Millions of dollars in television advertisements blasting schools for teaching critical race theory and assailing corporations like BlackRock, Uber and American Airlines for catering to “woke politicians.”
A lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court to radically reshape how federal elections are conducted. Complaints against President Biden for violating election law and against school districts that allow information to be withheld from parents about children’s gender identities.
These initiatives were advanced in the past year or so by a handful of new or reconfigured conservative groups — each with their own leadership and mission.
Behind the scenes, though, these groups have something in common: They are part of an ambitious coalition developed in recent years by the conservative activist Leonard A. Leo, who until now has been best known for his role in pushing the appointments of conservative judges to the center of the Republican Party’s agenda.
Most of the initiatives were financially supported, or in some cases launched, by an opaque, sprawling network shaped by Mr. Leo and funded by wealthy patrons, usually through anonymous donations that critics call “dark money.”
An investigation by The New York Times of Mr. Leo’s activities reveals new details of how he has built that network, with relatively little public attention, into one of the best-funded and most sophisticated operations in American politics, giving him extraordinary influence as he pushes a broad array of hot-button conservative causes and seeks to counter what he sees as an increasing leftward tilt in society.
The network represents a dramatic expansion of tactics and focus for Mr. Leo, who spent nearly three decades working mostly behind the scenes to pull the judiciary to the right as an executive at the Federalist Society. His success in that effort, and expansion into other polarizing fights, is rapidly making him a leading target of criticism from the left.
His philosophy is defined by a belief that the federal government should play a smaller role in public life and religious values a larger one, and that institutions and individuals should be challenged for embracing what he sees as subversive liberal positions.
While his efforts to put conservatives on the courts found a powerful ally in President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Leo, an Ivy League-educated lawyer, has steered clear of the most virulent strains of Mr. Trump’s right-wing populism, as well as his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and he has navigated past most of the fissures in the Republican Party.
Among leading political figures, Mr. Leo is more aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who as Republican leader in the Senate has worked with him closely on judicial nominations and shares an animus for laws restricting the flow of money into politics.
Mr. Leo’s approach blends cutting-edge political financing techniques — some of which he says are copied from the left — with deep connections to the Republican establishment and a willingness to harness some of the culture-war issues animating the base.
Mr. Leo had begun quietly building the new operation in 2016, but its scope and intensity ramped up substantially when he stepped down in January 2020 from day-to-day leadership of the Federalist Society and shifted his attention to building the conservative advocacy and donor network full time.
The network is made up of a loosely affiliated and evolving set of nonprofit and for-profit entities, through which Mr. Leo helps raise huge sums of money from donors, steers the cash to groups promoting issues he supports and then shapes the resulting initiatives.
To help administer the enterprise, the network’s nonprofits, including the 85 Fund and Concord Fund, have paid millions of dollars in consulting fees to private firms in which he has a financial interest, like CRC Advisors and the BH Group, enriching Mr. Leo in the process.
The network’s nine core groups have spent nearly $504 million on policy and political fights, including grants to about 150 allied groups, between mid-2015 and last year, with roughly half of that spending since mid-2019, according to an analysis by The Times of dozens of tax filings. And his efforts have been turbocharged by an unusual $1.6 billion infusion from a Chicago electronics manufacturing magnate in late 2020 that was revealed by The Times this year, giving Mr. Leo the cash to match his ambitions going forward.
At a time when some of the most influential financial supporters of the Republican Party have shifted their focus or been diminished, Mr. Leo’s network is shaping the conservative movement with decisions about which causes, groups and politicians get funded.
His influence stems largely from the credibility he built with conservative donors and politicians during his decades-long crusade to put conservatives on the federal bench, most apparent in Supreme Court decisions this year that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion and limited a crucial federal government tool to fight climate change.
His expanded effort focuses on a variety of causes, including restricting abortion rights in the states; ending affirmative action; defending religious groups accused of discriminating against L.G.B.T.Q. people; opposing what he sees as liberal policies being espoused by corporations and schools; electing Republicans; and fighting Democratic efforts to slow climate change, increase the transparency of money in politics and expand voting access.
“The idea behind the network and the enterprise we built is to roll back liberal dominance in many important sectors of American life,” Mr. Leo said in an interview last month. “I had a couple of decades or more of experience rolling back liberal dominance in the legal culture, and I thought it was time to take the lessons learned from that and see whether there was a way to roll back liberal dominance in other areas of American cultural, policy and political life.”
