. It shows how undisclosed interests outside of government are
harnessing the nation’s nonprofit system to influence judicial appointments that
will shape the nation for decades.

Documentary: Pathways to power


Conservatives are winning the battle for America’s courts, a triumph decades in
the making. This is the story of the ideologues, activists and undisclosed donors
who made it happen. At the center of the movement is Leonard Leo, executive
vice president of the Federalist Society, who has helped raise hundreds of millions
of dollars for nonprofit groups that work behind the scenes to promote
conservative judges and causes. Now a private judicial adviser to President
Trump, Leo has extraordinary influence over the third branch of government.
Pathways to power: The conservative movement transforming America’s courts
28:51
(Dalton Bennett, Jorge Ribas and Jesse Mesner-Hage)
Even as Leo counseled Trump on judicial picks, he and his allies were raising
money for nonprofits that under IRS rules do not have to disclose their donors.
Between 2014 and 2017 alone, they collected more than $250 million in such
donations, sometimes known as “dark money,” according to a Post analysis of the
most recent tax filings available. The money was used in part to support
conservative policies and judges, through advertising and through funding for
groups whose executives appeared as television pundits.
The groups in Leo’s network often work in concert and are linked to Leo and one
another by finances, shared board members, phone numbers, addresses, back-
office support and other operational details, according to tax filings, incorporation
records, other documents and interviews.
Nine of the groups hired the same conservative media relations firm, Creative
Response Concepts, collectively paying it more than $10 million in contracting
fees in 2016 and 2017. During that time, the firm coordinated a months-long
media campaign in support of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch,
including publishing opinion essays, contributing 5,000 quotes to news stories,
scheduling pundit appearances on television and posting online videos that were
viewed 50 million times, according to a report on the firm’s website.
President Trump shakes hands with Judge Neil M. Gorsuch as he announces
Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court in January 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The
Washington Post) Trump watches as his second successful nominee to the high
court, Brett M. Kavanaugh, left, is sworn in by retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
at the White House in October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
In another case, a nonprofit Leo launched in 2016, the Freedom and Opportunity
Fund, gave $4 million over two years to a nonprofit called Independent Women’s
Voice, about half the group’s revenue, tax filings show. Leaders of Independent
Women’s Voice last year spoke at rallies, wrote online commentary and appeared
regularly on Fox News to promote another of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees,
Brett M. Kavanaugh.
During an on-camera interview for a Post documentary, Leo called himself “a
leader of the conservative legal movement” and said, “I have no idea how many
groups I’ve been involved with over the years.”
A devout Catholic, Leo said he is driven by his faith and a literal interpretation of
the Constitution. He also defended the practice of taking money from donors
whose identities are not publicly disclosed, comparing his effort to shape the
courts to those of abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights activists.
“[They] were all very much fueled by very wealthy people, and oftentimes
wealthy people who chose to be anonymous,” Leo said.
But he refused to talk about the money behind his advocacy, saying, “I’m not
particularly knowledgeable about a lot of it.”
“I have a very simple rule, which is, I’m engaged in the battle of ideas, and I care
very deeply about our Constitution and the role of courts in our society,” he said.
“And I don’t waste my time on stories that involve money and politics because
what I care about is ideas.”
Later, in response to written questions about the interlocking nonprofits, Leo
described the network as “an effective and highly successful judicial coalition
that’s organized just about the same as the Left’s, except that their coalition is
significantly bigger and better funded.”

