The man Seid picked to launder his money into a network of conservative non-profits is an arch-conservative Catholic (like certain members of the Supreme Court he had a hand in appointing and confirming) and proud Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Catholic religious order long-considered a sovereign entity in international law, somewhat like the Vatican, with its own ceremonial currency and stamps that are recognized by at least 58 countries for the purpose of mailing letters and packages. But first of all, and last of all when it comes to the political life and current ill-health of the United States of America, Leo is the man who led the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court and is credited with practically singlehandedly supervising the legal campaign to overturn Roe v Wade.
Author and investigative reporter Nina Burleigh and The New Republic did us an enormous and incredible service this week by untangling the story behind the $1.6 billion – who it came from, where it went, and how it is likely to be used over the next generation of this country’s political life to influence everything from the Supreme Court to school board elections in states both red and blue. It’s worth getting subscriptions to The New Republic to read Burleigh’s masterpiece here and her Substack column, American Political Freakshow, here.
The story is reminiscent of journalism of days long past, when magazines gave muckraking reporters enough expense money, support, and time to get to the bottom of complicated stories that confounded the efforts of even mainstream outfits like the New York Times and Washington Post. Burleigh’s is such a story.
Burleigh reports in this way on just how enormous an amount of money $1.6 billion is: It’s enough money that invested moderately wisely, it will return between $136 million and $230 million a year, without ever dipping into the original amount of the donation. To illustrate how much that is, she points out that the huge and very wealthy Heritage Foundation and its outrigger outfits spent about $86 million in 2021. “Leo could create two Heritage Foundations and one more sizable organization on the side,” Burleigh explains, “without having to dip into the principal at all.”
Burleigh goes into great detail reporting on who Barry Seid is, how he made his money, and how far-right his politics are. He started out making the spinning red and blue lights mounted on top of police cars, appropriately enough. He went on to manufacture the kind of nuts-and-bolts accessories that helped make the digital revolution possible – power strips, surge suppressors, and the like. “He was the opposite of a disruptor. He was not looking to make something to change the world. If a product could be made for less and still work, that was more than good enough for him. His fortuitous timing and penny-wise approach made him very rich. Seid’s annual income exploded in the mid-2000s, hitting $157 million in 2018.”
Seid got into right-wing politics with the help of a Roger Stone wannabe by the name of Steven Baer. Like Leonard Leo, he is an anti-abortion fanatic driven for at least three decades to fight the evil of Roe v Wade. He met Seid and started pointing him to right-wing causes to fund. Seid became friendly with the Koch brothers, naturally, and began emulating their dark-money approach to politics. He set up 501(c)(4) “charities” and began moving large quantities of money into causes like term limits.
According to Burleigh, Seid was the money behind the right-wing takeover of the George Mason University Law School. It was renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School as a condition of a $20 million anonymous gift. Burleigh reports that anonymous donor was Barry Seid. It was probably the move that put Seid in the sights of Leonard Leo and his Federalist Society. Seid may have been the anonymous “donor” who paid off Brett Kavanaugh’s credit card debt.
“Kavanaugh was a very enthusiastic and energetic campaigner auditioning for the Supreme Court. He made 50 appearances at the Federalist Society, where Leo was executive vice president for many years,” Burleigh writes.
“Seid could have donated his fortune to any number of right-wing players. But he chose a Catholic fanatic whose main issue has been forcing women to give birth—never an issue Seid was really moved by, according to Baer. Why did he choose Leo? Precisely because of Leo’s control over the court system.”
Burleigh goes into great detail about the complex way Seid’s $1.6 billion found its way into coffers controlled by Leonard Leo. The money traveled all the way to Ireland and back through an exchange of shares in a company owned by Seid, in order to maintain the secrecy of where and from whom it came. The $1.6 billion ended up under the control of something called Marble Freedom Trust…and who runs Marble Freedom Trust? None other than our friend the uterus cop, Leonard Leo.
Leo pays himself $350,000 a year to handle the trust’s books and write checks. What was one of the first things sticky-fingers Leo did? According to an investigation by Politico, he moved $43 million into CRC Advisors, a for-profit political consultancy Leo formed around the time the $1.6 billion landed in the Marble Freedom Trust, run by, you will recall, Leonard Leo. Politico dated what they call Leo’s “lifestyle upgrade,” to when he started buying real estate and “other perks” in 2016, when he started managing Trump’s takeover of the judiciary for him.
