Leonard Leo, the former executive vice president and current co-chair of the Federalist Society, has come under fire for his dual roles of activist and leader of the prestigious legal organization. A new report has exposed Leo's involvement in securing a record-breaking $1.6 billion gift for his own dark money network, an arrangement which has raised questions about the extent of the Federalist Society’s ties to Leo’s political activities.
The Federalist Society, a nonprofit organization that describes itself as nonpartisan, has long been seen as a vehicle of conservative causes. But Leo, who was instrumental in selecting judicial nominees for former President Donald Trump and whose current business interests include the for-profit company CRC Advisors, has come under scrutiny for his involvement in political activism, and for his use of donor funds to benefit his own wealth.
The $1.6 billion gift was given by 91-year-old Barre Seid, whom Leo met through an introduction arranged by Eugene Meyer, the Federalist Society's longtime director. Instead of using Seid's donation to benefit the society, Leo has instead used it to fund his own dark money network, a move which has been met with disapproval by some board members.
The Federalist Society has been highly dependent on Leo’s network. It has received $5.6 million in grants in 2020 and $3.5 million in 2021 from The 85 Fund, a rebranded dark money group that Leo has said he plans to use to fund conservative causes nationwide, according to federal disclosures. This makes the Federalist Society the second biggest beneficiary of Leo’s primary dark money vehicle, aside from Donors Trust, another conservative nonprofit.
The ties between Leo and the Federalist Society have been further complicated by the fact that Trump promised that his Supreme Court nominees would all be picked by the Federalist Society. According to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, however, the list of Supreme Court nominees that Trump drew from was devised by Leo alone, without the involvement of the organization’s top brass or board directors.
Critics, including some within the society, have raised concerns that Leo’s dual roles could provide a potential end-run around prohibitions on political activity by nonprofit educational organizations and that his personal activities have become detrimental to the society’s image.
Leo’s involvement in the Federalist Society has also sparked tensions between him and his co-chair, Northwestern University Law Professor Steven Calabresi, and Meyer, who has been the executive director or president for more than 30 years.
Leo has yet to address the criticism surrounding his activities. A spokesperson at Leo’s new for-profit company, CRC Advisors, sent POLITICO a statement on behalf of Meyer, praising Leo’s “outstanding job at the Federalist Society for 20 years.”
The Federalist Society will have to decide whether Leo’s activities have become detrimental enough to its image that he should leave. For the time being, however, Leo’s ties to the conservative donor base fans fears that a rift would leave the society struggling for funds, while members also worry that any breach in the facade of the conservative legal movement would only empower the liberals that all sides disdain.