Leo, seen on a video screen, speaks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in
Washington in April. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Leo, 53, wears round, horn-rimmed glasses, tailored suits and monochromatic
pocket squares. His office at the Federalist Society is filled with mementos of his
career, including a red Trump-campaign-style hat that reads "Make The Court
Great Again" and a gold-framed New Yorker profile of himself. On a bookshelf is a
photo of Leo and Kavanaugh in tuxedos. A nameplate on the shelf reads, "The
Real Boss."
Leo grew up in suburban New Jersey, where his high school yearbook lists his
nickname as the “Moneybags kid” and shows a photograph of him holding a
handful of cash. He attended Cornell as an undergraduate and law student and
founded an early chapter of the Federalist Society, then an all-volunteer
organization focused on infusing traditional legal values into the nation’s law
schools.
His conservative values stood out. When a classmate protesting apartheid in
South Africa threw a chocolate cream pie into the face of the university’s
president, Leo expressed outrage in a letter to the student newspaper. “Although
some will dismiss Tuesday as only a pie-throwing incident, it is representative of a
more hostile form of expression that has become more common,” he wrote.
In 1990, Leo became a clerk for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Washington, D.C.,
where he met Clarence Thomas, then an appellate judge. The two became close
friends.
After his clerkship, Leo joined the Federalist Society as one of its first paid
employees. But he delayed the start date to help Thomas through his contentious
confirmation process for the Supreme Court.
At the Federalist Society, Leo took a leading role in the conservative legal
movement, part of a burgeoning effort to counter the influence of the 1960s and
liberals on education, law and politics.
Leo and Mother Assumpta Long of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the
Eucharist watch President George W. Bush speak at the National Catholic Prayer
Breakfast in 2007. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
With the election of George W. Bush, Leo began working as an outside adviser for
the White House on initiatives related to judicial nominations. Among his allies
was Kavanaugh, then White House associate counsel.
In January 2003, Leo called White House officials, including Kavanaugh, to object
to a plan by Bush to weigh in on affirmative action. Bush was going to criticize the
practice but praise racial diversity. Leo complained that praising diversity would
“disgust any conservative who thinks that this is a matter of principle,” according
to a previously unreported email by a White House official describing one of the
calls.
About 15 minutes later, Kavanaugh wrote back: “Leonard just called me and gave
me the same earful.”
Leo told The Post that from the accounts of the calls, “it appears I was conveying
the widely shared belief among conservatives that discriminating on the basis of
race is always wrong and inconsistent with the dignity and worth of every
person.”
Leo came to be known in the White House as coordinator of “all outside coalition
activity regarding judicial nominations,” according to a 2003 email by a White
House aide to Kavanaugh and others.
Leo also developed a reputation as a conservative moneyman. When Kavanaugh
and other Bush aides were looking for someone to pay for a press event aimed at
supporting the stalled judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada, they turned to Leo.
“Leonard Leo will know,” a White House aide wrote in an email obtained by The
Post. “We probably don’t want the fed soc paying for it, but he might know some
generous donor.”
Leo, center, attends the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in April. (Michael
Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
Leo's behind-the-scenes activism came at the same time he was helping to grow
the Federalist Society, which describes itself as nonpartisan. Leo told The Post he
has taken steps to avoid any conflict.
“I separate my advocacy from the educational work of The Federalist Society,” he
said in his statement. “I put in a full day’s work for the Society and spend a
substantial amount of my personal time on the other public service work I also
love.”
Leo told The Post he has employed techniques liberals used to derail the
nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court three decades ago.
In 2005 and 2006, Leo served as the leader of the campaigns supporting Supreme
Court nominees John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. He and other members
of an advocacy coalition spent about $15 million in donations from undisclosed
donors on ads, telemarketing and the mobilization of “grass roots” groups, Leo
later told a Federalist Society chapter at the University of Virginia. They
conducted polls to help craft the most persuasive messages and arranged dozens
of “background” briefings for reporters.

The Supreme Court justices, from left: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, John
G. Roberts Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Back, from left: Neil M.
Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett M. Kavanaugh. (Jabin
Botsford/The Washington Post)
A key part of those efforts was a new nonprofit called the Judicial Confirmation
Network, or JCN. Tax filings show it was based at the home of Ann and Neil
Corkery, close allies of Leo who have served as board members or treasurers of
organizations run by Leo and a small group of interconnected activists.
[Read five takeaways from The Post’s investigation.]
One radio spot paid for by JCN in Arkansas featured a local minister who warned
listeners that liberals wanted to curb religious freedom, including Christmas
celebrations. “Now these extremist groups want our senators to vote against
Judge Alito for the United States Supreme Court,” the ad said.
In the interview with The Post, Leo said he took time off from the Federalist
Society — a charity that says it does not endorse specific nominees — during the
nomination fights in 2005 and 2006. The group’s tax filings show that his
compensation in those two years jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about $328,000
annually. Leo did not respond to a question about how his compensation was
affected by his time off. A spokesman for the Federalist Society said Leo’s pay
went up — despite the time off — because of the organization’s “extraordinary
revenue growth.” Back at the Federalist Society the following year, his
compensation was $419,000.
Documents show that Leo never assumed a formal position at JCN, which
eventually changed its name to the Judicial Crisis Network. But he told The Post
he is “very supportive” of the group.

