Our most recent book is titled Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics. Among other things, it discusses campaign finance.
Leonard Leo, who helped to choose judicial nominees for former President Donald Trump, obtained a historic $1.6 billion gift for his conservative legal network via an introduction through the Federalist Society, whose tax status forbids political activism.
Leo first met Barre Seid, the now 91-year-old manufacturing magnate turned donor, through an introduction arranged by Eugene Meyer, the longtime director of the Federalist Society. At the time, Leo was the society’s executive vice president, and he is currently its co-chair. Meyer envisioned Seid as a contributor to the society, according to a person familiar with the introduction. Instead, Leo cultivated Seid as a funder of his own dark money network. The result was a $1.6 billion gift announced last year — which is believed to be the largest political donation ever.
The unusual arrangement in which Leo met his top donor through the prestigious Federalist Society — which describes itself as a nonpartisan educational organization — suggests closer ties between the society and Leo’s activist network than previously known. Leo has used the dark money network to donate millions of dollars to the society and to pay at least $1.54 million to one Federalist Society employee and $775,000 to an entity run by another, according to federal disclosure forms.
Interviews with people familiar with the internal workings of the Federalist Society, including two board members, paint a picture of a symbiotic relationship in which Leo uses his connection to the vast network of scholars in the society to earn credibility with donors, who then contribute to dark money operations that engage in the kind of partisanship the society officially eschews.
Leo’s political activism and his use of donor money to enhance his own wealth have prompted increasing tensions between him and his fellow co-chair, Northwestern University Law Professor Steven Calabresi, and Meyer, who has been executive director or president for more than 30 years, according to three people familiar with the society. But they said 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.