Major Right-Wing Funders Push Supreme Court Case Against Donor Disclosure

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Rodriquez. The case challenges the constitutionality of a California law that requires nonprofits operating in the state to provide regulators with a copy of their Internal Revenue Service (IRS) form listing their largest donors.

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), a $19 million nonprofit in the vast political network of billionaire Charles Koch, and its allies argue that the rule infringes on their First Amendment rights and will open donors up to harassment and deter their giving, despite the fact that the information is kept confidential from the public. The case has been consolidated with another challenge to California's law by the Thomas More Law Center, a  Christian Right litigation group.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld California's disclosure law as constitutional and justified by the state’s need to ensure that tax-exempt funds are not used for improper purposes or self-dealing. AFPF and the hundreds of organizations that have signed amicus briefs in support of billionaire Charles Koch network's position hope that the newly expanded right-wing majority on the Supreme Court will reverse that decision and lay the groundwork for future rulings against dark money disclosure laws.

Many of the organizations that have filed and signed onto briefs supporting AFPF receive cash from Koch funding vehicles and/or other major right-wing, private foundations.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) analyzed the available IRS tax filings between 2015 and 2019 of 11 prominent right-wing funding nonprofits and Koch contributions to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). CMD found that those funders gave nearly $222 million to 69 organizations that filed amici supporting AFPF in yet another example of what Sen. Shelden Whitehouse (D-RI) has coined "flotillas of amicus briefs."

The list of amici supporting AFPF reads like a who's-who of Koch influence network groups, including State Policy Network members and former members, ALEC, Independent Women's Forum, and litigation centers. Many of those groups are part of the People United for Privacy coalition that SPN organized to block donor disclosure laws.

The $222 million total does not include additional money donated directly by Koch, Koch family trusts, and foundation board members or leadership.

$140 Million from Koch-Tied Funding Vehicles

Of the $221.8 million, 63 percent, or $140.1 million, was contributed by Koch-tied funding vehicles. These funders include the Charles Koch Foundation, the Charles Koch InstituteCapital LeadersStand Together Trust, as well as two preferred donor conduits of the Koch political network: DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. Also included in this total is $1.6 million that Koch companies contributed to the Republican Attorneys General Association; the 22 Republican AGs that signed an amicus brief are RAGA members.


$36.1 Million from Bradley Groups

The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation and its Bradley Impact Fund chipped in 16 percent, or $36.1 million, of the amicus filers' funding between 2015 and 2019 that CMD was able to identify. Bradley is a major funder of right-wing infrastructure in the states, backing efforts to misinform the public on climate change, push school privatization schemes, organize right-wing litigation, and, recently, reopen the economy during the pandemic.


Bradley Foundation President Richard Graber also serves as chairman of the board at the Philanthropy Roundtable, a coalition of right-wing donors that has taken a strong stance against transparency in charitable giving. Bradley's current chairman of the board, Art Pope, is a close ally of the Koch family, having served as a director of their astroturf operation Americans for Prosperity, and is a network donor. Pope's John William Pope Foundation also funds many of the amicus filers, CMD documented.

$46 Million from Searle, Scaife, and Coors Foundations

Major right-wing funders whose interests align with the Koch network and the Bradley Foundation provided an additional $45.6 million, or 21 percent of the identifiable money contributed to the amicus groups.

Searle Freedom Trust—founded with inherited wealth inherited from pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Company, the creator of the artificial sweetener aspartame—gave $24.1 million to the amicus filers. Kim Dennis, president of the Searle Freedom Trust, also serves as chair of DonorsTrust.

The Sarah Scaife Foundation—one of the Scaife foundations overseen by the late right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, whose wealth was inherited from the Mellon industrial, oil, aluminum, and banking fortune—added $16.4 million in funding to organizations filing briefs supportive of AFPF. 

The amicus groups received $5.1 million in Coors Brewing family money, funneled through the Adolph Coors Foundation, CMD found.


Amicus Flotilla Deeply Tied to State Policy Network

Fifty, or over one-third of the organizations that signed onto amicus briefs in support of  AFPF, are affiliate or associate members of the State Policy Network, a web of right-wing "think tanks" and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom. (This number does not include over 100 nonprofits that signed onto a brief written by the Nonprofit Alliance Foundation.)

State Policy Network groups play an integral role in moving a corporate and libertarian agenda in the states by providing academic legitimacy and testimony for legislation, often backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The State Policy Network works across states to "defund and defang" unions, oppose climate change regulations, lower wages, cut taxes and business regulations, tighten voter restrictions, privatize education, and hide the identities of political donors.

The State Policy Network launched People United for Privacy in 2016 to work specifically on policies to protect nonprofit donors from public scrutiny and to support efforts at the state and federal efforts to combat disclosure requirements. Like with other front groups, the initiative's website does not disclose its sponsors or the organization behind the site (State Policy Network).

People United for Privacy's latest available IRS filing (2018) and the latest filing for 2019 from its sister organization, People United for Privacy Foundation, show that they "delegated management duties to State Policy Network.” Tony Woodlief, SPN's executive vice president, is president of both groups.

At its 2019 Annual Meeting, People United for Privacy distributed a messaging kit produced by Heart+Mind strategies calling nonprofit donor disclosure a "problem" and provided tips on how to spin donor disclosure as an issue of "privacy" and "free speech.”

People United for Privacy is funded entirely by dark money vehicles in the network of Trump's "judge whisperer" Leonard Leo, with $500,000 from the now defunct Wellspring Committee in 2018 and $500,000 from the Rule of Law Trust in 2019, IRS filings show.

The People United for Privacy Foundation received all of its 2018 funding from DonorsTrust, an associate member of the State Policy Network, and it got $616,718 from SPN and $100,000 from Searle Freedom Trust in 2019. The $716,718 in funding to the foundation calculated by CMD contradicts the $660,000 in revenue it reported on its 2019 IRS filing.

People United for Privacy is also leading a coalition to oppose the For the People Act (H.R. 1), a bill that would enhances nonprofit transparency among other democracy improving measures, and organized a letter to congressional leaders to "reject" the bill. The letter mischaracterizes the bill, as have others on the Right, and makes sweeping false claims that it  "would dramatically alter the First Amendment protections that Americans have enjoyed since the founding of our country."

David Armiak

David Armiak is research director with the Center for Media and Democracy. David joined CMD in 2015, has conducted extensive investigations on dark money, corporate corruption, and right-wing networks, and is responsible for filing and analyzing hundreds of public records requests every year. David has a strong research interest in social movements and political power, and has delivered many talks on the subject.