Though best known for spending at least $4 million in 2016 on ads about filling Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy on the Supreme Court, a new tax document obtained by CREW confirms that the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) has also built a space for itself as a major funder of other groups. Between July 2014 and July 2015, JCN distributed $4.57 million to 17 different groups, including more than $2 million to groups explicitly seeking to influence elections.
The election-oriented grants accounted for 35 percent of JCN’s $5.67 million in expenditures in fiscal year 2014, though the percentage should arguably be higher as some of the other groups JCN funded also ran ads targeting candidates.
JCN has steadily increased its contributions to other organizations since its 2011 fiscal year when the group gave out $239,000 in grants to two organizations. The $4.57 million JCN distributed between 2014 and 2015 is the most the group has ever handed out, topping the previous year’s high of $3.17 million.
The recipient of the largest grant in fiscal year 2014 – $950,000 – was the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a political organization “whose mission is electing Republicans to the Office of State Attorney General.” RAGA wasn’t the only Republican Party organization JCN supported financially though. The conservative legal group also gave $700,000 to the Michigan Republican Party and $150,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which works “to elect down-ballot, state-level Republican officeholders.”
JCN listed two other groups in the political disclosure section of its tax filing, known as Schedule C. The group gave $25,000 to a political action committee called the Tennessee Forum that ran ads in judicial retention elections and $200,000 to the Michigan Advocacy Trust (MAT), which spent millions on ads boosting Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. CREW filed an IRS complaint against MAT in 2015 for spending on political ads without disclosing its donors.
As CREW previously noted, JCN has supported several groups in the past that have gone on to run ads focusing on candidates for attorney general, often on the eve of elections but without disclosing them to election authorities because the ads are framed as issue-focused rather than express advocacy. JCN did so again before the 2014 elections, giving $825,000, for instance, to the WMC Issue Mobilization Council in Wisconsin, which spent approximately $1.5 million on ads naming candidates for attorney general soon before Election Day 2014.
JCN also gave $250,000 to the Rule of Law Project, a non-profit that spent nearly $200,000 on ads aimed at Wisconsin’s attorney general race in 2014. CREW filed IRS and Justice Department complaints against the Rule of Law Project earlier this year for making false representations to the IRS about its political spending. Another recipient of JCN funds, the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance – now just known as the Public Integrity Alliance – ran ads targeting attorney general candidates in 2014 and 2015 in Arizona, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Non-profit groups related to Republican Party organizations were also major recipients of JCN funds. The Rule of Law Defense Fund (not related to the Rule of Law Project), a section 501(c)(4) organization affiliated with RAGA, received $435,000 while the State Government Leadership Foundation, affiliated with RSLC, received $400,000.
Though JCN funded a wide swath of groups during its fiscal year 2014, the group’s own financing was provided by just two donors, one of whom gave $5.25 million. The mega donor is almost certainly the Wellspring Committee, another non-profit run by the wife of JCN’s treasurer, which reported giving $6.655 million to JCN in 2014. Since the two groups use different fiscal years (Wellspring’s is January to December while JCN’s is July to June), it’s impossible to do an exact match.
Other than working as a kind of pass-through for the Wellspring Committee’s money to go to a variety of groups, JCN also reported spending $396,214 on public relations, $152,317 on research, $147,600 on polling, and $122,955 to Rhumb Line, a Virginia-based firm, for lobbying. JCN also said it “produced radio and television advertisements regarding significant legal issues” and “conducted media presentations covering major United States Supreme Court cases throughout the Court’s term, as well as previews of the upcoming Court term.”