Business leaders helped to bankroll the anti-abortion groups who could soon see Roe v. Wade overturned
Brian Schwartz CNBC, MAY 6 2022
Donald Trump’s judicial advisor Leonard Leo stood in front of a group of over a dozen Republican and libertarian-leaning donors in July 2018 at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs. Billionaire Charles Koch’s allies had gathered there to discuss, among other things, then-President Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, including the newly chosen Brett Kavanagh.
The meeting that summer at the Koch-backed retreat shows how people in Trump’s orbit kept the wealthiest business leaders in the country up to date as he chose three conservative high court justices — Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and later Amy Coney Barrett — who would help to decide the fate of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision. Financiers who contributed at least $100,000 to the political organization were previously invited to attend Koch’s biannual meeting of their top donors. A spokesman for the Koch network told CNBC their organization does not work on the issue of abortion.
“Courage is really important to this president, more than any other president I’ve ever dealt with on these issues,” Leo told donors at the time in describing an attribute Trump looks for in his judges, according to notes taken by an attendee who wished to remain anonymous in order to share private information. “He understands that whoever gets picked has to have been through some crucible, some trial by fire in their life. So that he knows that they are going to be absolutely solid.”
The leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion showed the 6-3 conservative court majority cemented during Trump’s White House term could soon overturn the constitutionally protected right to an abortion. If issued this summer, such a ruling would also mark a triumph for anti-abortion groups who for years have wanted the court to overturn Roe. Those organizations have received a big financial boost from a handful of wealthy and influential business leaders.
The draft decision that would upend nearly 50 years of precedent has sparked uproar among abortion rights supporters and a fundraising boom for Democrats. On the other side of the debate, Michael Warsaw, the CEO of Catholic broadcaster Eternal Word Television Network, told CNBC in a statement that the leaked draft was “encouraging” but that “it would be premature to state that it is a victory” before the court issues a final opinion.
The network, which opposes abortion, has ties to the business community. At its launch in the 1980s, the network was funded by people including the late Harry G. John, an heir the Miller Brewing fortune, and New Orleans real estate developer Joseph Canizaro. In 2019, the TV network contributed $10,000 to Susan B. Anthony List, a group that lobbies and publicly opposes abortion, according to the company’s 990 filing from that year.
Canizaro did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Warsaw said the donation supported an annual event held by Susan B. Anthony List. Michelle Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Catholic network, later added the donation backed the group’s annual dinner in Washington, D.C., that year. A spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony List did not return a request for comment.
Since Trump became president, a small group of executives, their nonprofit organizations and affiliated outside groups, have formed a little-known multimillion-dollar fundraising operation to back groups who have lobbied and campaigned against abortion rights, according to over 30 Federal Election Commission filings and nonprofit tax filings. The web of business leaders and their affiliated organizations have raised over $40 million, with big money going to groups such as Susan B. Anthony List and its affiliated organizations.
Corporate America has stayed mostly silent on the court’s draft decision since it was published. Even so, some business leaders have boosted the anti-abortion movement in recent years.
Records show that donors to anti-abortion groups include nonprofits run by oil and gas executive George Strake Jr., the conservative Mercer family and a donation through the Shell company foundation run by the leaders of the oil and gas giant.
Individual donors have given big money to groups that oppose abortion rights since the 2020 election cycle, FEC filings show. Many of those organizations opposed President Joe Biden in that election and could be active this year in the midterms, as Democrats try to hold their narrow majorities in Congress.
Women Speak Out PAC is a super PAC that says it is “amplifying the voices of women opposed to abortion extremists in Congress.” The Susan B. Anthony List website lists the PAC, along with the separate Susan B. Anthony Candidate Fund, under their “SBA List Family.” Super PACs can spend and raise an unlimited amount of money for their desired candidates.
Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein, who founded shipping company Uline Inc., gave $4 million to the group during the 2020 election cycle. A separate PAC, titled Restoration PAC, which has also received millions from Uihlein over the 2020 and 2022 election cycles, donated over $400,000 to Women Speak Out PAC late last year. Ellen Barrosse, former CEO of health-care technical writing service Synchrogenix, which is now owned by pharmaceutical company Certara, gave $1 million to the PAC in January.
