Senate Democrats are seeking documents related to Leonard Leo’s role in advising the Trump White House on judicial nominations while a driving force at the conservative Federalist Society.
In letters to Leo, his former group, the White House, and the Justice Department, Democrats led by key Judiciary Committee members raised concerns on Thursday of potential financial conflicts of interest arising from what they said was more than $250 million in donations from outside sources that flowed to “Mr. Leo’s network” between 2014 and 2017.
Leo began advising on judicial nominations during the George W. Bush administration. He resumed that work with the Trump administration, including helping to craft its Supreme Court shortlist. In his first year in office alone, Trump nominated more than a dozen U.S. appeals court judges and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The Democrats question whether Leo performed a “federal function that must have been conducted by a government employee” and are seeking records “to help determine his potential status as a federal employee and compliance with accompanying laws and regulations,” including financial disclosure documents. A spokesperson for Leo pushed back on the request for information.
Leo recently stepped down as a vice president at the Federalist Society, an organization of lawyers and law students oriented toward conservative and libertarian orthodoxy on legal and public policy issues, to pursue a new political venture, CRC Advisors.
Democrats signing the letter include Richard Durbin of Illinois, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who all are members of the Judiciary Committee.
“I think that it’s very peculiar, and I think most Americans would find it very peculiar that federal judges and Supreme Court justices are being selected by a private group that won’t divulge who its donors are but is funded by an enormous amount of secret money,” Whitehouse told Bloomberg Law in an interview.
Whitehouse said he and other senators have been pursuing the dark money influence in the courts and the legal system for over a year and the letter is a product of that interest.
Leo’s role in selecting judges is “such a key piece of the larger puzzle that I think we need to understand that first as we begin to try to decode what’s going on behind all this dark money mischief, Whitehouse said.
Keith Appell, spokesperson for Leo, said Whitehouse and “the liberal causes he supports in the Senate” benefit from the privacy of undisclosed donations with the “cooperation of liberal ‘dark money’ groups” and “should stop his hypocritical, pathological preoccupation with denying our speech and privacy rights.”
It’s unclear how successful Democrats in the Senate minority will be in getting the administration, Leo or the Federalist Society to cooperate with their request for documents and other information, including emails, telephone call logs, calendar invitations and entries, and handwritten notes.
Without majority cooperation, they lack the subpoena power to compel production and the ability to seek enforcement at least against those demand recipients outside the federal government. A U.S. appeals court on Feb. 28 ruled that congressional Democrats can’t enlist the courts in enforcing subpoenas against the government’s executive branch.
But Whitehouse is prepared for that. He said he doesn’t expect the every person or institution that received the senators’ inquiry to respond with satisfactory answers because that hasn’t been the experience under this administration, but the letters are first step in the process.
The Federalist Society and the White House had no immediate comment. The Justice Department didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment.