By Walker Davis
October 12, 2018

Republican lobbyist C. Boyden Gray contributed $250,000 to pro-Trump political nonprofit America First Policies in April 2018, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed with Congress. The contribution makes Gray the fifth known contributor to the group, which does not have to publicly disclose its donors.

This week, the Trump administration announced it was lifting a seasonal restriction on the sale of gasoline with high-ethanol blends — a change that Gray’s lobbying client, the Illinois Corn Growers Association, has vocally supported.

America First Policies, along with a sister super PAC, America First Action, were created in 2017 to support President Trump’s agenda. Both organizations include alumni of his 2016 campaign in their leadership. However, unlike the super PAC, America First Policies was formed as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals without disclosing those funders’ identities to the public.

And though it is not supposed to have politics as its primary purpose, groups like America First Policies can and do spend heavily on elections and other political advocacy, which is why such groups are often referred to as “dark money” groups.

Most recently the group spent nearly $2 million on ads supporting the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court — on top of the nearly $2 million the group has reported spending on House and Senate races.  

Gray’s namesake lobbying firm registered to represent the Illinois Corn Growers Association in January, and Gray himself has lobbied for the group during the first three quarters of this year. The firm’s lobbying has been narrowly focused on fuel issues, some related to ethanol, and has targeted the EPA, according to lobbying disclosures. The firm’s lobbyists contacted the Executive Office of the President on fuel regulation during the third quarter of this year, and Gray was one of the lobbyists lobbying on that issue.

The ethanol industry has found an ally in President Trump. On Tuesday, he instructed the EPA to loosen restrictions on when a gasoline mix containing a higher concentration of ethanol can be sold. The change has been a high priority for the National Corn Growers Association, prompting the president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association to call it a “huge, huge deal.”

Gray’s work for the Illinois Corn Growers Association ends a six-year lobbying hiatus. Between 2010 and 2012, he lobbied on behalf of three energy industry clients, including Exelon and First Energy, and a financial technology firm, and then he became inactive.

Gray — who worked in the administrations of President Reagan and both Presidents Bush — hosted an event that was attended by President Trump in March, the month before Gray made his contribution. America First Policies’ president Brian O. Walsh, along with board members and fundraisers, also attended the event. One attendee, Harold Hamm, donated $500,000 to the nonprofit’s super PAC arm, America First Action, in January. Despite donors attending the event, the White House said it was not a fundraiser.

The president’s presence at the secretly-funded group’s meeting is symbolic of the unusual closeness between America First Policies and the Trump administration. Walsh has told the New York Times that “America First Policies exists for one reason: to support the president of the United States and his agenda.”

Consistent with that description, America First Policies has focused much of its spending on selling the president’s policies and urging confirmation of his appointees, in addition to nearly $2 million on political ads boosting Republican candidates for office. The group has had access to high-ranking administration officials besides the president. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry was expected to attend a private donor meeting in November 2017, and Vice President Mike Pence has touted tax reform at a series of events sponsored by the group.

Axios reported in January that the nonprofit raised $26 million last year. Public records have revealed that Reynolds American, Southern Company, CVS Health, and Dow Chemical have all contributed to the group, together giving $3.1 million. America First Policies and America First Action set an ambitious fundraising goal for 2018 of $100 million.

The way that groups like America First Policies are organized generally keeps the public in the dark about who is funding them. But that doesn’t mean that the officials they exist to benefit don’t know who their donors are. Former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, who was the beneficiary of a similar group, said in a deposition in June that he was updated on who was giving to the group and how much by the people running it.