An Unusual $1.6 Billion Donation Bolsters Conservatives
WASHINGTON — A new conservative nonprofit group scored a $1.6 billion windfall last year via a little-known donor — an extraordinary sum that could give Republicans and their causes a huge financial boost ahead of the midterms, and for years to come.
The source of the money was Barre Seid, an electronics manufacturing mogul, and the donation is among the largest — if not the largest — single contributions ever made to a politically focused nonprofit. The beneficiary is a new political group controlled by Leonard A. Leo, an activist who has used his connections to Republican donors and politicians to help engineer the conservative dominance of the Supreme Court and to finance battles over abortion rights, voting rules and climate change policy.
This windfall will help cement Mr. Leo’s status as a kingmaker in conservative big money politics. It could also give conservatives an advantage in a type of difficult-to-trace spending that shapes elections and political fights.
The cash infusion was arranged through an unusual series of transactions that appear to have avoided tax liabilities. It originated with Mr. Seid, a longtime conservative donor who made a fortune as the chairman and chief executive of an electrical device manufacturing company in Chicago now known as Tripp Lite.
Rather than merely giving cash, Mr. Seid donated 100 percent of the shares of Tripp Lite to Mr. Leo’s nonprofit group before the company was sold to an Irish conglomerate for $1.65 billion, according to tax records provided to The New York Times, corporate filings and a person with knowledge of the matter.
The nonprofit, called the Marble Freedom Trust, then received all of the proceeds from the sale, in a transaction that appears to have been structured to allow the nonprofit group and Mr. Seid to avoid paying taxes on the proceeds.
For perspective, the $1.6 billion that the Marble trust reaped from the sale is slightly more than the total of $1.5 billion spent in 2020 by 15 of the most politically active nonprofit organizations that generally align with Democrats, according to an analysis by The Times. That spending, which Democrats embraced to aid the campaigns of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his allies in Congress, dwarfed the roughly $900 million spent by a comparable sample of 15 of the most politically active groups aligned with the Republican Party.
The Marble Freedom Trust could help conservatives level the playing field — if not surpass the left — in such nonprofit spending, which is commonly referred to as dark money because the groups involved can raise and spend unlimited sums on politics while revealing little about where they got the money or how they spent it.
In a statement, Mr. Leo cited some of the left’s biggest donors and an advisory firm that helps manage the nonprofit groups they fund.
“It’s high time for the conservative movement to be among the ranks of George Soros, Hansjörg Wyss, Arabella Advisors and other left-wing philanthropists, going toe-to-toe in the fight to defend our constitution and its ideals,” Mr. Leo said. Mr. Seid and an associate did not respond to messages seeking comment.
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The Marble Freedom Trust’s formation in May 2020, the donation of Tripp Lite shares by Mr. Seid, and Mr. Leo’s role have not been previously reported.
The funds are difficult to trace through public records. Tripp Lite is a private company that is not subject to corporate disclosure rules for public companies. On its tax filing, Marble indicated that the $1.6 billion came from the “sale of gifted company and subsidiaries,” but indicated that it withheld identifying information “to protect donor confidentiality.”
And Eaton, the publicly traded Irish company that bought Tripp Lite, does not refer to Marble in statements related to the sale.
The person with knowledge of the matter said that the Tripp Lite shares were donated to Marble months before the deal with Eaton was announced in January 2021. The sale was completed in March 2021.
Katy Brasser, a spokeswoman for Eaton, said in a statement, “We have no additional information to share regarding the acquisition that was announced last year.”
Ray D. Madoff, a professor of tax law at Boston College who is the director of the school’s Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good, said the structure of the transaction was most likely legal but did appear to allow a donor to avoid federal tax obligations from the sale of the company.
Here is how it works: Marble Freedom Trust is registered under a section of the tax code — 501(c)4 — for organizations that focus primarily on what the Internal Revenue Service calls “social welfare” and as a result are exempt from paying taxes. Such groups are allowed to engage in political advocacy, but their supporters are not entitled to deduct donations from their income taxes. Supporters can, however, donate assets that a nonprofit can sell and avoid capital gains taxes on the sale.
“These actions by the super wealthy are actually costing the American taxpayers to support the political spending of the wealthiest Americans,” Ms. Madoff said.
She said that donating corporate shares to a nonprofit was one way that those with incredible wealth skirt taxes when giving away money not just to charities, but to more politically minded nonprofits.
The tax filings shows that the Marble trust paid $940,000 for legal fees related to the sale to Sullivan & Cromwell, a leading New York law firm that specializes in business transactions. Other law firms paid by Marble include Kirton McConkie, a Utah corporate firm that was paid $140,000, and Holtzman Vogel, a Virginia firm specializing in political law that was paid more than $100,000.
The mission that the Marble trust lists in its tax filings is vague. “The trust exists to maintain and expand human freedom consistent with the values and ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States,” it says in the filing.
The person with knowledge of the matter said that the group’s name derived from the metamorphic rock, signaling the group’s intent to be enduring and maintain a clarity of purpose.
Mr. Seid has kept a low political profile in recent years. His last federal campaign donation, in 2008, was to a Republican running for Congress in Illinois, and his name has previously appeared only once in The Times, in 1990, for lending a Republican candidate for governor of Illinois nearly half a million dollars.
His family foundation, the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation, has operated with an annual budget of several million dollars, giving most often to the Chamber Opera Chicago, which Mr. Seid founded decades ago. He has been linked as a donor to some conservative causes in the past, though nothing at the scale of the Marble Freedom Trust.
Mr. Leo developed relationships with many major donors during his years as executive vice president of the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal group through which he helped advise Republican presidents on the selection of Supreme Court justices.
In 2018, during a live event, Justice Clarence Thomas joked about how honored he was to be sharing the stage with Mr. Leo, calling him “the No. 3 most powerful person in the world.”
In recent years, Mr. Leo increasingly expanded into a broader role in the conservative movement, shaping the big money flow as an adviser to donors and nonprofit organizations. In 2020, he left the Federalist Society to become chairman of a company called CRC Advisors, which advises and helps manage conservative nonprofits.
He is trustee and chairman of the Marble trust and has “primary authority” to decide how the money is spent, according to the tax filing, which shows that he was paid $350,000 in salary by the group.
Others named on the tax filing include Jonathan Bunch, who is listed as successor trustee. Mr. Bunch is president of Mr. Leo’s firm, CRC Advisors.
The Marble trust, which has already reported donations totaling nearly $229 million to other nonprofits, will expand the capabilities of a network of nonprofit groups that Mr. Leo has helped shape and guide in recent years.
In 2020, groups linked to Mr. Leo spent a total of $122 million on issues that animate the conservative base, including working to confirm conservatives to federal judgeships, fighting to restrict access to abortion and defending measures that Republicans cast as protections against voter fraud but that Democrats contend are hurdles to voting.
One of the groups, the Rule of Law Trust, which has been involved in judicial confirmation fights, received $153 million from the Marble trust last year. Another, the Concord Fund, received $16.5 million from the new group.
Two other funds that steer money into conservative politics, Donors Trust and Schwab Charitable Fund, received a total of $59.1 million from the Marble trust, according to the filing.
That left the Marble trust with a whopping $1.4 billion to spend at the end of April 2021. While that money cannot be donated directly to campaigns or party committees, it could help mitigate slowing Republican fund-raising ahead of a 2022 midterm cycle that otherwise seemed to favor the party in many ways.
Kenneth P. Vogel reported from Washington, and Shane Goldmacher from New York.