Wellspring Committee: An influential 'dark money' group turns off the lights for the last time

SOURCE:  OpenSecrets.org, 2019-05-23

One of the most influential "dark money" groups you've probably never heard of has officially shut its doors.

The Wellspring Committee's existence has come to an apparent end, according to state incorporation records showing the dark money group's termination. Wellspring was just shy of eleven years old.

The group died as it lived, surreptitiously. Officially shutting down in December 2018, its fate was not discovered until May 19, 2019.

The name Wellspring Committee may already be forgotten -- or entirely unknown -- to most, but its life's efforts were certainly not in vain.

Many of the facets of modern-day society that we now take for granted, such as the multi-million dollar price tag on each Supreme Court confirmation fight, can be traced back to Wellspring's efforts. What Wellspring lacked in name recognition, it made up in largesse. Operating behind the scenes, Wellspring leaves behind countless dark money groups it helped sire and judges now on the bench thanks in part to its anonymous financiers' generosity.

Wellspring is survived by Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), another 501(c)(4) nonprofit that has established itself the preeminent vehicle for deep-pocketed donors to funnel millions of dollars behind or against judicial nominees in Supreme Court confirmation fights, largely bankrolled by Wellspring.

Since Wellspring's birth from a short-lived union of the Koch network and GOP political operatives leading up to the 2008 election, it has accounted for more than 90 percent of JCN's total funding.

Wellspring's delivery into the world came at the hands of Republican operative Ann Corkery while her husband Neil Corkery took the reigns of the more publicly visible Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) and an allied 501(c)(3) "charitable" nonprofit, Judicial Education Project. Like JCN, it's sister "charity" has received considerable funding from Wellspring and other closely-tied dark money groups like DonorsTrust, a pass-through vessel managing the money flow from wealthy donors to conservative and libertarian groups -- including other groups in Corkery's network -- while allowing the donors to remain anonymous that has earned it the reputation of being a Koch-linked "dark money ATM."

Wearing multiple hats for various groups in the network, Neil Corkery worked impossibly hard. At one point tax returns showed him working a combined 100 hours a week between his various nonprofits.

Judicial Crisis Network's existence has not always hinged entirely on Wellspring. For its first three years in operation under the Judicial Confirmation Network moniker before rebranding following Obama's 2008 election, JCN received initial support from California "foreclosure king" Robin Arkley II and raked in seed money from the American Center for Law and Justice under Jay Sekulow, President Donald Trump's personal attorney and a member of the Federalist Society, the influential conservative and libertarian lawyers network that does disclose its donors in annual reports.

Since then, the organizations had been inseparable. Sitting at the crux a powerful network of dark money groups, Wellspring and JCN have existed in this symbiotic relationship for over a decade, with JCN operating as the operation's public-facing mouthpiece and Wellspring as its money bag.

After all that, years of investigations and speculation about the identity of donors bankrolling the operation have yet to produce a definitive answer about the ultimate source of the operations funds.

Tax returns have revealed the groups behind a few hundred thousand in grants from other dark money groups like American Democracy Alliance and Rosebush. But that accounts for a drop in the bucket -- less than a percent -- of Wellspring's overall earnings and, even then, the ultimate financier behind those groups remains a secret.

A central player in orchestrating Wellspring's dark money network has been Leonard A. Leo, Trump's judicial adviser and a longtime executive at the Federalist Society.

While the identity of their donors remains a secret, dark money groups like JCN and Wellspring are required to disclose the amount received from different donors. In their most recent tax returns, JCN received most of its funds from two multi-million dollar donors, with roughly 90 percent of that accounted for by Wellspring and the remainder for a mystery donor. Most of Wellspring's funds came from three multi-million dollar secret donors, a shift from prior years in which the biggest amount the group received from a single mystery donor increased with each passing year. Wellspring's largest donor in their most recent tax return accounted for $8.9 million, another gave $5.5 million and a third provided $2 million. All of their identities remain hidden.

Financial information for Wellspring's final year of operation is not required to be reported until months following the end of their final fiscal year, long after the group's official termination.

While much of its money has ended up in the judicial advocacy space, Wellspring helped seed a number of other politically active nonprofits that took on a life other their own and went on to have other significant impacts. A few that gained particular notoriety in recent years include American Job Security, the pro-Trump 45Committee and the American Dream Initiative, which was later rebranded as the pro-Trump Great America Alliance.

Conservative activists have continued honoring the memory of the recently deceased group by doing what it loved best: creating opaque vehicles to secretly funnel millions of dollars into groups aiming to reshape the legal system.

At least one new group has already risen from Wellspring's ashes: the Article III Project (A3P).

Formed to "fight to confirm President Trump's judicial nominees" and defend sitting judges, A3P was launched as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit May 18 2019, indicating it will not disclose its donors. Any money funneled to A3P through another nonprofit organization is not required to be disclosed until tax returns are due months after the end of the fiscal year when that payment took place, and other funding from individuals or opaque entities like limited-liability companies may remain hidden from the public.

A3P was sculpted in the mold of its predecessors and plans to work closely with the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN). "Excited to work hand-in-glove with @JCNSeverino, my other longtime friends at JCN, and many others on the outside who understand the critical importance of the judicial fight," A3P president Mike Davis tweeted.

Davis was chief counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee during the most recent Supreme Court confirmation battles and Justice Neil Gorsuch's former law clerk. His talks at Federalist Society events have earned the distinction of being included in the congressional record at the request of his former employer, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). During Davis' time at the Senate, he played a pivotal role in securing votes for Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Dubbed the Kavanaugh confirmation fight's "warrior" and the "general" of the Gorsuch confirmation battle, Davis has differentiated A3P from other groups with a more militant approach, promising to "punch back" with a "brass knuckles approach."

According to Davis, these punches are warranted. A3P was launched partly in response to Demand Justice, a liberal dark money group launched in 2018 as the left's counterweight to Wellspring Committee and JCN. Demand Justice's arrival on the scene brought with it a significant shift to the judicial money race, which has traditionally been one-sided with the vast majority of funds from the right, most of which can be traced to JCN and Wellspring.

Indeed, Wellspring's legacy lives on not only in the conservative dark money infrastructure it helped build but also in the inspiration it provided to their equivalent on the left.

Wellspring may be gone, but its indelible impact on the American legal landscape will long be remembered.

In addition to its enduring judicial legacy through attempts to reshape the legal system, Wellspring and the operatives behind it have reshaped the way the game is played. By helping shepherd in their chosen judges onto the Supreme court and across the federal judiciary, Wellspring and its operatives ushered in a new era of increasingly expensive judicial battles largely fueled by deep-pocketed donors whose identities remain secret.

As groups on the left put the same clandestine tactics and big money traditionally characteristic of more conservative judicial advocacy groups into play, those battles across the country may have given way to a full-blown war for the future of the judiciary.

But conservative judicial activists are not just building a covert network anymore, they're building an army.

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