Very deep dive by Politico’s Heidi Pryzybyla:
At the time, the Citizens United ruling was widely expected, as the court had already signaled its intentions. When it came, it upended nearly 100 years of campaign spending restrictions.
The conservative legal movement seized the moment with greater success than any other group, and the consequences have shaped American jurisprudence and politics in dramatic ways.
From those early discussions among Leo, Thomas and Crow would spring a billion-dollar force that has helped remake the judiciary and overturn longstanding legal precedents on abortion, affirmative action and many other issues. It funded legal scholars to devise theories to challenge liberal precedents, helped to elect state attorneys general willing to apply those theories and launched lavish campaigns for conservative judicial nominees who would cite those theories in their rulings from the bench.
he movement’s triumphs are now visible but its engine remains hidden: A billion-dollar network of groups, most of which are registered as tax-exempt charities or social welfare organizations. Taking advantage of gaps in disclosure laws, they shield the identities of most of their donors and some of the recipients of the funds. Among those who’ve been paid by the groups are leading thinkers and individuals with close personal ties to Leo — including a whopping $7 million to a group run by a close friend and his wife. They also include a for-profit business for which Leo himself is chairman and which received tens of millions of dollars from his nonprofit network.
Leo’s role as the central figure in this movement has long been known, culminating in his acquisition last year of what many believe to be the largest political donation in history. Few are aware of the extent to which the movement’s baby steps were taken in concert with Ginni Thomas.
Two months before the Citizens United decision, but after the justices had signaled their intentions by requesting new arguments, attorney Cleta Mitchell — later to play a role in Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 elections — filed papers for Ginni Thomas to create a nonprofit group of a type that ultimately benefited from the decision. Leo was one of two directors listed on a separate application to conduct business in the state of Virginia. Thomas was president. She signed it on New Year’s Eve of 2009, and Crow provided much of the initial cash. A key Leo aide, Sarah Field, would come aboard to help Thomas manage the group, which they called Liberty Central.
After Liberty Central went public, it provoked an outcry over a Supreme Court justice’s wife promoting causes like overturning Obamacare that were before her husband’s court. Leo and Thomas changed gears. His network reactivated a dormant group, the Judicial Education Project, which would go on to become a major supplier of amicus briefs before the nation’s highest court. She created a for-profit consulting business using a similar name — Liberty Consulting — that enabled her to perform consulting work for conservative activist groups.
The Judicial Education Project supplied some of her business: Documents indicate Leo ordered at least one recipient of his groups’ funds, Kellyanne Conway, to make payments to Ginni Thomas for unspecified work, according to a Washington Post story earlier this year.
Now, Liberty Consulting is a focus of interest from congressional committees probing the Supreme Court’s ethics disclosures. Senate Democrats have demanded that Leo and Crow provide a list of “gifts, payments, or other items of value” they’ve given Thomas and her husband.…