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Leonard Leo speaks during an event in 2019.

Leonard Leo speaks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. on April 23, 2019. (Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Right-Wing Dark Money Group Gets $1.6 Billion Donation From Tax-Dodging Business Mogul

One observer called the massive gift "an extraordinary manipulation of loopholes in tax and campaign finance law."

Jake Johnson

A right-wing dark money group controlled by Leonard Leo—a legal activist who has played an outsized role in packing the U.S. Supreme Court with conservative ideologues—was the beneficiary of a massive, possibly unprecedented donation of $1.6 billion from a shadowy electronics mogul with ties to the Koch network.

The enormous infusion of cash, first reported Monday by the New York Times, could bolster and embolden right-wing efforts to drag the U.S. judicial and political systems even further to the right for decades to come, imperiling the climate, what's left of abortion rights, the franchise, and other freedoms that have come under growing threat from the GOP and conservative judges.

"With this fortune, Leo can maintain and even grow his singular influence in near perpetuity."

According to the Times, the donation to the Marble Freedom Trust from former Tripp Lite CEO and longtime Republican benefactor Barre Seid is "among the largest—if not the largest—single contributions ever made to a politically focused nonprofit."

The Times reports how the gift, based entirely on funds generated by the sale of Tripp Lite, "was arranged through an unusual series of transactions that appear to have avoided tax liabilities" for both Seid and Leo's nonprofit.

Citing tax records and an unnamed source with knowledge of the matter, the Times explained that "rather than merely giving cash, Mr. Seid donated 100% of the shares of Tripp Lite to Mr. Leo's nonprofit group before the company was sold to an Irish conglomerate for $1.65 billion."

The Marble Freedom Trust "then received all of the proceeds from the sale" last year, the Times found.

"For perspective," the newspaper added, "the $1.6 billion that the Marble trust reaped from the sale is slightly more than the total of $1.5 billion spent in 2020 by 15 of the most politically active nonprofit organizations that generally align with Democrats."

Seid is a major but relatively low-profile donor to Republicans and right-wing causes, including to organizations that attack climate science. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) notes that Seid is "closely allied with the Koch network and funnels dark money through the same groups used by the Kochs, including Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund."

Jane Mayer, the award-winning investigative journalist who has closely covered the Koch network for years, called the Times story on Seid's donation to Leo's group "huge."

Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of the money in politics watchdog project Documented, wrote in response to the Times reporting that Leo "now controls an astonishing $1.6 BILLION that he can use to reshape our political system."

"With this fortune," Fischer added, "Leo can maintain and even grow his singular influence in near perpetuity."

Leo has exerted much of his influence on U.S. politics through the Federalist Society, which has established a pipeline of far-right judges that have filled the benches of lower courts and the Supreme Court in recent years. Leo is currently co-chair of the Federalist Society's board of directors.

As he looks to spend his new group's huge windfall, Leo will benefit from recent Supreme Court decisions—including the infamous Citizens United ruling—that opened the floodgates to unlimited and secretive election spending from dark money groups just like the Marble Freedom Trust.

"After stacking the federal courts with conservative friends and allies, Leonard Leo has single-handedly amassed a $1.6 billion dark money slush fund that will dwarf Democratic spending for years to come," wrote Mark Joseph Stern, Slate's court reporter. "An extraordinary manipulation of loopholes in tax and campaign finance law."

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