by means of Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg | Washington submit
Leonard Leo stepped onto the stage in a darkened Florida ballroom, appeared out at a gathering of some of the nation’s most powerful conservative activists and told them they have been on the cusp of gratifying a protracted-sought dream.
for two decades, Leo has been on a mission to turn returned the clock to a time before the U.S. Supreme court routinely accelerated the executive’s authority and endorsed new rights corresponding to abortion and equal-intercourse marriage. Now, as President Donald Trump’s unofficial judicial adviser, he instructed the viewers on the closed-door event in February that they had to mobilize in “very unprecedented methods” to help finish the job.
“We’re going to ought to take into account that judicial confirmations at the moment are more like political campaigns,” Leo told the individuals of the Council for country wide policy, in keeping with a recording of the speech received with the aid of The Washington submit. “We’re going to have to be wise as a stream.”
“no person in this room has probably experienced the kind of transformation that I feel we're starting to see,” Leo talked about.
At a time when Trump and Senate Majority chief Mitch McConnell are hastily reshaping federal courts by way of installing conservative judges and Supreme court justices, few individuals backyard executive have extra impact over judicial appointments now than Leo.
he's extensively referred to as a confidant to Trump and as executive vp of the Federalist Society, an influential nonprofit firm for conservative and libertarian legal professionals that has close ties to Supreme court justices. however behind the scenes, Leo is the maestro of a community of interlocking nonprofits working on media campaigns and different initiatives to sway lawmakers by using generating public assist for conservative judges.
The story of Leo’s upward push offers an internal appear into the contemporary machinery of political persuasion. It indicates how undisclosed hobbies outdoor of govt are harnessing the nation’s nonprofit system to impact judicial appointments so that you can form the nation for many years.
even as Leo recommended Trump on judicial picks, he and his allies have been raising funds for nonprofits that under IRS suggestions will not have to disclose their donors. Between 2014 and 2017 on my own, they accrued more than $250 million in such donations, occasionally known as “dark money,” in accordance with a publish analysis of the most recent tax filings attainable. The funds become used partially to assist conservative guidelines and judges, via advertising and thru funding for groups whose executives appeared as tv pundits.
The groups in Leo’s network frequently work in live performance and are linked to Leo and one a further via funds, shared board individuals, cell numbers, addresses, lower back-office assist and other operational details, in accordance with tax filings, incorporation information, different documents and interviews.
nine of the businesses hired the identical conservative media relations firm, artistic Response ideas, collectively paying it more than $10 million in contracting prices in 2016 and 2017. during that point, the enterprise coordinated a monthslong media campaign in assist of Trump’s Supreme courtroom nominee Neil Gorsuch, including publishing opinion essays, contributing 5,000 fees to news experiences, scheduling pundit appearances on television and posting on-line video clips that were seen 50 million instances, in keeping with a report on the company’s web site.
In an additional case, a nonprofit Leo launched in 2016, the freedom and chance Fund, gave $four million over two years to a nonprofit referred to as impartial ladies’s Voice, about half the group’s revenue, tax filings display. Leaders of unbiased women’s Voice remaining yr spoke at rallies, wrote online commentary and looked continually on Fox information to advertise yet another of Trump’s Supreme courtroom nominees, Brett Kavanaugh.
during an on-digital camera interview for a publish documentary, Leo known as himself “a pacesetter of the conservative legal move” and noted, “I don't have any thought how many businesses I’ve been concerned with through the years.”
A religious Catholic, Leo mentioned he's driven with the aid of his religion and a literal interpretation of the charter. He additionally defended the observe 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] had been all very much fueled via very prosperous people, and many times prosperous americans who selected to be anonymous,” Leo said.
however he refused to speak concerning the money at the back of his advocacy, asserting “I’m no longer particularly knowledgeable about a lot of it.”
“I even have a really elementary rule, which is, I’m engaged within the combat of ideas, and i care very deeply about our constitution and the position of courts in our society,” he talked about. “and i don’t waste my time on reports that involve money and politics because what I care about is ideas.”
Later, based on written questions concerning the interlocking nonprofits, Leo described the network as “a pretty good and highly a hit judicial coalition that’s organized simply in regards to the identical because the Left’s, except that their coalition is drastically greater and enhanced funded.”
