“$1 million mystery gift to Trump inauguration traced to conservative legal activists”–And Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo in the Middle of It

Great sleuthing by Robert Maguire/Open Secrets:

While the source of the money used to make the gift was masked from the public, a trail of clues puts the contribution at the doorstep of some of the same actors — most notably Leonard Leo, an executive vice president at the conservative Federalist Society — who have helped promote Trump’s mission, and that of his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fill judicial vacancies as quickly as he can with staunchly conservative, preferably young jurists.

Set up four months to the day before it made the donation, BH Group’s address, as given in its Virginia incorporation papers, is a virtual office in Arlington, Va.; the only person identified on the filing is a Donna Smith.

That name, while common, matches the name of a longtime paralegal at the political law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, whose Warrenton, Va., office was listed as the Trump inaugural committee’s main address on the tax return it filed last February.

Holtzman Vogel is a Republican firm known for specializing in creative legal maneuvers that allow donors to conservative causes to remain anonymous, at least to the public.

In March, when a reporter tried to speak with Donna Smith about the BH Group, Michael Bayes, a partner at the firm, responded instead, saying “We don’t have any comment on client matters.”

Another connection to the BH Group was revealed in November 2017, when a politically active nonprofit called the Wellspring Committee filed tax documents showing a $750,000 payment to the newly-minted firm for “Public Relations.”

That’s a substantial payment, particularly given that the BH Group does not appear to have marketed itself as a public relations firm. The group doesn’t seem to have a website or any listings that advertise its services.

Similarly, the Wellspring Committee is a notoriously secretive Virginia nonprofit, with no demonstrable public-facing operations, no website for publicizing them and only three employees.

It’s also not clear why a group like Wellspring would need costly public relations assistance. Its representatives did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

The group only has a single board member, Neil Corkery, and almost all of its money in 2016 went out the door as grants to other conservative organizations or as payment to the BH Group.

Wellspring was practically the sole funder in 2016, to the tune of nearly $23.5 million, of the Judicial Crisis Network — a group that poured millions into stopping the Senate from confirming former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick in the last year of his term, leaving an open slot for Trump to fill.

Legally, experts say there would be no problem with the Wellspring Committee giving $750,000 to the inaugural committee directly or, likely, giving it to the BH Group for that purpose; it’s not clear that straw donor rules apply to inaugural committees.

However, Wellspring’s characterization of the payment might raise issues for the nonprofit, if the check wasn’t in fact for services rendered.


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