The worst GOP operative you’ve never heard of is about to become the one you can’t ignore
Conservative power-player Leonard Leo just scored a massive $1.6 billion gift. What will he do with it?
Odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard of Leonard Leo. After this week, that’s likely about to change, thanks to a carefully structured business arrangement that’s poised to elevate a man already considered one of the most powerful conservative operatives in the country into a veritable kingmaker with the funds to alter the political landscape for decades to come.
As The New York Times reported Monday, Leo, the onetime head of the ultra-right wing Federalist Society and a judicial activist once heralded for being “responsible, to a considerable extent, for one-third of the justices on the Supreme Court” is now the beneficiary of an astronomical $1.6 billion donation, made to his Marble Freedom Trust nonprofit sometime last year, thanks to a secretive conservative megadonor and a curiously constructed series of corporate maneuvers seemingly designed to ensure minimal — if any — tax liability on the money transfer.
According to financial records obtained and analyzed by the Times, the funds came from Illinois billionaire Barre Seid, whose longtime donations to conservative causes has gone relatively unnoticed by the general public. As the Times sees it: In order to avoid paying the associated tax fees with a cash gift of comparable size, Seid transferred all of his shares of his Tripp Lite electronics manufacturing company to Leo’s Marble Freedom Trust, just before the company was sold to the multinational Eaton Corporation for just over $1.6 billion in 2021.
And just who is Leo and what is his Marble Freedom Trust? A former executive vice president of the Federalist Society, Leo has been instrumental in helping usher in a number of hard-right Supreme Court justices, including Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett, operating alongside (or, perhaps more accurately, concurrently with) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to dramatically reshape the American judicial system in an ultra-conservative mold. Through his work with the Federalist Society, Leo has also allegedly been involved in a number of other right-wing campaigns to restrict voting, combat same-sex marriage, and stymie efforts to battle climate change.
In a statement to the Times, Leo explained that his Marble Freedom Trust was designed to elevate “the conservative movement to be among the ranks of George Soros, Hansjörg Wyss, Arabella Advisors, and other left-wing philanthropists, going toe-to-toe in the fight to defend our constitution and its ideals.” In practice, the more than a billion-and-a-half dollar funding infusion — believed to be among the, if not the largest single political gift of its kind, the Times said — will likely enable Leo, through the trust, to channel huge dark money sums into races for years to come (although he cannot donate directly to campaigns or official GOP groups themselves.)
Ultimately, then, there is a good chance that in the coming decade, you will see a host of new ads, mailers, pop-ups, and billboards for right-wing causes stemming from Leo and his network of conservative groups. After successfully skewing the Supreme Court hard to the right for a generation to come, it looks as if Leonard Leo is ready to put his new money where his mouth is like never before.