New clues link $1 million Trump inauguration mystery money to secretive “dark money” network
Notorious “dark money” conduit Wellspring Committee gave $14.8 million to the primary spender on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and paid $919,900 to the mysterious LLC that made a $1 million donation to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, according to a new tax return obtained Nov. 27 by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Wellspring has acted as a conduit for large contributions from secretive donors since it was set up, effectively laundering multi-million dollar donations with no substantive disclosure or accountability.
Despite operating behind the scenes with a name unknown to most of the American public, Wellspring is at the crux of Ann and Neil Corkery’s network of politically active dark money groups, funneling millions from anonymous financiers to political causes they don’t want their names attached to — and doing ostensibly little else.
Wellspring has continued to be the chief financier of the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), with a $14,814,998 contribution last year.
JCN is another nondisclosing politically active nonprofit linked to the Corkerys’ network of conservative dark money groups. It has become the predominant dark money spender in Supreme Court confirmation fights as a vehicle for deep-pocketed donors to funnel millions of dollars behind or against judicial nominees.
Since 2010, Wellspring has funneled more than $54.2 million to JCN, according to tax returns obtained by CRP.
The bulk of Wellspring’s funds that came from three multi-million dollar secret donors in 2017, a shift from prior years in which the biggest amount the group received from a single mystery donor increased with each passing year. The largest donor accounted for $8.9 million, another gave $5.5 million and a third secret donor provided $2 million — but all of their identities remain hidden from the public.
The biggest anonymous contribution to Wellspring in 2016 was nearly $28.5 million, a jump from $8.5 million in 2015 and $6.96 million in 2014. That one secret donor accounted for around 90 percent of Wellspring’s funding in 2016, a year it gave $23 million to JCN.
As a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, JCN is not required to report its donors to the IRS — and chooses not to disclose its funders’ identities to the public — so its only discoverable donors are other entities like Wellspring that act as conduits for the anonymous money directed at JCN.
JCN was back in the limelight this year as the biggest spender in support of Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Following its tried and true playbook, JCN launched its first ad about Kavanaugh before Trump even finished announcing his nomination and soon after announced plans to spend $10 million on his confirmation. JCN pledged $10 million to support the successful confirmation of Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, the prior year and reported spending $7 million to block the confirmation of Merrick Garland before President Barack Obama left office.
JCN has also spent substantial sums on lobbyists, including Jon Kyl, who lobbied to help JCN marshall in Gorsuch’s nomination before becoming the official White House “sherpa” guiding Kavanaugh through that same process. He was later appointed to fill the late Sen. John McCain’s seat — ultimately enabling him to vote for the confirmation he was once tasked with helping Kavanaugh secure.
JCN spent $483,246 in total on Facebook ads and just $1,900 on Google platforms around the fight to confirm Kavanaugh with an estimated reach of potentially millions of Facebook users.
TV advertising made up the bulk of JCN’s reported spending on Kavanaugh with around $3.9 million going TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG estimates — leaving millions of dollars JCN had pledged to spend unaccounted for.
The puzzle of Trump’s mysterious inaugural gift
The only contractor paid by Wellspring last year was BH Group, the mysterious LLC created four months to the day before it made a $1 million donation to the Trump inaugural committee on Dec. 22, 2016.
The newly discovered payment for “public relations” follows a $750,000 payment to the newly minted BH Group the prior year as well as $947,000 from JCN to the BH Group around when the LLC made its inaugural donation.
While it initially appeared that BH Group was merely a shell company created solely for the purpose of laundering money into the Trump inaugural committee, more information about the LLC has only added to its mystery.
New tax returns reviewed by CRP reveal that Judicial Education Project, JCN’s sister 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, also paid an additional $1.3 million to BH Group LLC last year. Judicial Education Fund keeps its donors anonymous but CRP tracked the bulk of the group’s recent funding to DonorsTrust, which accounted for more than 99 percent of its money last year. Like JCN, Judicial Education Fund has also been funded by Wellspring in prior years.
One name that CRP has tied to the mysterious LLC is Leonard Leo, the executive vice president at the Federalist Society, an influential conservative and libertarian legal organization, who listed “BH Group” as his employer in a campaign finance filing reported to the Federal Election Commission.
Leo’s more widely known affiliation with the Federalist Society has gained attention after reports that it played a substantial role guiding the hand of Trump’s White House in its judicial nomination process, including in the selection of Supreme Court justices.
Ann Corkery, the Wellspring Committee’s former president and wife of current president Neil Corkery, has reportedly worked closely with him in this process and Leo has been “directly involved” in raising much of the anonymous money the Wellspring Committee brings in every year.
A public records request revealed that Leo and another Federalist Society vice president have also been involved in a nonprofit called the BH Fund, which was set up to enforce a donor agreement between an anonymous $20 million donor and the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, whose president came under fire for allowing donors to dictate conditions in return for financial gifts.
Incorporation records list BH Group’s address as a virtual office in Arlington, Va. and the only identified point of contact is Donna Smith, whose name matches that of a longtime paralegal at Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, the law firm that shared a Warrenton, Va. office with the address the Trump inaugural committee on its tax return.
Continuing the money churn
Staying the course from prior years, Wellspring also gave $400,000 to the Catholic Association, $48,000 to the Annual Fund and $350,000 to the Foundation for Government Accountability’s 501(c)(4) arm, FGA Action.
Another appendage of the Corkerys’ dark money web is the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a nonprofit run by acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker before he became Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff, as CRP first reported in 2016. Like Wellspring, JCN and the Judicial Education Project, Neil Corkery is also the treasurer of FACT. Nearly 100 percent of FACT’s funding came from a single anonymous donor each year since the group was created in 2014, which CRP discovered came entirely from a donor-advised fund called DonorsTrust.
In addition to longstanding dark money stalwarts that have realigned their priorities for the Trump era, new groups spending heavily in support of Trump’s agenda also weighed in on Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation battle but are not entirely isolated from the Washington swamp Trump pledged to drain.
Wellspring was one of the early donors of 45Committee, another 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit that primarily exists to support Trump’s agenda which spent on ads supporting Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation this year.
Another spender was America First Policies, the 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization staffed by former Trump campaign and White House personnel that has become the main dark money group supporting Trump’s agenda.
Although America First Policies itself does not reveal donors’ identities, CRP traced over a quarter of its funding to major corporate players, including Reynolds American and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade group representing the drug company industry’s lobbying interests.
New tax documents filed by another pro-Trump nonprofit, Great America Alliance, show it raised and spent around $3.4 million during that period. Unlike America First Policies, which reported millions more in previously undisclosed political spending it its new tax return, Great America Alliance claimed that it “educated voters through direct and indirect political advocacy messaging nationwide within the scope of applicable laws and regulations.”
This highlights one of the many legal grey areas emerging in the wake of Trump’s unprecedented move to register as a candidate for the 2020 presidential election on his first day in office — leaving the vast majority of financiers behind the growing network of dark money groups spending on his agenda a mystery.
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