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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)

'How Democracy Gets Corroded': Right-Wing Group Gets Two Dark Money Donations of $425 Million

"Let me make a guess: the money was fossil fuel-related, and will buy continued Republican obstruction of obviously necessary climate measures," suggested Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. "That's the pattern."

Jake Johnson

The right-wing dark money organization DonorsTrust was the beneficiary of two anonymous contributions of around $425 million each last year, according to a tax filing obtained by Politico, which described the gifts as "among the largest ever donations to a politically-connected group."

Politico reported Wednesday that DonorsTrust, a longtime funder of right-wing causes that describes itself as a defender of "free-market ideals," disclosed just three financial gifts in 2021.

"One contribution was listed for $427 million, and another for about $77 million," the outlet found. "The third donation was worth roughly $426 million—but not in cash. DonorsTrust noted that on December 30, 2021, it received hundreds of millions in 'closely held common stock in a C-corporation.' It did not provide greater details on the identity of that investment."

Dark money has become an increasingly pervasive force in U.S. politics in recent years, with big donors taking advantage of porous campaign finance laws and Supreme Court rulings that have opened the floodgates to untraceable political cash. In the decade that followed the Supreme Court's notorious 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, groups not required to reveal their donors dumped $1 billion into U.S. elections.

The 2022 midterms saw that trend accelerate: outside organizations, many of which are allowed under federal law to keep their donors hidden from the public, spent $1.6 billion this cycle alone to boost candidates across the country. Around $1 billion of that cash aimed to bolster Republican Senate hopefuls.

In response to Politico's reporting, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a trenchant critic of dark money's influence on the U.S. political system and judiciary, wrote on social media, "This is how democracy gets corroded by secret special influence—in roughly half-billion-dollar slugs."

"Who was it, and what did they buy?" Whitehouse asked. "Let me make a guess: the money was fossil fuel-related, and will buy continued Republican obstruction of obviously necessary climate measures. That's the pattern."

Whitehouse's guess may not be far off, given DonorsTrust's record. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) points out that the Koch network, a major booster of fossil fuels and climate denial, has "made significant contributions to DonorsTrust through their foundation called the Knowledge and Progress Fund."

"DonorsTrust promises to only funnel money to groups with an extreme anti-environmental bent," CMD adds.

According to Politico, DonorsTrust used the massive donations it received last year to "support a vast network" of conservative initiatives, "including a $17.1 million gift it made to The 85 Fund, a group founded by a major engine of the conservative movement: Leonard Leo."

The co-chairman and former executive vice president of the Federalist Society, Leo has been instrumental in the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court, and The New York Times reported last month that he is seeking to broaden his influence.

"His expanded effort focuses on a variety of causes," the Times observed, "including restricting abortion rights in the states; ending affirmative action; defending religious groups accused of discriminating against LGBTQ 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."

Leo, who controls a dark money organization called the Marble Freedom Trust, was also at the center of a massive—and likely unprecedented—donation that the Times, ProPublica, and The Lever reported in August.

Barre Seid, a Chicago business magnate with a long history of supporting right-wing groups that attack climate science, gave the Marble Freedom Trust $1.6 billion via "a series of opaque transactions over the past two years," ProPublica and The Lever noted.

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