New Dark Money Group Led by Trump Judicial Adviser Tied to Network Promoting His Court Picks

Anna Massoglia and Andrew Perez | February 27, 2019

Newly obtained tax records shed additional light on the web of “dark money” organizations tied to President Donald Trump’s top judicial adviser that were used to funnel millions to organizations that boosted the Supreme Court nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The Freedom and Opportunity Fund is helmed by Leonard Leo, a Trump confidante and longtime executive vice president at the Federalist Society, a national conservative and libertarian lawyers network based in Washington, D.C.

Between its inception in 2016 and 2017, the fund donated $4 million to the Independent Women's Voice (IWV), a D.C.-based dark money organization, according to tax filings obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics and MapLight. IWV was vociferous in its defense of Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, a Stanford professor who knew the justice while he was in prep school. IWV’s president, Tammy Bruce, said on Fox News last year that Kavanaugh was “effectively being used as a stand-in for all perpetrators.”

The fund is part of a broader coalition of dark money organizations in Leo’s orbit that have helped guide the selection and ensure the confirmation of Trump’s conservative court picks. Leo is closely tied to the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), the primary public advocate for both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. He’s also the president of a nonprofit, America Engaged, that quietly donated $2.7 million to the National Rifle Association and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit affiliated with billionaire libertarian Charles Koch, around the same time the two groups advocated for Gorsuch. Leo was also thrust into the spotlight for his ties to a mysterious $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee by the BH Group, a Northern Virginia limited-liability corporation.

Although the Freedom and Opportunity Fund isn’t required to disclose its donors, records show it received $400,000 in 2017 from the BH Fund, a Leo-affiliated nonprofit that donated $2.3 million to America Engaged in 2017. The Freedom and Opportunity Fund listed both the BH Fund and America Engaged as related organizations in its 2017 tax filings. All three list Leo as their president.

The BH Fund itself was funded by an anonymous $24 million donation. The organization first made an appearance as being responsible for enforcing a donation agreement between a secret $20 million donor and the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, whose president came under scrutiny for allegedly allowing donors to dictate academic and hiring conditions in return for financial gifts.

A central player in Leo’s network is a consulting and public relations firm called Creative Response Concepts (CRC), which gained notoriety for helping create Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that attacked 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam war record.

CRC has received payments from many of the organizations in Leo’s web. The firm was paid $400,000 by BH Fund and $100,000 by America Engaged in 2017. JCN has regularly paid CRC, as has the Wellspring Committee, which has been JCN’s primary funder for many years. CRC has also worked with the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a dark money-funded nonprofit that was previously run by Trump's former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

The majority of the Freedom and Opportunity Fund’s money came from a $2 million anonymous donor. During its second year of operation, the Freedom and Opportunity Fund's revenue dropped to $3.2 million, roughly half of its 2016 intake of almost $6.3 million. Nevertheless, the organization spent $4.2 million, which left it more than $1 million in the hole at the end of 2017.

Notable among its grants was a $500,000 donation to Making America Great, a pro-Trump 501(c)(4) nonprofit spearheaded by conservative funder Rebekah Mercer after a falling-out with America First Policies, a dark money organization created to advocate for Trump’s policy agenda.

The Freedom and Opportunity Fund also sent money to groups from the Koch orbit. The Center for Individual Freedom received $325,500, while FreedomWorks got $100,000 and 60 Plus Association got another $60,000. The fund also sent $107,500 to American Commitment, another offshoot of the Koch network that has campaigned against net neutrality rules.

The fund gave another $500,000 to the Conservative Action Network, a nonprofit formed in 2016 to support Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

This story was produced in partnership between the Center for Responsive Politics and MapLight.