Originally published by The 19th
In the first half of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a high-profile case that could make it more difficult to access mifepristone, one of the drugs used in medication abortions.
Central to the effort to block use of the drug is conservative legal activist Leonard Leo, who has played a well-known role shaping the current judiciary via the Federalist Society and advising former President Donald Trump on Supreme Court picks. Less examined is the vast web of entities linked to Leo that work to promote his conservative Christian worldview by weakening the Voting Rights Act, promoting publicly funded religious schools — and restricting access to medication abortion.
The Supreme Court in June 2022 eliminated the federal right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. At that time, medication abortions accounted for more than half of all abortions provided by clinics annually in the United States. Since the ruling, some patients in states with abortion bans have turned to medication abortion, via telehealth appointments with providers in less restrictive states or by ordering mifepristone and misoprostol — the two-pill regimen to induce abortions — online.
After the Dobbs decision, a network of political influence groups connected to Leo put medication abortion in its crosshairs by challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s 2000 approval of mifepristone.
Taken together with Leo’s known influence on the federal judiciary, government records and media reports reviewed by The 19th show how deep-pocketed donors could avail themselves of loopholes in tax and campaign finance disclosure laws to funnel millions of difficult-to-trace dollars to a single cause.
Caroline Ciccone, the president of Accountable.US, a left-leaning but nonpartisan Washington-based nonprofit group that examines conflicts of interest, said that the push by Leo-linked groups to restrict medication abortion follows his “decades-long campaign to undermine constitutional protections for abortion care and overturn Roe,” the 1973 decision the Supreme Court negated with its Dobbs ruling.
“Key groups in Leo’s network are now funding an all-hands-on-deck effort to cut access to the widely used abortion pill, threatening access to reproductive care even in states where abortion is legal,” Ciccone added.
Accountable.US provided some of the tax filings The 19th used to examine Leo-linked entities and their role challenging medication abortion.
The 19th reached out to Leo via various entities where he is an adviser or leader but none responded to a request for comment.
After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling opened the gates to state-level abortion restrictions, at least 14 banned abortion at all stages of pregnancy, and two more now prohibit it after six weeks’ gestation, when many people are unaware they are pregnant.
The case before the Supreme Court is Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which was brought in November 2022 by anti-abortion groups. A federal appeals court said it was too late to undo the FDA’s approval of mifepristone but said subsequent efforts taken by the agency to expand access could be voided. While the case is pending, access remains unchanged.
If the Supreme Court sides with the anti-abortion groups in the FDA case, and voids the regulatory agency’s 2016 decision to extend the window during which medication can be used to end a pregnancy, or its 2021 decision to make mifepristone available by mail, abortion access will further constrict nationwide.
The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine formed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling with the stated mission of “protecting the vulnerable at the beginning and end of life.” It acts as an umbrella for anti-abortion organizations: the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG), the Catholic Medical Association, the Coptic Medical Association of North America (CMANA), the American College of Pediatricians, and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations (CMDA). Other plaintiffs are AAPLOG, CMDA, and the American College of Pediatricians, a conservative group that is not affiliated with the American Academy of Pediatricians, the country’s largest professional association of pediatricians.
As plaintiffs in the mifepristone case, they are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based conservative legal group that uses litigation to curtail abortion access, circumscribe LGBTQ+ rights, and expand the influence of Christianity in public life and education.
Much of the money Leo controls is in Marble Freedom Trust, a conservative nonprofit group he was tapped to lead when it was formed in 2020 by an electronics manufacturing mogul who donated $1.6 billion in a “series of unusual transactions that appear to have avoided tax liabilities,” according to The New York Times.
The Times wrote that the formation of Marble Freedom Trust with its windfall would “cement Mr. Leo’s status as a kingmaker in conservative big money politics.” Marble Freedom Trust is a nonprofit 501(c)4 “social welfare organization,” a tax structure that allows it to raise unlimited sums for various causes.