Leo speaks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in April. (Michael Robinson
Chavez/The Washington Post)
The ties between JCN and Leo are opaque. JCN’s office is on the same hallway as
the Federalist Society in a downtown Washington building, though JCN’s website
and tax filings list a mailing address at a different location, an address shared by
multiple companies.
JCN board director Gary Marx told The Post the two organizations share similar
goals but have “different boards, different missions, different functions and do
very different things.”
When a Post reporter visited the JCN offices to ask questions, a security guard
contacted a longtime employee of the Federalist Society to see whether anyone
at JCN was available. A Federalist Society employee then escorted the reporter to
JCN’s office.
The group’s president, Daniel Casey, has worked closely with Leo for years. Casey
receives no pay from JCN or three other nonprofits in the network that he helps
to lead, tax filings show. He received more than $1.5 million in fees from the
Federalist Society over nine years for media training through a firm based at his
home in Front Royal, Va.
In an interview with The Post, Casey declined to discuss that firm, DC Strategies.
He said all of the nonprofit groups he is affiliated with followed the law.
“Everything is up and up,” he said.
Leo told The Post that Casey has been “a highly skilled provider of strategic
consulting services in the legal policy space for over 30 years.”
Supreme Court Justices Roberts, left, Thomas, Breyer and Alito attend President
George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2006. (Melina Mara/The
Washington Post)
Leo's influence and political connections continued to expand even as President
Barack Obama took over the White House.
He routinely attended galas and black-tie Federalist Society events that included
justices Thomas, Alito and Antonin Scalia, as well as McConnell and other leading
lawmakers, according to interviews and annual reports by the Federalist Society.
He also became more adept at managing media campaigns. In a previously
undisclosed email, Leo boasted to a colleague in 2009 about his savvy at
generating free publicity through the Federalist Society.
“I’m very familiar with the media,” Leo wrote to Tom Carter, then a spokesman
for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government
agency created to promote religious liberty abroad. “I spend probably close to
$800,000 annually on a PR team at the Federalist Society, and we generate press
that has a publicity value of approximately $146 million each year.”
Leo, then a commissioner, said the Federalist Society had learned to sidestep
pointed questions about judicial nominees — and he urged Carter to do the same
in his work for the commission. “We get around these inquiries quite well, and I
am sure you can find a way to do so as well,” he wrote.
Leo joined additional advocacy groups that expanded his influence following the
Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision in 2010, which lifted
restrictions on spending by corporations, unions and nonprofits on politically
oriented advertisements and media campaigns.

