A new report from the Washington Post‘s investigative desk details how a right-wing operative has used shell corporations to dole out money to groups like the Independent Women’s Voice to advance his agenda for the courts and the law.
Leonard Leo, the Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society, helms a $250+ million dollar web of groups trying to capture the U.S. Supreme Court and change legal policy in numerous ways, including by reversing a century of landmark judicial precedents that Americans rely on, according to a new investigative report by Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boberg in the Washington Post.
As detailed in that reporting, one of the groups in that web that Leo has funnelled money to is the “Independent” Women’s Voice (IWV), a non-profit group Heather Higgins has claimed plays a vital role in the victories of GOP candidates through how she uses her “branding” as independent to target women voters. Higgins is the CEO of IWV and the board chair of the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF).
By Lisa Graves and Evan Vorpahl
Learn more about what you can do about “court capture” from the American Constitution Society here.
According to corporate filings, two weeks after President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy caused by Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death, Leo created a “donor advised fund” that he calls the Freedom and Opportunity Fund (FOF). He is the president of that non-profit group, which as the Washington Post points out, has no employees.
Over the next 20 months, Leo quietly received and distributed nearly $10 million at FOF, including transfering $400K in funds to it from another new and related Leo-controlled group he calls “BH Fund,” whose donors are anonymous.
All this and more was happening out of public view, while Leo was calling publicly for Senator Mitch McConnell to block any hearing or vote on Judge Garland’s nomination and hand-picking the potential nominees to the nation’s highest court for Donald Trump.
Who was the biggest recipient, by far, of the millions Leo was passing through from anonymous donors to FOF to groups in 2016 and 2017? IWV.
Leo sent IWV $4 million via FOF.
The Funds Leo Passed to IWV Since Scalia’s Death Were Its Biggest Gift
IWV was the biggest recipient of Leo’s FOF operation, as the Center for Responsive Politics noted in February.
Moreover, that surge in money enabled IWV to start 2018 with cash on hand.
As reported by the Washington Post, IWV and IWF have been very active on Supreme Court vacancy issues in that period, at the same time that Leo was focused on making sure the U.S. Supreme Court did not lose a 5-4 right-wing majority for his agenda. Leo’s goal was to maintain that majority, extend the duration of that majority into the future, and make the Court even more reactionary.
IWF/V leaders reached out to the press and public, echoing Leo’s lead in calling for Judge Garland to be blocked, despite his nearly two decades of distinguished public service on the D.C. Circuit.
Then after President Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch, whom Leo had pre-cleared, IWF/V echoed Leo’s call that Gorsuch be confirmed quickly by the U.S. Senate, which is under the control of dark-money defender Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Afterward, Leo made a victory-lap style speaking tour, appearing as the Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society as he addressed his allies.
For example, he spoke at IWF’s annual summit about winning the battle to get Gorsuch on the court. He told them how Gorsuch’s confirmation advanced his vision for the Court to interpret the law to limit the power of Congress and federal agencies. He called this agenda advancing the “structural Constitution,” which is a neutral-sounding means to overturn modern precedents. (The photo illustrating this story is from video of that event, which is available here.)
Neither Leo nor IWF mentioned, however, that he actually facilitated the largest donation to IWV since Scalia’s death–and perhaps the biggest donor in a single year in the entire history of the group since 2004.
Because there are no filings for Leo’s FOF for 2018, it is not known how much more money, if any, FOF gave to IWV last year when Justice Anthony Kennedy stepped down, and Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to that vacancy. However, the $4 million Leo passed through FOF to IWV helped allow it to have a surplus of funds on hand before Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement last summer. Whether FOF gave IWV more funding in 2017 is not known.
IWF/V Backed Kavanaugh from Start to Finish
What is known is that IWF/V played a leading role in the fight to confirm Judge Kavanaugh. It did so in spite of eye-witness testimony that he had tried to sexually assault a classmate, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and documentary evidence that he had repeatedly lied under oath, which he denied. The Washington Post‘s fact-checker also found that he misled the Senate.
As women across the U.S. organized against Trump trying to force Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court and as thousands came to the Capitol to speak out against him getting a lifetime appointment, IWF/V deployed its PR and media-outreach operations to try to secure his confirmation.
From the moment Kavanaugh was nominated, IWF/V promoted him.
As serious evidence against his fitness to serve on the Court and be a fair judge arose, IWF/V doubled-down and pressed for the Senate to confirm him.