Since 2016, the grant-making hubs in his network and the recipients of their money have paid more than $30 million to the firms owned at least partly by Mr. Leo, CRC Advisors and BH Group, according to the Times analysis. It shows that he also has been paid more than $2.7 million in personal salary and consulting fees during roughly that time period by nonprofit groups in the network and their grantees, including more than $2.2 million from the Federalist Society, where he remains co-chairman.
For those upset by the increasing flow of dark money into politics and rightward drift of the Supreme Court — critics include both his neighbors in an idyllic seaside Maine town and the president of the United States — Mr. Leo has become a boogeyman.
In calling for Senate passage of legislation to increase disclosure of dark money spending, Mr. Biden singled out Mr. Leo last month as the personification of “a serious problem facing our democracy” wherein money “flows in the shadows to influence our elections.”
Without naming Mr. Leo, the president referred to “a conservative activist who spent, as was his right, decades working to put enough conservative justices on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade” and who “now has access to $1.6 billion in dark money to do more damage and — from our perspective — and restrict more freedoms.”
The bill went down to defeat in a procedural vote in which every Republican voted with their leader, Mr. McConnell of Kentucky, who in a speech on the Senate floor accused Democrats of trying “to erode the First Amendment and make political speech more difficult.”
In an interview later, Mr. McConnell praised Mr. Leo’s “ability to attract significant resources to the right-of-center world.” He called Mr. Leo’s plans “quite ambitious,” adding: “That sounds like transforming society, which is not easy. But look, I have a lot of confidence in his judgment and his convictions.”
Challenging ‘Woke Capitalism’
The ambition, tactics and impact of Mr. Leo’s network are illustrated by its campaign to punish some of the country’s biggest corporations for pushing environmental, social and governance causes, known as E.S.G., that generally align with a Democratic agenda.
The campaign has been pushed by two groups — Consumers’ Research and the State Financial Officers Foundation — that came to the issue relatively recently and have helped elevate it within the Republican Party. Both groups are clients of CRC Advisors, a firm with about 80 employees that Mr. Leo co-founded in January 2020, building on an earlier operation run by his allies for many years, that helps groups in the network raise money and execute their strategies.
Consumers’ Research dates back to the 1930s, when it focused on identifying and publicizing defective or unsafe consumer products. It had gone largely dormant by the early 2000s, but it was resuscitated a decade later as a Republican-aligned group working partly to topple federal environmental laws, using millions of dollars from donors with connections to Mr. Leo.
Among them, according to files obtained in a hack of a foundation and analyzed by the progressive researcher Lisa Graves, was Barre Seid, the Chicago electronics magnate. In late 2020, Mr. Seid donated his company to Marble Freedom Trust, one of the nonprofits controlled by Mr. Leo. The trust sold the company in March 2021, reaping more than $1.6 billion in proceeds.
About two months later, Consumers’ Research began an anti-E.S.G. campaign on which it says it has spent nearly $10 million — more than it had spent in the previous seven years combined.
The campaign was launched under the stewardship of Will Hild, a former Federalist Society official who is close to Mr. Leo and became executive director of Consumers’ Research in 2020. He would not say where the group’s sudden influx of cash came from. But a person involved in Mr. Leo’s network said it provided at least some of the money — funding that has not been previously reported.
Mr. Leo has no formal role with Consumers’ Research, but Mr. Hild, in an email, called him an “adviser to the organization.” Mr. Leo said “the woke capitalism battle is a very high priority for me, and I am very excited about what Consumers’ Research is doing.”
The group paid about $113,000 for public-relations consulting to CRC Advisors in 2020, before the start of the anti-E.S.G. campaign, according to a tax filing.
Consumers’ Research was listed this year as a top donor to the State Financial Officers Foundation, a little-known nonprofit organization based in Shawnee, Kan.
The foundation has helped coordinate efforts by Republican state treasurers to withdraw government pension funds from investment firms that focus on E.S.G. initiatives.
Mr. Hild has spoken at the foundation’s conferences about China and E.S.G., and this year, the foundation told allies that it had hired CRC Advisors, which worked with the treasurers’ offices to facilitate media coverage of the efforts to discourage E.S.G. investing, according to emails reviewed by The Times that were obtained through public records requests by the left-leaning investigative watchdog group Documented.
