Leonard Leo’s mysterious $200 million dark money war chest
A dark money group tied to conservative judicial activist and longtime Federalist Society executive Leonard Leo entered the 2022 midterms with a war chest of more than $202 million, according to tax documents obtained by CREW. The mysterious group, known as Rule of Law Trust (RLT), spent the last several years quietly raising millions of dollars from a very small handful of donors, cementing itself as one of the largest groups in Leo’s colossal dark money network. The network, which is now valued at well over $1 billion, is diving into culture war battles and leading efforts to remake federal elections.
The new tax documents show that RLT—which has no website, no employees, no volunteers, and no staffed office—brought in more than $157 million in contributions in 2021. This brings RLT’s total revenue from donations since its founding in 2018, not including investments, to $237 million, all of which came from, at most, just six donors who gave anonymously to the secretive group—an astounding total, considering that RLT didn’t receive any donations in 2019 or 2020. Almost all of the money RLT received in 2021 was from a $153 million grant from yet another Leo group called the Marble Freedom Trust, a $1.6 billion behemoth founded in May of 2020. Reports earlier over the summer showed that Marble Freedom Trust’s massive first-year revenue came from a single electronics manufacturing magnate.
Despite its prodigious fundraising, RLT has generally kept its powder dry, spending nearly $53 million since its founding—or 21 percent of its total revenue over that time. The vast majority of those funds were spent in 2020 when RLT gave nearly $36.3 million in grants out to allied groups. The largest beneficiary of that largesse was the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN)—now officially known as the Concord Fund—a dark money group with deep ties to Leo that is run by a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas. JCN has spent tens of millions of dollars helping Leo and the Trump administration seat conservative justices on the Supreme Court. In 2021, RLT’s largest expenditure was, again, a $3 million grant to JCN, which comes on top of the $16.5 million given by Marble Freedom Trust in its most recent tax year.
It will be a long time before the public has any idea how RLT deployed these funds in 2022 because RLT is registered as a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, which typically file tax returns a year or more after the spending takes place. But Leo—whom Justice Thomas once referred to as “the number three most powerful person in the world”—has made it clear that he intends to take what he’s learned in his decades of judicial fights and apply them to rolling back what he calls “liberal dominance in other areas of American cultural, policy and political life.” The constellation of groups in Leo’s orbit have been increasingly active in culture war battles over Critical Race Theory, trans rights and climate change mitigation.
But Leo’s most potentially consequential project so far may be the effort to change how elections are conducted. This week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Moore v. Harper, a case that could potentially give state legislatures unfettered power to make rules about how elections are executed in their state, stripping governors and state courts of any check on that power. The underlying theory has been widely discredited, prompting a rare filing from top judges in all 50 states urging the Court to reject the theory, but Leo’s network has been pushing the theory since 2020 and an amicus brief filed by one of Leo’s groups in Moore argues that critics misunderstand the history and exaggerate the consequences of such a ruling. We will soon see what Leo’s efforts and his fundraising prowess accomplish in a Court he helped to shape.