A conservative moneyman
Leo, fifty three, wears round, horn-rimmed glasses, tailor-made matches and monochromatic pocket squares. His workplace at the Federalist Society is full of mementos of his profession, together with a pink Trump-crusade-vogue hat that reads “Make The court superb 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 true Boss.”
Leo grew up in suburban New Jersey, where his excessive college yearbook lists his nickname because the “Moneybags child” and shows a graphic of him preserving a handful of cash. He attended Cornell as an undergraduate and legislations student and centered an early chapter of the Federalist Society, then an all-volunteer company concentrated on infusing ordinary prison values into the nation’s law faculties.
His conservative values stood out. When a classmate protesting apartheid in South Africa threw a chocolate cream pie into the face of the tuition’s president, Leo expressed outrage in a letter to the scholar newspaper. “however some will dismiss Tuesday as simplest a pie-throwing incident, it is consultant of a extra adversarial sort of expression that has turn into more usual,” he wrote.
In 1990, Leo grew to be a clerk for a U.S. court of Appeals judge within the District of Columbia, where he met Clarence Thomas, then an appellate judge. both grew to be shut friends.
After his clerkship, Leo joined the Federalist Society as one in every of its first paid employees. however he delayed the birth date to help Thomas through his contentious affirmation process for the Supreme courtroom.
on the Federalist Society, Leo took a number one role in the conservative criminal circulate, a part of a burgeoning effort to counter the have an effect on of the Sixties and liberals on education, legislations and politics.
With the election of George W. Bush, Leo began working as an outdoor adviser for the White house on initiatives related to judicial nominations. amongst his allies become Kavanaugh, then White residence associate assistance.
In January 2003, Leo known as White condominium officers, including Kavanaugh, to object to a plan by Bush to weigh in on affirmative action. Bush turned into going to criticize the follow however praise racial variety. Leo complained that praising variety would “disgust any conservative who thinks that this is a depend of principle,” according to a prior to now unreported e mail through a White house legitimate describing probably the most calls.
About quarter-hour later, Kavanaugh wrote again: “Leonard simply referred to as me and gave me the same earful.”
Leo told The put up that from the debts of the calls, “it seems i was conveying the generally shared perception among conservatives that discriminating on the foundation of race is at all times wrong and inconsistent with the respect and value of each person.”
Leo came to be generic in the White residence as coordinator of “all outside coalition exercise regarding judicial nominations,” in keeping with a 2003 email by using a White house aide to Kavanaugh and others.
Leo additionally developed a reputation as a conservative moneyman. When Kavanaugh and other Bush aides were hunting for a person to pay for a press adventure aimed at supporting the stalled judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada, they became to Leo.
“Leonard Leo will know,” a White residence aide wrote in an e-mail obtained via The post. “We probably don’t want the fed soc deciding to buy it, however he might understand some generous donor.”
‘every little thing is up and up’
Leo’s behind-the-scenes activism got here on the same time he become assisting to develop the Federalist Society, which describes itself as nonpartisan. Leo advised The publish he has taken steps to avoid any conflict.
“I separate my advocacy from the educational work of The Federalist Society,” he noted in his commentary. “I put in a full day’s work for the Society and spend quite a lot of my personal time on the other public carrier work I additionally love.”
Leo told The put up he has employed ideas liberals used to derail the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme court docket nearly three decades in the past.
In 2005 and 2006, Leo served as the chief of the campaigns aiding Supreme court docket nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito. He and different contributors of an advocacy coalition spent about $15 million in donations from undisclosed donors on adverts, telemarketing and the mobilization of “grass roots” companies, Leo later informed a Federalist Society chapter at the college of Virginia. They conducted polls to support craft the most persuasive messages and organized dozens of “history” briefings for journalists.
A key a part of those efforts changed into a new nonprofit known as the Judicial affirmation network, or JCN. Tax filings demonstrate it changed into based at the domestic of Ann and Neil Corkery, close allies of Leo who have served as board members or treasurers of corporations run through Leo and a small group of interconnected activists.