John Buser, an executive from investment firm Neuberger Berman, donated $25,000 to the organization that same month.
Throughout this week, Neuberger Berman’s website listed Buser as a managing director and an executive vice chairman of its investment advisory arm NB Alternatives. By Friday, after CNBC contacted the firm about Buser’s donation, his bio page was inactive.
Neuberger Berman spokesman Alexander Samuelson told CNBC that Buser retired last year. “Neuberger Berman is a nonpartisan global firm. The firm does not contribute to any political campaign,” Samuelson said in an email.
Questions emailed to Berman through the firm’s spokesman were not answered. Representatives for Uihlein and Certara did not return a request for comment. Restoration PAC and Barrosse did not return requests for comment.
One of the most prominent anti-abortion groups is Susan B. Anthony List, which was created in the 1990s after the formation of Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports candidates who advocate for abortion rights.
Susan B. Anthony List’s nonprofit groups, which do not publicly disclose their donors, and their affiliated political action committees, raised over $40 million during Trump’s four years in office as they pushed back against abortion, records show. The group’s 501(c)(4)’s most recent public 990 disclosure is from 2019 and says: “SBA List’s top legislative priorities include passing pain-capable laws that prohibit abortions after five months of pregnancy based on the unborn child’s ability to feel pain; passing laws that prohibit taxpayer funding of abortion, especially through Obamacare.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, met with Trump while he was in the White House, including in 2019 “to discuss abortion as an issue in the 2020 presidential election,” according to a press release describing the meeting. She tweeted in response to the Supreme Court leak that “if the draft opinion holds, the result will be that we the people get to decide the issue of abortion through our elected officials in states & Congress.”
Its 501(c)(4), which is allowed by law to engage in some lobbying and political activity, showed the group’s best fundraising years in a decade in 2018 and 2019, raising over $20 million over that period, records show.
The group spent $290,000 on lobbying Congress in the first quarter of this year, the most it has ever invested in a quarter into engaging with congressional lawmakers, records show. The group lobbied on issues including the confirmation of Biden’s Supreme Court pick, soon-to-be Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, disclosures show. The organization opposed her nomination.
The group also has a 501(c)(3) organization called the Susan B. Anthony Education Fund. It cannot lobby but can share the group’s messaging on abortion. It has raised over $6 million since 2018.
Other nonprofit disclosure forms show that Susan B. Anthony List and Education Fund donors since 2016 include the Leo-allied Judicial Crisis Network, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which is funded by Charles Koch and his allies, the Mercer Family Foundation, run and financed by longtime megadonors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the Strake Foundation, a nonprofit led by Texas businessman and philanthropist George Strake Jr., and a donation through the Shell Oil Company Foundation, which is headed by the leaders of the massive oil company.
Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, told CNBC that the over $2,000 the company foundation gave to the Susan B. Anthony Education Fund came from one of its employees.
“The Shell Foundation forwards employee payroll deductions and match requests to 501c organizations in good standing with IRS,” Smith said in an email. “The Shell Foundation encourages employee giving and does not endorse any organizations. Giving is a personal decision not directed by the company. In this instance, the employee did not request a match.”
A spokesman for the Koch network told CNBC that the $500,000 donation to Susan B. Anthony List was tied to a previous commitment made by Freedom Partners.
“We do not and have never worked on the issue of abortion,” the Koch network spokesman said. “The grant in 2017 was the last payment on a previous commitment by Freedom Partners, which was intended to support SBA’s grassroots efforts to get-out-the-vote among those concerned about government spending — not issue advocacy.”
Spokespeople for the Mercers and Judicial Crisis Network did not return requests for comment. Strake Jr. could not be reached for comment.
Carrie Severino, a longtime ally of Leo’s and leader of the Judicial Crisis Network, tweeted in support of the draft decision.
“The reported draft opinion is thoughtful, scholarly, and thorough. It does the work that the majority in Roe and Casey refused to do, looking to the Constitution itself to determine whether it includes a right to an abortion,” Severino said