Leo on anonymous funding


Leonard Leo helped conservative nonprofits raise more than $250 million from
mostly undisclosed donors in recent years to promote conservative judges and
causes.
Watch The Post’s documentary: Pathways to power.
Leonard Leo defends anonymous donors
1:18
His growing network was composed mostly of nonprofits called “social welfare
organizations,” which are allowed to engage in politics as long as it’s not their
primary activity. It also included some public charities, which can receive tax-
deductible donations and are prohibited from backing or opposing candidates for
office.
In 2010, Leo served on the board of a tea party group called Liberty Central. Ginni
Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, received $120,511 as the start-up’s
president that year. She later stepped down following questions about possible
conflicts of interest, saying the issue had become a distraction for the group.
In 2012, Leo joined the boards of the nonprofit Catholic Association and an
affiliated charity, the Catholic Association Foundation. They funded campaigns to
rally Catholic voters and stop states from recognizing same-sex marriage.
The two Catholic nonprofits launched a third organization called Catholic Voices.
Its stated mission was to train Catholic lay members to advocate for religious and
conservative causes, some of whom later wrote letters for publication in major
newspapers condemning the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade, the 1973
Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal.
The next year, Leo joined forces with wealthy conservative donor Rebekah
Mercer and Stephen K. Bannon, then the chairman of Breitbart News, on the
board of a small charity known as Reclaim New York. Mercer and Bannon would
go on to play central roles in Trump’s insurgent campaign, Mercer as a leading
financial backer and Bannon as campaign chief.
In the year Leo joined Mercer’s group, and in the two following years, the Mercer
family became a leading benefactor of the Federalist Society, donating a total of
nearly $6 million, tax filings show.
Former White House counsel Donald McGahn, a Federalist Society member,
listens to Trump during a Cabinet meeting last year. (Jabin Botsford/The
Washington Post)
In March 2016, Leo met with Trump and Federalist Society member Donald
McGahn at the Washington law firm Jones Day, just as Trump was beginning to
prevail in his quest to be the Republican nominee, Leo told The Post.
Justice Scalia had just died, and the men were mulling the implications. McGahn
had come up with the idea of generating a list of potential Supreme Court
nominees that Trump could disclose to win over moderates. Leo said he briefed
Trump about the current composition of the court, the ideology of the justices
and the like.
As Leo tells it, Trump was open to one of his long-held goals: A federal court
system dominated by conservative judges who believe the Constitution must be
interpreted literally.
Leo later gave the president a list of possible Supreme Court nominees. Trump
released the list during the primary campaign, a gesture that helped him win the
support of skeptical mainstream Republicans. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were
added to the list later.
JCN, the group that has office space on the same hall as the Federalist Society,
launched a $7 million media campaign to bolster the Republican-controlled
Senate in preventing Obama from filling the seat, according to a JCN news release
at the time. Working on the campaign was Creative Response Concepts, a firm
that was hired by multiple nonprofits in Leo’s network, tax filings show.
CRC’s president, Greg Mueller, describes himself as a friend of Leo. Mueller’s firm
gained prominence during the presidential campaign of 2004 for helping to
promote the “swift boat”
allegations, unsubstantiated claims that Democratic candidate John F. Kerry’s war
record in Vietnam was exaggerated. Among its clients now is the Federalist
Society.
Mueller said in a statement that the firm does not discuss its work for clients.
As the 2016 election campaign heated up, Leo became president of three new
nonprofits whose tax filings and incorporation records illustrate how his network
sometimes operates.

The groups — called BH Fund, the Freedom and Opportunity Fund and America
Engaged — were formed by an employee at Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky,
a Warrenton, Va., law firm with deep ties to the conservative movement.

The nonprofits reported having no employees and no websites. They had virtually
no public presence. Leo's role as president of all three groups was not disclosed
for nearly three years because of lags in how nonprofit groups report their annual
operations to the IRS.
All three hired CRC for public relations and consulting.
In 2016 and 2017, the three nonprofits raised about $33 million, with the BH Fund
taking in $24,250,000 from a single donor whose identity is still not publicly
known, documents show. BH Fund then gave a total of almost $3 million to the
two other Leo groups, Freedom and Opportunity Fund and America Engaged. The
Center for Responsive Politics published detailsabout the groups’ spending in
February.
In 2017, America Engaged passed on almost $1 million to the lobbying arm of the
National Rifle Association. That same year, the NRA announced a $1 million ad
campaign in support of Gorsuch. The ads targeted lawmakers in Montana,
Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota who had supported Obama’s calls for gun
control. “Your freedom is on the line,” the ads stated.
The media blitz coincided with yet another campaign to promote Gorsuch’s
nomination, by Judicial Crisis Network. JCN announced that it would spend $10
million, calling it “the most robust operation in the history of confirmation
battles.” CRC, its media consultant on the campaign, later boasted that online
videos, television ads, pundit commentary, opinion essays and other material
supporting Gorsuch had been viewed 1.2 billion times.
Leo’s Freedom and Opportunity Fund, meanwhile, distributed $4 million to
Independent Women’s Voice over two years.
The leaders of Independent Women’s Voice appeared frequently on Fox News,
speaking in support of Trump and his judicial nominees. They spoke at rallies,
according to videos, and they bought Facebook ads that reached hundreds of
thousands of users, according to a Facebook political advertising database.
Heather Higgins, the group’s president and chief executive, expressed doubts on
Fox News about the memory of the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexually
assaulting her decades ago. “If you have a weak standard of evidence, then what
you are doing is guaranteeing that future nominations will all be last-minute
character assassinations and circuses,” said Higgins, who records show is paid
$311,000 as the leader of Independent Women’s Voice.
Higgins did not respond to requests for comment.
She once described her group as a weapon in the “Republican conservative
arsenal” that caters to “donors who want a high return on their investment for
their political dollars,” according to a video of a speech she made at the nonprofit
David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“We have worked hard to create a branded organization . . . that does not carry
partisan baggage,” Higgins said in 2015. “Being branded as neutral but actually
having the people who know, know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a
unique position.”