It is difficult to trace the support from Mr. Leo’s network and CRC for the anti-E.S.G. campaign. Filings that might shed light on it likely will not become public until next month or possibly next year. Even then, the flow of cash could be obscured since dark money is often routed through multiple entities.
CRC Advisors has corporate clients as well, though little is known about them, because there are fewer disclosure requirements. In one case, the firm seems to have unintentionally revealed a client — the oil giant Chevron — that could benefit from the campaign against environmental commitments by other corporations.
Bill Turenne, a spokesman for Chevron said the company has “communications advisory relationships” with CRC and “a number of firms.”
A particular focus of the anti-E.S.G. campaign has been BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, which has been at the forefront of an effort to push companies to respond to climate change by reducing carbon emissions.
Consumers’ Research has spent millions of dollars on advertising accusing BlackRock of “propping up Chinese Communist leaders,” having a hand in “soaring gas prices” by urging energy companies to divest from fossil fuels and contributing to “outrageous housing prices” by buying up single-family homes as rental properties.
In December, Consumers’ Research sent a letter to the governors of the 10 states with the largest pension fund investments in BlackRock, warning that the firm’s business in China, which has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, is “putting American security at risk, along with billions of dollars from U.S. investors.”
Three weeks later, one of the recipients of the letter, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a leading figure in conservative politics, ordered an audit of his state’s investments in Chinese assets. And in August, he and other state officials approved a resolution directing the state’s fund managers to invest to maximize returns, and not to take E.S.G. criteria into account.
In Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Utah and West Virginia, Republican officials have taken steps to pull hundreds of millions of dollars of state government investments from BlackRock, and officials in other states are considering actions against the company.
In Congress, Republicans are pledging hearings and investigations into BlackRock and other companies touting E.S.G. policies next year if they take control of one or both chambers in November.
“Consumers’ Research does great work, and I rely on them frequently,” said Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, referencing a number of targets of the group that he has criticized — including companies that pushed for emissions reductions and objected to a Republican election law in Georgia, as well as BlackRock and its investments in China.
BlackRock has formed internal working groups to determine how to respond. Its chief executive, Laurence D. Fink, held meetings this year with oil companies BlackRock has invested in, and has clarified that he sees reducing carbon emissions as a gradual process.
Brian Beades, a spokesman for BlackRock, called the campaign “politically driven misinformation,” pushing back on claims about the firm’s involvement in the housing market and climate change efforts. He added, “We are not going to allow dark money actors with a political agenda to stop us from doing the right thing for our clients.”
Other targets of Consumers’ Research have included Coca-Cola and Ticketmaster, which came under fire last year after they or their parent companies objected to a Republican election law in Georgia that placed limits on absentee and drop-box voting.
Mr. Cotton said he expected Republicans would seek to hold oversight hearings to determine whether corporate E.S.G. efforts were running afoul of antitrust laws.
“To the extent the Republican Party ever was more closely aligned with big business, those days are long since past,” he said.
The attacks on corporations are reminiscent of a memo written in the early 1970s for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by the future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. He argued that to offset a leftward tilt in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences and from politicians,” the business community needed to fund conservative political institutions.
Now, though, influential conservatives believe the Chamber of Commerce and big business are no longer reliable backers of Republicans.
“When you start looking across America — at business, media, education and lots of the other major institutions — you see a pattern of liberal dominance,” Mr. Leo said. “And some of those institutions had a strong liberal presence at the time Powell wrote his memo, but the dominance was not as pervasive and not as widespread as it is today.”
Forging Powerful Alliances
Raised in an observant Catholic family in New Jersey, Mr. Leo found his calling while enrolled at Cornell University’s law school, where he formed a chapter of the Federalist Society in 1989. Its mission was to push back on what its founders saw as the leftward tilt of American law schools.
After a clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and a stint helping with the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas, whom he had gotten to know on the appeals court, Mr. Leo went to work for the Federalist Society full time in 1991.
Under Mr. Leo’s leadership, the group attracted funding from some of the biggest donors on the right.
Mr. Leo worked closely with President George W. Bush’s White House, including on efforts to confirm the Supreme Court nominees, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and John G. Roberts Jr., both of whom had ties to the Federalist Society. And Mr. Leo teamed up with Mr. McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, and other Senate Republicans, to oppose the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick B. Garland, who is now serving as attorney general, to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
While Mr. Leo was working to keep the seat vacant, he was meeting behind closed doors with Mr. Trump, who was then closing in on the Republican presidential nomination. Two months later, Mr. Trump would release a list of Supreme Court candidates developed by Mr. Leo, a move that Mr. McConnell later said “reassured a lot of skeptical Republicans” about Mr. Trump.