The President of IWV, Tammy Bruce, a TV personality who stands in for Tucker Carlson on FOX when he is out, went on FOX to attack Dr. Ford and defend Kavanaugh. The Washington Post podcast captured those appearances and more in clips here.
IWF’s Andrea Bottner, a friend of Judge Kavanaugh and his wife, also went on the airwaves to say: “Just because an allegation is made, they don’t automatically need to be believed.” She told FOX: “Who do you believe in a he said-she said situation? For me, in this case, it’s easy. I stand with Brett Kavanaugh. I know Brett as a fantastic basketball coach, a mainstay at Sunday mass, a gentleman in social situations, an involved parent, and a good neighbor…”
She also asserted: “Sadly, too many people today seem to think that in a he said-she said situation, we should always believe the woman. That’s sexism, pure and simple.”
IWF/V’s team engaged in other ways too. For example, it co-sponsored a small counter-rally of “women for Kavanaugh,” alongside the Judicial Crisis Network, one of the other groups closely tied to Leo’s web of dark money to capture the courts. IWF representatives also spoke and wrote of “standing with Brett.”
IWV Touted Kavanaugh as “Your Investment at Work” and More
IWV’s specialty is what Higgins tells people are “messaging campaigns” to the constituents of candidates in political races that Higgins considers to be crucial and winnable, through targeted mailings, telephone “push polls” or quizes, and text messages, as documented by Arn Pearson, the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy.
In the media last fall, Higgins was actively promoting opinion polling about how the fight over Kavanaugh motivated the GOP base for the 2018 mid-terms.
After Kavanaugh was confirmed, Higgins sent out a report to her supporters touting “Your Investment at Work.”
In that quarterly report to donors and others on her list, she said that IWV “led key efforts in Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process,” asserting that they “were instrumental in the fight for fairness and due process.” She also attached images of IWF/V leaders and staffers being quoted defending Kavanaugh on CNN and in Glamour, Vice, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic, Refinery as well as various FOX programs.
The total amount IWF/V spent on the effort to push Kavanaugh’s confirmation is unknown.
Without a thorough examination by Congress of the scandal exposed by the Washington Post’‘s investigation or a whistleblower coming forward, the American people will not know the true financial interests trying to capture the court by bankrolling the dark money efforts Leo is orchestrating.
Kavanaugh Was Not the First Controversial Supreme Court Nominee that IWF/V Backed; Judge Clarence Thomas Was
The majority of American women disapprove of the confirmation of Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s “a 23-point margin (58 percent AGAINST to 35 percent FOR),” according to a Washington Post-ABC poll.
But that is part of the IWF/V playbook, to call itself “mainstream” while taking positions most women oppose.
Notably, IWF/V got its start as an effort to get Judge Clarence Thomas confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court in spite of the eye-witness testimony of Professor Anita Hill that he had sexually harassed her when he was her boss.
Back then, the public was closely divided over who to believe. The process the Senate Judiciary Committee used in response to her coming forward and the treatment of other potential witnesses was also sharply criticized.
The conventional wisdom is that polling about his confirmation underestimated the outrage of American women, as the following election year became known as the “Year of the Woman.” More women joined Congress in 1992 than ever before: four new U.S. Senators and 24 new House Members. With the election of Senator Dianne Feinstein and her appointment to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a woman finally had a seat at that table. She is now the Ranking Member of that Committee.
What’s Next for IWF/V?
IWF/V plays an active role in giving a woman’s face and voice to public policy positions most women oppose. That’s true in the area of judicial nominations and also true on an array of policy issues.
One of those issues is Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML). IWF/V knows that there is wide support for PFML, but it has launched a huge PR campaign to push a narrow and deeply problematic alternative for GOP legislators to use in response to the popularity of progressive proposals.
As the authors of this story previously documented, the right-wing Bradley Foundation has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars helping IWF/V try to come up with right-wing messaging around PFML and more.
Those revelations provided a rare glimpse into their promises to Bradley.
However, in this area–who is really bankrolling IWF/V’s role in the takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court and other parts of that agenda to change the law–all that is publicly known is that Leonard Leo passed millions IWF/V from what appears to be a single donor.
Lisa Graves is the Co-Founder of Documented Investigations and a researcher with the American Constitution Society (ACS) working with ACS on some issues regarding fair courts. ACS has an action page about responding to “Court Capture,” which is available here. Graves is the former Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice, where one of her roles was to help vet potential judicial nominees. She has appeared on MSNBC and other outlets about judicial nominations and more.
Evan Vorpahl is a researcher with Documented and previously worked with Graves as a Research Fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy.