In the weeks after the 2016 election, a small, well-funded nonprofit called the Judicial Crisis Network ran ads thanking Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, for “standing strong” and not allowing President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, receive a confirmation hearing.
The group had spent millions of dollars against Garland the prior spring and was gearing up for a fight to support President Trump’s eventual nominee, which the group would invest heavily in.
A few weeks after the ads ran, a nondescript Virginia limited liability corporation called the BH Group, formed just the previous August, gave $1 million to the committee that would fund Donald Trump’s inaugural celebration the following January.
Unlike the many other corporate inaugural donors — Fortune 500 companies like AT&T and Chevron, or even privately held companies, like those whose donations Mueller is now scrutinizing — the BH Group’s ties and motives for making such a large contribution have been difficult to flesh out.
OpenSecrets recently reported that the node in the network tying the whole thing together is the executive vice president of the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo, who has been put in charge of selecting judicial nominations for the Trump administration.
The nagging question has been where did the LLC’s money come from. The first answer to that, as OpenSecrets wrote last November, came in the form of a payment from a conservative 501(c)(4) social welfare organization called the Wellspring Committee, which paid $750,000 to the BH Group sometime during the first four months of its existence.
Wellspring said the payment was for “public relations,” though the group doesn’t appear to do much public outreach. It has a single board member, three employees, no website, and it gives most of its money out to other groups.
Now there’s another payment. New tax documents obtained by OpenSecrets show that JCN made an additional, larger payment of $947,000 to the BH Group around the time the LLC was making its inaugural donation. The payment brings the total known income for the BH Group to nearly $1.7 million.
While the JCN payment is new, the source of the funds still points largely back at the Wellspring Committee, who serves as JCN’s largest benefactor. Though the two group’s file on different fiscal years, their tax documents show that, during the calendar year of 2016, Wellspring provided a grant of nearly $23.5 million, and JCN appears to have received $21.5 million of that during the time covered in the tax filing, between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017.
Neither of the two groups is required to disclose its donors. All that’s known is gleaned from tax documents showing how the money flows through networks of nonprofits.
Wellspring received 90 percent of its revenue, nearly $28.5 million, from a single anonymous donor in 2016, and it gave a massive grant to JCN that accounted for nearly 84 percent of the group’s total revenue. JCN also received an additional $1 million contribution, and six contributions in the six-figure range, all of which are from anonymous donors.
The network of nonprofits and LLCs illustrate just how easy it is to pour money into political influence and possible access buying in Washington without wealthy donors leaving any fingerprints. By channeling money through nonprofits like Wellspring and JCN, donors names are hidden from the public, and by using an LLC to make a massive inauguration donation, the source of the funds is safely hidden behind an entity that has to file even less publicly available paperwork than a nonprofit.
The way this influence campaign played out in this case, appears to be that the Wellspring Committee made a payment to the BH Group, which is tied to Leo, who has been put in charge of the Trump administration’s judicial nominee selection process. Ann Corkery — wife of Wellspring’s current president, Neil Corkery, and former president herself — is a part of Leo’s team.
Meanwhile, Wellspring’s generous grant to JCN allowed for an additional infusion of cash into the BH Group, while also helping to fund that eight-figure push for Gorsuch’s nomination, once it was announced.
JCN representatives did not respond to OpenSecrets’ requests for comment.
JCN also gave out more than $11.3 million in grants to other nonprofits, including $1 million to the National Rifle Association and $250,000 to the 45Committee, both of which have spent millions supporting Donald Trump as a candidate or his agenda as president.