New nonprofit tied to stealthy circle of dark money groups

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Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. Attorney, is executive director of FACT. (Photo: FactDC.org)

Leading the pushback from the outside against President Obama’s attempt to bring the Supreme Court back up to its full complement of nine justices, the Judicial Crisis Network claims to have spent $4 million on a TV, radio and digital campaign attacking nominee Merrick Garland and arguing that the next president should fill the vacancy.

Additional politically active, nondisclosing nonprofits, such as the Independent Women’s Forum, the Susan B. Anthony List and the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, have also made noise to try to shore up Senate Republicans who want to forestall voting on Garland’s confirmation.

One right-leaning group has weighed in more quietly: The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) has demanded Harvard University release records having to do with Garland’s role in the debate in the early 1970s over whether to allow ROTC recruiters on that campus. In late March, FACT’s executive director, Matthew Whitaker, was quoted saying that “Americans have a right to know about Garland’s views of the military.”

Turns out JCN and FACT have something in common, beyond a penchant for keeping the names of their donors secret: Neil Corkery, who is treasurer of the judicial group and also the treasurer and a member of the board of directors at FACT, a 501(c)(3) organization.

Longtime readers of OpenSecrets Blog or The Daily Beast may remember that Corkery’s wife, Ann, had a big hand in getting JCN off the ground, back in early 2005 when the “C” in its initials stood for “confirmation,” not “crisis.” At the time, Justice Antonin Scalia himself — whose death two months ago precipitated the current battle over the vacancy — attended a small dinner that included JCN organizers and at least one funder.

JCN originally promoted President George W. Bush’s nominations to the high court; conversely, it has attacked Obama’s. But many observers were surprised last fall when the group mounted an ad campaign criticizing Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts, both appointed by GOP presidents, in an apparent effort to pressure them to take a harder conservative line. In addition, JCN has been involved in several state supreme court elections as well as attorneys general races.

FACT is a much newer creation, organized in 2014 as a conservative counterweight to watchdog groups viewed as more left-of-center, such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The newer outfit took its first public action about a year ago when it filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Democratic voter data firm Catalist.

Since then, FACT has, on rare occasions (possibly just once), gone after a Republican, but most frequently accuses Democrats — particularly frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — of ethical or legal violations.

Its funding — $600,000 in 2014, according to the only tax return it has filed to date — comes entirely from a conservative donor-advised fund called DonorsTrust, which means it could come from anywhere. DonorsTrust is a pass-through vessel that manages the charitable contributions of wealthy individuals and foundations to organizations that are “dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,” according to its website, while allowing the donors to remain anonymous. Charles Koch is among the many conservatives who have filtered money through DonorsTrust.

In other words, an organization “dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency” gets 100 percent of its funds from a group that exists mainly as a vehicle for donors to elude transparency.

Meanwhile, Corkery adds FACT to a long list of nondisclosing nonprofits at which he holds, or has held, a key position, often treasurer, and which often have overlapping slates of directors or officers. For instance, at two other groups where Corkery is treasurer, the Judicial Education Project and Catholic Voices, a close family ally by the name of Dan Casey is president and director, respectively. Casey is also the secretary of JCN. At the Sudan Relief Fund, Corkery is president, Casey is treasurer, and Ann Corkery, Neil’s wife, is a director.

Ann Corkery is also president of the Wellspring Committee, from which JCN receives substantial funding, including more than $6.6 million in 2014; Kathleen Corkery, the couple’s daughter, is on Wellspring’s board of directors, and its secretary-treasurer is Casey’s son. Neil Corkery draws salaries from several of the groups where he’s an office; Ann is paid by Wellspring. (Venn diagram in the works.)

Many of the groups list the same Georgetown address as their office, with different suite numbers. In reality, the address is that of a UPS store, and the suite numbers are post boxes. FACT’s listed address, in downtown Washington, D.C., has no markings; it appears to be an address that is cited by more than one organization without actually being physically used by any of them, with a receptionist who answers the phone with the names of various groups depending on which line is called.

Neither Corkery nor Whitaker, FACT’s executive director, returned calls seeking comment.

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