Leonard Leo’s dark money network threatens democracy

In August, a New York Times report revealed that Marble Freedom Trust, one of far-right political powerbroker Leonard Leo’s nonprofits, received a jaw-dropping $1.6 billion contribution from secretive industrialist and conservative mega-donor Barre Seid. It was the largest single contribution ever given to a nonprofit focused on politics. While Seid and Leo remain relatively unknown to the broader public, we should all be concerned with the influence they wield over our judiciary and the impact of this unprecedented windfall on our democracy.

Barre Seid, a Chicago-based manufacturing magnate, is not new to the far-right political scene. Seid has a long history of donating to “dark money” organizations linked to Leo and the Koch brothers. In 2014, Seid donated significant funds to the hard-right legal non-profit Competitive Enterprise Institute, which played a role in attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act.


Seid also allegedly contributed $20 million to George Mason University in a successful effort to rename its law school after the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Seid built a significant portfolio of controversial donations to extreme groups trafficking in Islamophobia and misinformation. In 2008, he donated $17 million to a group that ran an Islamophobic public relations campaign targeting media markets in swing states. In addition, Seid has allegedly been a major donor to the Heartland Institute, a leading climate denial think tank.

Seid perfectly fits the profile of the controversial, fringe billionaire with anti-democratic leanings that Leonard Leo’s massive far-right network depends upon. Over the last few decades, Leo has used his ever-growing empire of dark money organizations to influence the ideological shape of the Supreme Court, successfully influencing the nomination process and earning the nickname the “Conservative Kingmaker.”

As a result, far-right conservatives manufactured a majority on the high court and filled it with justices hostile to voting rights, fair electoral districts, environmental protections, unions and abortion rights. Not only is the extreme ideology of the current court and its recent decisions deeply unpopular and destructive, it’s also profoundly anti-democratic.

But Leo’s networks go far beyond Supreme Court confirmation battles — they influence law students through organizations cultivating and popularizing their far-right legal theories, fund state attorneys general campaigns, elevate like-minded judges on lower state courts and organize amicus brief campaigns.

The anti-democratic nature of Leo’s network was made even more clear in recent years with the legal efforts to overturn the 2020 election. For example, a prominent figure of the Leo network, and then-senior fellow at the Federalist Society, John Eastman infamously outlined a “6-point plan” to overturn the 2020 election, and gave a speech alongside President Donald Trump immediately preceding the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Leo’s network of dark money groups empowers right wing billionaires to spend limitless money to force their fringe and overwhelmingly unpopular political agendas on the American people. This $1.6 billion donation is a massive escalation in Leo’s and the far-right’s fight against democracy. We can’t afford to ignore it.

Kyle Herrig is the president of Accountable.US.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.