One radio spot paid for with the aid of JCN in Arkansas featured a local minister who warned listeners that liberals desired to curb religious freedom, including Christmas celebrations. “Now these extremist groups need our senators to vote against decide Alito for the us Supreme court,” the ad talked about.
within the interview with The publish, Leo spoke of he took time off from the Federalist Society – a charity that says it doesn't endorse certain nominees – all over the nomination fights in 2005 and 2006. The neighborhood’s tax filings demonstrate that his compensation in those two years jumped by using basically 50%, to about $328,000 annually. Leo did not respond to a question about how his compensation became suffering from his day without work. A spokesman for the Federalist Society noted Leo’s pay went up – regardless of the break day – as a result of the company’s “staggering profits boom.” lower back on the Federalist Society right here yr, his compensation changed into $419,000.
files demonstrate that Leo under no circumstances assumed a formal position at JCN, which finally modified its identify to the Judicial disaster community. however he told The post he is “very supportive” of the neighborhood.
The ties between JCN and Leo are opaque. JCN’s workplace is on the same hallway because the Federalist Society in a downtown Washington constructing, though JCN’s web page and tax filings record a mailing handle at a distinct location, an tackle shared by diverse businesses.
JCN board director Gary Marx instructed The put up the two businesses share identical dreams however have “diverse boards, diverse missions, distinctive capabilities and do very different things.”
When a publish reporter visited the JCN workplaces to ask questions, a protection preserve contacted a longtime worker of the Federalist Society to look no matter if any individual at JCN become attainable. A Federalist Society worker then escorted the reporter to JCN’s office.
The neighborhood’s president, Daniel Casey, has labored closely with Leo for years. Casey receives no pay from JCN or three different nonprofits in the network that he helps to guide, tax filings demonstrate. He acquired more than $1.5 million in charges from the Federalist Society over 9 years for media training through a company based at his home in front Royal, Virginia.
In an interview with The submit, Casey declined to discuss that company, DC techniques. He talked about all of the nonprofit corporations he's affiliated with adopted the legislation. “every thing is up and up,” he referred to.
Leo informed The submit that Casey has been “a highly expert issuer of strategic consulting services in the prison policy house for over 30 years.”
Hobnobbing with the Justices
Leo’s have an impact on and political connections persevered to expand even as President Barack Obama took over the White condo.
He robotically attended galas and black-tie Federalist Society pursuits that protected justices Thomas, Alito and Antonin Scalia, in addition to McConnell and different leading lawmakers, in accordance with interviews and annual reviews by the Federalist Society.
He also grew to be more adept at managing media campaigns. In a prior to now undisclosed email, Leo boasted to a colleague in 2009 about his savvy generating free publicity through the Federalist Society.
“I’m very general with the media,” Leo wrote to Tom Carter, then a spokesman for the U.S. fee on overseas religious Freedom, a executive company created to advertise spiritual liberty overseas. “I spend probably near $800,000 annually on a PR team on the Federalist Society, and we generate press that has a publicity cost of approximately $146 million every 12 months.”
Leo, then a commissioner, said the Federalist Society had realized to sidestep pointed questions on judicial nominees – and he entreated Carter to do the equal in his work for the commission. “We get around these inquiries quite smartly, and i am bound that you can locate a way to achieve this as neatly,” he wrote.
Leo joined additional advocacy companies that multiplied his impact following the Supreme courtroom’s landmark residents United choice in 2010, which lifted restrictions on spending by using corporations, unions and nonprofits on politically oriented ads and media campaigns.
His growing community became composed mainly of nonprofits called “social welfare corporations,” which can be allowed to have interaction in politics as long because it’s no longer their fundamental exercise. It also protected some public charities, that can get hold of tax-deductible donations and are prohibited from backing or opposing candidates for workplace.
In 2010, Leo served on the board of a tea birthday party neighborhood referred to as Liberty critical. Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme court Justice Clarence Thomas, obtained $one hundred twenty,511 as the start-up’s president that year. She later stepped down following questions on viable conflicts of hobby, asserting the problem had become a distraction for the neighborhood.