The question now, although it’s not much of one, is what will Leonard Leo do with the $1.6 billion he’s got his grubby hands on? Burleigh reports that he’s moving some of it in conventional political ways, donating money to non-profits affiliated with the likes of Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. But he’s using larger quantities of the money to fund right-wing legal groups like the Republican Attorney General’s Association, which regularly files legal briefs seeking to aid such sterling Americans as Michael Flynn, not to mention targeting campus diversity and so-called ESG, or Environmental, Social and Governance investments by publicly traded companies.
Leo – and the $1.6 billion – are also funding the far-right legal organization The Judicial Crisis Network and other right-wing non-profits that are backing candidates around the country for state supreme court judgeships. State courts, and state supreme courts, have become much more important now that the Supreme Court is firmly in the hands of justices like Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito who appear dedicated to the proposition that the more unwanted pregnancies and unregistered guns there are in this country, the better.
The whole of the report by Burleigh in The New Republic is depressing enough that one politically astute friend of mine sent me a link to the TNR story with the comment: “Is there no way NOT to conclude: Game Over?”
It would seem that way except for one salient fact: Right-wing Republicans have lots and lots of money, but they don’t have something even more important: issues that are popular and which people care about enough to vote for. Republicans couldn’t win the battle over abortion at the ballot box because they don’t have the votes. Sixty-seven percent of voting age adults in this country think that abortion should be available to women in some form. That number, or a figure close to it, has been steady for decades. They couldn’t win the war over Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court until they stole one judgeship, forced through a second one in a lame duck session of Congress, and just went out and bought the vote of Clarence Thomas with luxury donations to his lifestyle and money-transfers into his wife Ginni’s bank account from Texas billionaire Harlan Crow.
Republicans were finally able to overturn Roe the old fashioned way: with rank, in your face graft and corruption. They didn’t do it by winning over the public with their arguments. They aren’t trying to win the battle over the abortion drug Mifepristone with their arguments, either. With Trump’s help, Leo put a drooling Christian Nationalist into a federal judgeship in a district with a single judge in Texas so right-wing groups could file lawsuits there and be guaranteed they’d get the drooler to hear their case.
That’s how they got Mifepristone into the courts. Now the case is being heard in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by two judges Leo got Trump to appoint there, and a third appointed by another Republican president. They’ll rule against the drug and the case will be appealed to the Supreme Court where Leonard Leo’s Sovereign Military Order of Malta holds the reigns of power, and I think we all know what will happen there to the safest form of abortion.
But look at the $1.6 billion and all the corruption Leo will try to buy with it this way: if they’re so bloody confident they’re right about everything from abortion to guns to children’s schoolbooks, why did they have to buy the victories they’ve scored so far? With Nina Burleigh’s excellent report in The New Republic, everyone can see that the Republican Party and its far-right money men have had to do everything corruptly. Everyone can also see what happened to their almighty “moral” arguments about abortion. They weren’t moral at all. They’re not concerned with what they call “unborn life.” What they want to do is control women’s bodies any way they can, and now they’ve accumulated $1.6 billion to help them hang onto that control.
How’s that working out for you so far, Leonard? Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020, and the Democrats re-took the Senate. Democrats held onto the Senate in the 2022 midterms and instead of rolling to a landslide victory as the party out of power usually does, Republicans only managed to hold onto the House by a fingernail by electing such wonders of modern morality as George Santos and Paul Gosar. In elections held this week, Democrats took control of the Pennsylvania House for the first time since 2010. Democrats or left-leaning independents won races for mayor in two unlikely and normally Republican strongholds, Jacksonville, Florida, and Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Around the country, Republicans are passing restrictive abortion bills in states like North Carolina and Georgia that Democrats are going to target in 2024 running against the authoritarian anti-abortion tide.
I’ve got a question for Leonard Leo and the $1.6 billion he’s sitting on: How much of that do you think you’ll have to spend to get the votes of young women and men who are turning against the Republican Party in droves because Leo’s judges overturned Roe? All the money in the world isn’t going to buy the votes of the thousands of high school students who demonstrated against Tennessee’s “trigger law” that went into effect when the Supreme Court overturned Roe last year. Even more thousands of young people demonstrated at the Tennessee Capitol building this year after six children and three adults were gunned down in a private school in Nashville last month. Both demonstrations may as well have been against the conservative Supreme Court that Leonard Leo trumpets as the greatest accomplishment of his life.
The Republican Party and the right-wing Trump supporters who now control it are digging a political hole for themselves they’re going to have trouble climbing out of at the ballot boxes in every election following the sacking of Roe and the insane gun laws being upheld by Leonard Leo’s Supreme Court. From what we have been told by Nina Burleigh about Leo’s plans for the $1.6 billion he now controls, it looks like he’s going to take the money and dig the biggest political grave of them all.