Moments after President Trump’s January announcement that Neil Gorsuch was his pick to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, a small nonprofit that most Americans have never heard of launched ConfirmGorsuch.com. Complete with a tender video telling how Gorsuch “ran a paper route, shoveled snow, worked the night shift” before becoming a judge, the site provides biographical material and recorded lectures from Gorsuch
The group behind the site, the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) let it be known that it was playing for keeps, pledging to put $10 million into ad campaigns and social media promotion and hiring multiple lobbyists, all meant to pressure senators into approving Gorsuch for the slot.
But don’t expect to soon learn what wealthy individual, corporation, or even, potentially, foreign entity is providing the cash for this pro-Gorsuch push. JCN, as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, can keep its wealthy funders anonymous. Mostly, anyway: The only traceable donors are other 501(c) organizations acting as conduits for the anonymous cash directed at JCN and other groups.
New tax returns obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics show that one such donor group, the Wellspring Committee, keeps the Judicial Crisis Network afloat, as it has for years. The filings also show that Wellspring’s own cashflow comes largely from an $8.5 million contribution from a single anonymous donor.
In addition to pumping millions of dollars into JCN, the Wellspring Committee began to fund a handful of other nascent organizations — like the 45Committee — that have strong ties to the Trump administration and are boosting the White House’s agenda.
Anyone familiar with JCN’s activities over the last year may have gotten whiplash in January reading the group’s support for putting “Judge Gorsuch’s tremendous qualifications” over “playing silly partisan political games.” After Scalia’s passing last February, JCN spent millions on ads calling on senators to deny President Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, a hearing or a vote.
But that reversal fits with JCN’s history of supporting Republican nominees and blocking Democratic ones at all costs. Since JCN’s launch in 2005, it established itself as a key player in Supreme Court confirmation fights and longstanding ‘dark money’ conduit that allows monied conservatives to funnel money into these efforts without having their identities disclosed. Originally called the Judicial Confirmation Network, JCN was started by a low-profile conservative fundraiser and lawyer named Ann Corkery (along with her husband Neil Corkery as treasurer). It had substantial early backing from “California foreclosure king” Robin Arkley II to help marshal support for President George W. Bush’s nominees to the federal bench.
Conveniently, the Wellspring Committee is also run by Ann Corkery, who continued to draw a $120,000 salary for her 10 hours of work per week for the organization fiscal year 2015. (The group’s 2016 filings will not be available until later this year.)
JCN rebranded itself the Judicial Crisis Network following President Barack Obama’s election, shifting focus to blocking the new president’s federal court nominees and spreading the network’s reach to state level races. Aiming to influence judges and like-minded attorneys general in several states, JCN began pumping millions into other groups that took big stakes in state Supreme Court and AG races, including Wisconsin Club for Growth, the American Future Fund, and the Republican Attorneys General Association.
In 2015, the Wellspring Committee continued to bankroll JCN with more than $5.7 million, on top of nearly $7 million it gave the prior year to boost JCN’s spending in the 2014 midterms.
Wellspring’s donors remain a mystery, but their beneficiaries do not, because 501(c)(4) groups are required to report grants they make to other organizations in public portions of their tax returns.
JCN is, and has been for years, Wellspring’s main grantee, and it is safe to say that the JCN would not exist in its current form without Wellspring’s largess. For the period covering January 2012 to December 2015 — the last four years for which data is available — Wellspring reported grants of nearly $15.4 million to JCN, accounting for nearly 67 percent of Wellspring’s total outlays over four years.
During the comparable period, from July 2011 to June 2015, JCN’s total reported revenues approached $17.3 million, meaning that it received around 90 percent of its funds from the Wellspring Committee. (Nonprofit groups like Wellspring and JCN can set their own fiscal years, so it is impossible to track grants and receipts over exact time periods).
Funding GOP data, opposition research and more
Despite its large grant to JCN, Wellspring still had some funds left for other groups. For instance, it also gave $100,000 to “AR2 Inc.,” the 501(c)(4) arm of the “America Rising” network that creates and disseminates opposition research for Republican candidates and groups.
Only a small circle of other groups have reported any funds going to or from AR2. The super PAC arm of America Rising reported receiving funds from AR2. And AR2 received a payment from Ending Spending the same year. A 501(c)(4) that has earned a reputation as a heavy political spender, Ending Spending’s CEO is Todd Ricketts, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy secretary of commerce, and it is chaired by John “Joe” Ricketts, Todd’s father.
One other America Rising connection: Wellspring paid $500,000 to a vendor, the Opportunity Solutions Corp., which is located in a co-working office suite in Arlington and has made only scant information publicly available. No other (c)(4) groups or political committees made payments to the company, but incorporation records reveal that Opportunity Solutions’ treasurer is Rebecca Schuller, who also led America Rising’s initiative to target independent female voters during the 2016 general election.
Wellspring also reported giving $200,000 to Data Trust, a self-proclaimed “Republican and conservative data ecosystem” that is run by former Republican National Committee staff and has become the RNC’s well-curated repository of voter information. Wellspring lists Data Trust as a 501(c)(4) organization, but OpenSecrets Blog could find no record of such a nonprofit. The only client reporting payments to Data Trust, the corporation, during the 2016 election cycle was the RNC.
Grants like those made to America Rising and Data Trust in the first year of the 2016 election cycle show Wellspring’s affinity for groups whose aim it is to elect Republicans to office. Nonprofit “social welfare” groups like Wellspring aren’t supposed to devote the majority of their time and money to electoral activities; they’re also not supposed to work for the benefit of a single group, like a political party.
Coming full circle
In 2015, the Wellspring Committee also became an early backer of a shadowy nonprofit that eventually reported spending over $20 million opposing Hillary Clinton and supporting Donald Trump in the presidential race: the 45Committee. Wellspring gave $750,000 to this rapid-response political operation helmed by Todd Ricketts (remember America Rising and Ending Spending?) and worked in tandem with an affiliated super PAC called Future45.
Ending Spending gave $75,000 to 45Committee, according to newly filed tax documents obtained by OpenSecrets Blog that cover 2015, and Wellspring’s 2015 filings show ten times that, $750,000. And Brian Baker, Ending Spending’s president who also serves on AR2’s board and is the Ricketts family’s political adviser, runs the political operation of 45Committee and Future45.
Together, Future45 and 45Committee spent over $40 million in the 2016 presidential election alone. However, the full amount spent by 45Committee won’t be revealed until its tax forms are filed — possibly later this year, possibly in 2018 — and their donors may remain secret forever.
But the groups are still highly relevant: As Team Trump has made the transition from campaign to administration, 45Committee has likewise shifted from promoting or opposing candidates to spending millions supporting President Trump’s cabinet nominees.
And to bring the whole web back to its center, Wellspring gave $75,000 to the Federalist Society, an organization of conservatives and libertarians who “place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values and the rule of law.”
The Federalist Society is run by longtime Executive Vice President Leonard A. Leo. Leo has been credited with creating Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees and was Gorsuch’s initial point of contact with the Trump administration.
And it’s not much of a coincidence that JCN pledged to spend $10 million to get Gorsuch confirmed. Leo, after all, was a major force behind the creation of Wellspring’s primary beneficiary, attending a formative dinner just after Bush’s re-election with Ann Corkery, Robin Arkley and…Justice Scalia.
Who knew how neatly it would all wrap up?