Selling Dark Money as Grassroots Transparency
Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a bill to regulate so-called “dark money.” The definition of this term is often slippery. A New Yorker reporter wrote a famous book blaming the Koch brothers for dark money, even though it’s not a secret that the well-known libertarian billionaires have spent well-documented money openly promoting issues such as free markets, same-sex marriage, and criminal justice reform.
Is it “dark” if you can see the details?
A tighter definition would be money given with the agendas and donors behind it so well concealed that even the elite media is confused. Consider the case of Fix the Court and its left-leaning puppet-master, Arabella Advisors. As “dark money” goes, this arrangement is a black hole.
Fix the Court is rarely identified as what it is: a promoter of a leftward tilt on the federal courts. The day after media reported on Whitehouse’s dark money bill, Bloomberg interviewed the director of Fix the Court about President Trump’s sister, a former federal judge, and referred to Fix the Court as a “judicial watchdog group” — a reference commonly used by other media, including The New Republic. FTC is also often called a judicial “transparency” group (Washington Post, USA Today), and sometimes very generously a “grassroots” organization (US News & World Report, ABC News, Fortune).
Yet, after Brett Kavanaugh became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Fix the Court admitted it had purchased “BrettKavanaugh.com” and similar web domain names and populated the sites with information for sexual assault survivors. Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth justified this behavior on the basis of his belief in an unsubstantiated rape allegation made against Kavanaugh. Reporting on what Fix the Court did with the Kavanaugh websites, CNN characterized the group as “a nonpartisan judicial reform organization whose main goal is to fight for honesty and transparency on the US Supreme Court.”
Roth is a former vice president at SKDKnickerbocker, a political consulting firm that services left-leaning and Democratic clients. Imagine a former conservative consultant filling “BillandHillaryClinton.com” with information about a President who paid $850,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit that got him impeached — and then disbarred — because he lied under oath regarding the case. One suspects CNN would not dismiss this as the work of a “nonpartisan Presidential reform organization seeking honesty and transparency in the White House.”
Media confusion is understandable, given the convoluted connection between Fix the Court and Arabella Advisors recently exposed in a dark money report from the Capital Research Center.
Fix the Court isn’t even an independent organization, let alone “grassroots.” It is a wholly-owned project of the New Venture Fund — a left-wing nonprofit that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars each year from a wide variety of left-leaning donors, foundations, and yes, also undisclosed donors. Some of this money is used to run Fix the Court and other Arabella-run projects, such as the Health Care for America Now Education Fund (a pro-ObamaCare operation purpose-built by left-wing activists to criticize Republican health care proposals), and the pro-abortion front All Above All.
In 2016, when questioned about Fix the Court’s connection to New Venture, Gabe Roth conceded New Venture was the source of 100 percent of his funding.
New Venture, the Sixteen Thirty Fund the Windward Fund, and the Hopewell Fund are all managed by Arabella Advisors, a philanthropic advisory firm whose officers and former officers populate the boards and staffs of the four funds. Arabella took in $76 million in consulting fees from these organizations through 2017. Arabella founder Eric Kessler (a former staffer for the Clinton Administration and also of the League of Conservation Voters) is board chair at New Venture and president at the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
According to tax returns filed by the four nonprofit entities, in 2017 alone almost $600 million flowed into the Arabella empire, with some going back out on the street to Fix the Court and other left-wing projects. What is spent for Fix the Court — and who really paid for it — doesn’t need to be legally revealed.
It’s completely appropriate — and even imperative — that Fix the Court protect its individual donors. But there should at least be organizational transparency and honesty from a group seeking the same from the Supreme Court.
What’s more, many of the projects housed at Arabella’s Sixteen Thirty Fund do the explicit electioneering work the New Venture educational non-profits cannot legally conduct. Some of these Sixteen Thirty political partners, such as the ones for Health Care for America Now and All Above All, have nearly identical names. Arabella’s Sixteen Thirty political partner for Fix the Court appears to be Demand Justice, which spent $317,000 during the 2018 election trying to win U.S. Senate seats for five Democrats.
Fix the Court takes full deceptive advantage of this tangled web. The organizational description it provides on the website claims FTC is a “non-partisan grassroots organization,” and boasts of both “libertarian” and “conservative” affiliations. Indications of the money and personnel gushing in from the Democratic-left have been scrubbed away. What’s left is as dark as “transparency” money can be.
Ken Braun is CRC’s senior investigative researcher and authors profiles for InfluenceWatch.org and the Capital Research magazine. He previously worked for several free market policy organizations, spent six years as a chief of staff in the Michigan Legislature, and also wrote political columns for MLive Media Group, a consortium including the Grand Rapids Press and seven other mid-sized Michigan newspapers. He is an alumni of Michigan State University.