The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) is making news these days as the main conservative group seeking to block President Obama’s ability to seat a replacement on the Supreme Court for late Justice Antonin Scalia. The nonprofit group, which does not disclose its donors, is spending millions on ads attacking nominee Merrick Garland and pressuring Republican senators to hold the line against even holding a hearing on his nomination.
Though it is much better known for its focus on the judiciary, JCN has also long-cared about electing conservative attorney generals who can be “key leaders in the battle for limited, constitutional government.” Since 2014, JCN has contributed at least $2.445 million to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which is dedicated to “electing Republicans to the Office of State Attorney General.” In 2014, the group also directly intervened in attorneys general races, running ads in Republican attorney general primaries in Nebraska and Arkansas.
JCN also has sought to influence the slate of state attorneys general by working with other groups to run issue ads in attorney general elections, particularly Republican primaries. Between July 2013 and June 2014, for instance, JCN gave $250,000 to a nonprofit called the American Dream Initiative (ADI), which went on to spend at least $532,000 to run ads attacking then-Texas attorney general candidate Ken Paxton’s ethics just days before a runoff election in the 2014 Republican primary. JCN’s funding covered nearly half of ADI’s expenses for the year. JCN also reported on its most recent tax form giving $1.35 million to the American Future Fund, a notorious dark money nonprofit that ran ads alongside JCN in Arkansas’ 2014 Republican attorney general primary. Another group, the Rule of Law Project, got $100,000 from JCN in 2014 and ran nearly $190,000 worth of ads boosting the Republican nominee for attorney general in Wisconsin while attacking the Democratic nominee.
A recent spate of activity in Missouri has all the hallmarks of JCN-style intervention in an attorney general primary, though the group itself has not directly weighed in.
On April 21, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a Washington, DC-based ethics watchdog, filed an ethics complaint against Missouri State Senator Kurt Schaefer. The complaint alleged that Sen. Schaefer may have used his position to influence the University of Missouri’s political leave policies in order to prevent a law professor from running against him in the Republican primary for state attorney general.
Two days after FACT filed its complaint, another out-of-state nonprofit, the Public Integrity Alliance (PIA), purchased airtime for an ad campaign targeting Sen. Schaefer that alludes to the ethics allegations. PIA has reportedly purchased $250,000 in airtime to run the ads and is sending direct mail pieces regarding Sen. Schaefer as well.
Sen. Schaefer’s campaign responded to the one-two punch by suggesting there was a “coordinated effort” between his opponent, University of Missouri law professor Josh Hawley, and “dark money forces from outside the state,” referring to FACT and PIA.
Tyler Montague, the president of PIA, told the Columbia Tribune that he had no communications with either Hawley or FACT’s executive director, former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker. That doesn’t mean there are no connections between the two groups though. They both have ties to JCN. As the Center for Responsive Politics recently reported, Neil Corkery, JCN’s treasurer and a member of its board of directors, is also FACT’s treasurer, as well as a member of its board of directors. Though they don’t appear to share any personnel, JCN and PIA have direct financial ties.
Between July 2013 and June 2014, JCN granted $410,000 to PIA, then known as the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance. In 2014, when JCN’s funding appears to have covered a significant portion of PIA’s $680,000 budget, PIA paid for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of TV ads targeting Arizona’s incumbent attorney general, Tom Horne, who was facing a primary fight under an ethical cloud. Since JCN hasn’t filed any tax filings covering the period after June 2014, it’s unknown whether the group has continued to fund PIA. But PIA continued to run ads in attorneys general races in 2015, targeting Mississippi’s Democratic incumbent and Louisiana’s Republican incumbent. Montague, PIA’s president, told the Center for Public Integrity that his group chose to engage in the races “after unnamed activists asked for its help.”
It’s certainly possible that the timing of FACT and PIA’s Sen. Schaefer actions and their connections to JCN are a coincidence. But the targeting of Sen. Schaefer does fit into the pattern JCN has established of working with other groups to influence attorney general races.
The behind the scenes connections between Sen. Schaefer’s antagonists doesn’t mean the allegations against the state senator are baseless. FACT’s complaint is partially based on a claim by former University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe that Sen. Schaefer pressured him to take away his opponent’s “right to run for Attorney General by taking away an employee’s right to ask for an unpaid leave of absence when running for public office.” The Missouri Ethics Commission initially informed FACT that it could not investigate the complaint because the issues were outside of its jurisdiction, but after FACT refiled the complaint, the commission said it would open an investigation.