But even as the 2016 election played out, Mr. Leo was starting to build political infrastructure to expand his influence regardless of who won the presidency, setting up three nonprofits to collect and disseminate funds from wealthy donors, as well as the for-profit consulting firm BH Group.
When Mr. Trump won the White House, Mr. Leo joined the transition team, BH Group donated $1 million to the inaugural committee and Mr. Leo advised on judicial nominees for an administration that would give conservatives a 6-3 majority in the Supreme Court.
Vacuum on the Right
As Mr. Leo’s role in reshaping the Supreme Court built his credibility and profile among conservatives, something of a vacuum was developing on the big-money right. The industrialist Charles G. Koch, who once led the most influential major donor infrastructure network, expressed regret for years of backing Republicans, and his operation emphasized a bipartisan push for leniency in the criminal justice system.
Some of the party’s top donors — leery of helping Mr. Trump but also concerned about invoking his ire — were either recalibrating their giving or scaling back, and one of the party’s biggest donors, Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate, died last year. The National Rifle Association has been weakened by legal problems.
In 2018, Mr. Leo started the Rule of Law Trust, a nonprofit funding hub. In short order, it received $80 million in untraceable cash.
Then, in January 2020, with Mr. Trump headed into a tough re-election campaign, Mr. Leo went public as the head of the new network, though details were scant. He stepped down as day-to-day leader of the Federalist Society and joined CRC Advisors as a partner and chairman.
Around the same time, two other groups that he had worked with on confirmation fights — the Judicial Education Project and a group that had been known as the Judicial Crisis Network — changed their names to the 85 Fund and the Concord Fund. The change seemed to reflect a broadening of their focus beyond the courts.
Mr. Leo does not have an official role in the 85 Fund or the Concord Fund, but since the beginning of 2016, they paid more than $7.4 million to the BH Group, and more than $41 million to CRC.
Some conservative operatives have grumbled about what they feel is an expectation that they have to hire CRC as a condition of getting money from Mr. Leo’s network, and say that in some cases he has boxed out other groups from raising money from donors with whom he is close — complaints that people in Mr. Leo’s network reject.
Some allies of Mr. Trump privately complain that Mr. Leo’s unwillingness to embrace the false claim that the election was stolen hindered their ability to sign top lawyers and firms to litigate the issue. They are closely watching Mr. Leo for signs that he or his network might align behind a Republican challenger to Mr. Trump in 2024.
Mr. Leo’s allies say he will support the party’s nominee, regardless of who it is.
Mr. Leo’s network has not been shy about taking on critics in Washington, like Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, who has repeatedly spotlighted him in speeches, including one last month in which he described called Mr. Leo “the little spider that you find at the center of the dark money web.”
But as Mr. Leo has become more prominent, the scrutiny also has hit closer to home. Over the summer, there were weekly demonstrations outside his mansion on the Maine coast where he and a limited liability company linked to him have purchased nearly $5 million worth of property in recent years, according to government records and interviews.
Mr. Leo has called the police on the protesters, and his hired security team has filmed participants. The guards have accompanied him when he walked his dog or ventured out. A young man who yelled obscenities at Mr. Leo while he was walking with his family in town was subsequently charged with disorderly conduct while participating in one such protest.
Early on a Monday morning last month, Mr. Leo was spotted along with one of the security guards outside his home where messages had been written in chalk on the street during the previous night’s protest, including “Dirty money lives here.”
Mr. Leo was bent at the waist, scrawling in chalk the names of women who the local newspaper had identified as participants in the protests. Mr. Leo told people that he was exercising his First Amendment rights.
One of protesters, Bettina Richards, said she happened to jog past while Mr. Leo was writing the list of names, which included her own. Mr. Leo did not acknowledge her, she said, though the guard waved and wished her a good morning.
Ms. Richards, 57, said she was surprised that Mr. Leo had felt compelled to take up a piece of chalk.
“You have $1.6 billion to be throwing around — don’t you have bigger things to do with your day?” she said she wondered. “You can write my name all over the road. I’m not embarrassed to be objecting to your positions.”
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