In 2012, Leo joined the boards of the nonprofit Catholic association and an affiliated charity, the Catholic association groundwork. They funded campaigns to rally Catholic voters and forestall states from recognizing equal-intercourse marriage.
the two Catholic nonprofits launched a 3rd company known as Catholic Voices. Its mentioned mission became to train Catholic lay members to recommend for spiritual and conservative causes, some of whom later wrote letters for book in primary newspapers condemning the not pricey Care Act and Roe v. Wade, the Supreme courtroom determination that made abortion criminal.
The next 12 months, Leo joined forces with filthy rich conservative donor Rebekah Mercer and Stephen Bannon, then the chairman of Breitbart information, on the board of a small charity known as Reclaim manhattan. Mercer and Bannon would go on to play critical roles in Trump’s insurgent campaign, Mercer as a number one economic backer and Bannon as campaign chief.
in the 12 months Leo joined Mercer’s neighborhood, and within the two following years, the Mercer family unit grew to be a leading benefactor of the Federalist Society, donating a complete of nearly $6 million, tax filings show.
meeting with Trump, McGahn
In March 2016, Leo met with Trump and Federalist Society member Donald McGahn on the Washington law firm Jones Day, just as Trump turned into beginning to be successful in his quest to be the Republican nominee, Leo told The put up.
Justice Scalia had simply died, and the men were mulling the implications. McGahn had get a hold of the conception of generating an inventory of capabilities Supreme court docket nominees that Trump could disclose to win over moderates. Leo spoke of he briefed Trump about the latest composition of the court docket, the ideology of the justices and so on.
As Leo tells it, Trump changed into open to one of his lengthy-held desires: A federal court docket equipment dominated with the aid of conservative judges who consider the constitution need to be interpreted actually.
Leo later gave the president a listing of viable Supreme courtroom nominees. Trump released the list during the fundamental campaign, a gesture that helped him win the assist of skeptical mainstream Republicans. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh have been delivered to the checklist later.
JCN, the group that has workplace space on the identical hall because the Federalist Society, launched a $7 million media crusade to bolster the Republican-managed Senate in fighting Obama from filling the seat, in keeping with a JCN information unlock on the time. working on the crusade become inventive Response ideas, a firm that became hired by way of distinctive nonprofits in Leo’s network, tax filings reveal. CRC’s president, Greg Mueller, describes himself as a friend of Leo. Mueller’s enterprise received prominence all the way through the presidential crusade of 2004 for assisting to advertise the “swift boat” allegations, unsubstantiated claims that Democratic candidate John Kerry’s battle list in Vietnam became exaggerated. among its customers now is the Federalist Society.
Mueller noted in a press release that the company does not focus on its work for purchasers.
as the 2016 election campaign heated up, Leo grew to become president of three new nonprofits whose tax filings and incorporation records illustrate how his community now and again operates.
The organizations – known as BH Fund, the freedom and probability Fund and america Engaged – were formed through an employee at Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, a Warrenton, Virginia, legislations enterprise with deep ties to the conservative circulation.
The nonprofits mentioned having no personnel and no web sites. that they had well-nigh no public presence. Leo’s role as president of all three corporations was not disclosed for practically three years on account of lags in how nonprofit agencies record their annual operations to the IRS.
All three hired CRC for public family members 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 id remains no longer publicly usual, files demonstrate. BH Fund then gave a total of almost $three million to the two other Leo groups, Freedom and possibility Fund and the united states Engaged. The center for Responsive Politics posted details about the agencies’ spending in February.
In 2017, the usa Engaged handed on virtually $1 million to the lobbying arm of the country wide Rifle affiliation. That same yr, the NRA introduced a $1 million advert crusade in help of Gorsuch. The advertisements centered lawmakers in Montana, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota who had supported Obama’s requires gun handle. “Your freedom is on the line,” the adverts mentioned.
The media blitz coincided with yet yet another crusade to promote Gorsuch’s nomination, through Judicial crisis community. JCN introduced that it could spend $10 million, calling it “probably the most potent operation in the history of affirmation battles.” CRC, its media consultant on the campaign, later boasted that on-line movies, tv ads, pundit commentary, opinion essays and other cloth assisting Gorsuch had been seen 1.2 billion instances.