Leo’s nonprofit network


In 2016, Leonard Leo created three new nonprofits. All three nonprofits have no
employees, no office space, no website and virtually no public profile.
Watch The Post’s documentary: Pathways to power.
Leonard Leo: 'I don't waste my time on stories that involve money in politics'
2:12
Leonard Leo's work in the nonprofit world has proved lucrative.
The Federalist Society, a charity, has regularly paid him more than $400,000 in
annual compensation in recent years, tax filings show. In 2016, the Catholic
Association paid him $120,000 for management consulting.
Leo’s only other publicly known employer is an obscure for-profit start-up called
the BH Group. It was registered in Virginia on Aug. 22, 2016, by the same law firm
employee who incorporated the BH Fund and the two other nonprofits Leo
started earlier that year. The firm is based out of a virtual office suite used as a
shared mailing address and meeting space for unrelated companies.
In the two years following its formation, the BH Group received more than $4
million from the Judicial Crisis Network, a related group called the Judicial
Education Project and a third nonprofit in the network called the Wellspring
Committee, all of them connected to Leo through funding, personnel and the
same accountant, IRS filings show. The groups described the payments in IRS
filings as consulting, research and public relations fees.
Leo, who disclosed BH Group as his employer in a campaign finance filing,
declined to say how much money he received from the company or provide any
other details about it.
“BH Group is a private firm whose team of professionals, which includes Leonard
Leo, provides management and consulting services to philanthropists and
nonprofits,” a CRC spokesman for Leo said in a statement. “L
ike similar firms on the Left, its clients are private as are the details of the work
for them.”
In December 2016, while Leo worked on Trump’s transition team, BH Group
donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, according to a campaign
finance disclosure.
The next year, Leo and his wife, Sally, were named Stewards of Saint Peter by the
Papal Foundation, an honor given to those who pledge to donate $1 million or
more for Vatican initiatives worldwide.
The Leos and their six children have lived in a McLean home that was purchased
in 2010 for $710,000, according to real estate records. They paid off a 30-year
mortgage last August and two months later bought a $3.3 million summer home
with 11 bedrooms in an affluent seaside village on the coast of Maine. In a
statement, Leo described the mansion as “a retreat for our large family and for
extending hospitality to our community of personal and professional friends and
co-workers.”
Leo speaks to reporters at Trump Tower in New York shortly after Donald Trump’s
election in 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Leo's work to influence judicial nominations has made him a hero to some
conservative activists. The esteem was evident in February at the closed-door
meeting of the nonprofit Council for National Policy, where Leo serves on the
board of governors.
“He is one of us. He cares about the Constitution. He understands that elections
may come and go, but judges with lifetime appointments . . . are going to be here
for a long time,” Rebecca Hagelin, a board member, told the assembled activists
and donors.
“And this is perhaps where Donald Trump is making his greatest, longest-lasting
effort. But he’s doing it based on a lot of the work by Leonard Leo. And today I’m
so pleased to introduce him,” she said. “Welcome him to the stage, and thank him
for all the work that he is doing to help save America.”
Dalton Bennett, Alice Crites and Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.
Posted by Thavam