Tax filings suggest how Marble Freedom Trust may have distributed its funds to the organizations that brought the mifepristone lawsuit and other entities that support them. Limited disclosure requirements make for an incomplete picture of how all of the overlapping interest groups work together.
Large sums of Marble Freedom Trust money are being sent to the Schwab Charitable Fund and Donors Trust. Both are donor-advised conduit funds, which can direct money from donors to causes of their choice, thereby establishing an added layer of anonymity for high-net-worth individuals and organizations.
In the fiscal year that ended in April 2022, tax filings show, Marble Freedom Trust contributed $153.8 million to the Schwab Charitable Fund. An additional $28.9 million went to the Leo-linked Concord Fund, also known as the Judicial Crisis Network, tax flings show.
In roughly the same period, Schwab contributed $9.25 million to the Catholic Association Foundation (CAF). With that, CAF nearly doubled its total contributions over preceding years, tax filings show. CAF says it “engages on issues that are compelling based on the teaching of the church and defends our Catholic values” and pursues anti-abortion efforts as a top priority, including by funding AAPLOG.
While it is impossible to know from tax records whether this $9.25 million came from the $153.8 million from the Marble Freedom Trust, the address on Schwab’s donation to CAF is a previous address of Neil Corkery, a longtime associate of Leo. Corkery is also a former president of CAF; bookkeeper for Marble Freedom Trust; the former leader of the 85 Fund, which shares a phone number with the Concord Fund; and the chief financial officer of CRC Advisors, Leo’s for-profit public relations firm. Leo has sat on the boards of both CAF and its affiliated Catholic Association, also a nonprofit. CAF has paid CRC Advisors for consulting work.
Marble Freedom Trust was also channeling money to various causes during the same time period via Donors Trust. Between May 2020 and April 2021, Marble Freedom Trust gave at least $41 million to Donors Trust, CNN reported, citing tax filings. Donors Trust in 2021 contributed $17.1 million to the 85 Fund and $2.2 million to CAF, tax filings show.
CAF, in turn, donated $500,000 to AAPLOG — one of the named plaintiffs in the mifepristone case — in the tax filing years of 2021 and 2022, making up nearly half of its contributions in both years, records show. AAPLOG has faced criticism for sharing anti-abortion research that doctors outside its membership and other major medical associations characterize as medically inaccurate.
Ultimately, the tax filings of the groups in Leo’s orbit indicate how the Marble Freedom Trust was used as a repository and conduit through which money flowed to Schwab and Donors Trust, which funded CAF, which then supported AAPLOG, a key member organization of the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine.
The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine was incorporated in Amarillo, Texas, which legal scholars have noted ensured that the challenge they filed against the FDA’s approval of mifepristone would be heard by Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk. Kacsmaryk is a Trump appointee and a former counsel to the conservative First Liberty Institute, which has paid the Leo-linked CRC Advisors for work in the past. Kacsmaryk has been a member of the Federalist Society since law school and initially voided mifepristone’s approval. The society acts as a training vehicle for conservative lawyers and vets judicial nominees. Leo is the co-chair and former executive vice president.
When the mifepristone case was heard at the 5th Circuit, all three judges on the panel likewise had ties to the Federalist Society. At least five of the six conservative Supreme Court justices are also current or former Federalist Society members.
Leo-linked nonprofits have attracted the attention of the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General. An attorney representing Leo told Politico in October that he would not cooperate with a probe into the potential misuse of nonprofit tax laws for personal gain. The attorney, David Rivkin, told the newspaper that because the nonprofits were organized and incorporated elsewhere, the District of Columbia lacked jurisdiction.
The Republican-led U.S. House committees on the judiciary and oversight and accountability have tried to launch their own investigation into what they called “efforts to target Leonard Leo and certain nonprofit organizations with which he is affiliated.” On Tuesday, District of Columbia Attorney General Brian Schwalb told the committees he would not comply with their requests for documents and records due to “a longstanding policy — consistent with the policies of law enforcement agencies across the country — not to confirm, deny, or otherwise comment on potential or pending investigations.”