Leo’s Freedom and chance Fund, in the meantime, disbursed $four million to independent women’s Voice over two years.
The leaders of independent women’s Voice looked frequently on Fox information, speaking in help of Trump and his judicial nominees. They spoke at rallies, in response to video clips, and they purchased fb ads that reached tons of of heaps of clients, in keeping with a fb political advertising database.
Heather Higgins, the community’s president and chief executive, expressed doubts on Fox information concerning the reminiscence of the girl accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her many years in the past. “you probably have a vulnerable standard of proof, then what you are doing is guaranteeing that future nominations will all be ultimate-minute personality assassinations and circuses,” spoke of Higgins, who statistics show is paid $311,000 as the leader of unbiased ladies’s Voice.
Higgins didn't respond to requests for comment.
She as soon as described her community as a weapon within the “Republican conservative arsenal” that caters to “donors who want a excessive return on their investment for their political greenbacks,” based on a video of a speech she made at the nonprofit David Horowitz Freedom center.
“we have labored tough to create a branded firm . . . that does not lift partisan baggage,” Higgins mentioned in 2015. “Being branded as neutral but basically having the americans who be aware of, recognize that you’re actually conservative places us in a different position.”
Leonard Leo’s work in the nonprofit world has proved lucrative.
The Federalist Society, a charity, has constantly paid Leo more than $four hundred,000 in annual compensation in contemporary years, tax filings demonstrate. In 2016, the Catholic association paid him $one hundred twenty,000 for management consulting.
Leo’s handiest different publicly standard corporation is an obscure for-profit birth-up referred to as the BH community. It turned into registered in Virginia on Aug. 22, 2016, by means of the equal legislation enterprise worker who incorporated the BH Fund and both different nonprofits Leo started previous that yr. The enterprise is based mostly out of a digital office suite used as a shared mailing handle and assembly area for unrelated businesses.
in the two years following its formation, the BH neighborhood received more than $4 million from the Judicial disaster network, a related neighborhood referred to as the Judicial education assignment and a 3rd nonprofit within the community called the Wellspring Committee, all of them linked to Leo via funding, personnel and the same accountant, IRS filings show. The businesses described the payments in IRS filings as consulting, analysis and public family members prices.
Leo, who disclosed BH group as his organisation in a crusade finance submitting, declined to say how a great deal funds he obtained from the business or give some other particulars about it.
“BH community is a non-public company whose crew of gurus, which contains Leonard Leo, offers administration and consulting capabilities to philanthropists and nonprofits,” a CRC spokesman for Leo observed in a press release. “Like equivalent companies on the Left, its valued clientele are inner most as are the details of the work for them.”
In December 2016, while Leo labored on Trump’s transition group, BH group donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, based on a campaign finance disclosure.
The subsequent year, Leo and his spouse, Sally, have been named Stewards of Saint Peter by using the Papal basis, an honor given to people that pledge to donate $1 million or greater for Vatican initiatives global.
Leo, his wife and their six toddlers have lived in a McLean, Virginia, domestic that was bought in 2010 for $710,000, according to real property data. They paid off a 30-year mortgage closing August and two months later bought a $three.3 million summer time domestic with 11 bedrooms in an prosperous seaside village on the coast of Maine. In an announcement, Leo described the mansion as “a retreat for our significant household and for extending hospitality to our community of private and professional friends and colleagues.”
‘Going to be right here for a very long time’
Leo’s work to affect judicial nominations has made him a hero to a few conservative activists. The esteem became evident in February at the closed-door assembly of the nonprofit Council for countrywide policy, where Leo serves on the board of governors.
“he is considered one of us. He cares about the charter. He is familiar with that elections can also come and go, but judges with lifetime appointments . . . are going to be here for a very long time,” Rebecca Hagelin, a board member, advised the assembled activists and donors.
“And here is perhaps where Donald Trump is making his most appropriate, longest-lasting effort. however he’s doing it based on lots of the work via Leonard Leo. And nowadays I’m so glad to introduce him,” she noted. “Welcome him to the stage, and thank him for the entire work that he's doing to assist shop the us.”
The Washington post’s Dalton Bennett, Alice Crites and Andrew Tran contributed to this report.