Anti-Gorsuch Activist's 'Dark Money' Hypocrisy

Demos does not disclose its donors

Demos President Heather McGhee / Getty Images
March 26, 2017

The head of a liberal dark money group criticized Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch because of his stance on political disclosures and Citizens United.

Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that confirming Judge Gorsuch would lead to "big money corrupting our politics completely."

"The Supreme Court's activism in striking down safeguards is what has brought us to this perilous place in our history," she said. "It's hard to imagine things getting worse and yet the prospect of a lifetime seat for Judge Gorsuch has given us a glimpse."

McGhee condemned the outsized influence wealthy donors play in the political process and criticized the idea that forcing organizations to disclose their donors could lead to political intimidation from activists.

"[Gorsuch] was quite evasive—in fact, to my dismay [he] raised the idea that disclosure chills speech," McGhee said. "Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage without which democracy is doomed."

Demos does not disclose its donors and was cited by the Center for Public Integrity as a dark money group in January. A review of the 501(c)3 non-profit group's most recent tax forms shows that Demos garnered more than $7 million in contributions in 2014. Seven individuals accounted for more than half of those donations. The group highlighted those seven donations—ranging from $250,000 to $1.425 million—in its documents, but left the identities of those donors blank. The group paid more than $3 million in salaries and wages in 2014, including McGhee's $240,000 compensation.

Demos did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether it planned on adopting disclosure policies in line with the ideology it was promoting. Citizen Audit, a group that tracks non-profit disclosures by examining group expenditures, has identified 13 groups that have contributed to Demos in the past. The group has benefitted from the largesse of major liberal donors, including the Rockefeller and Tides foundation, as well as organized labor groups, including the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers.

Gorsuch clashed with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) over the donation disclosures at Tuesday's confirmation hearing. When Whitehouse asked him about whether he favored enhanced disclosure, Gorsuch said the legislature should address disclosure requirements, adding, "Senator, with all due respect, the ball’s in your court." Whitehouse introduced McGhee to the committee on Thursday by condemning the "dark money" campaign that conservative activists have used to back the nomination.

"We have seen reports of a $10 million political campaign to try to influence the Senate in Judge Gorsuch's favor through a front group," Whitehouse said in his introduction of McGhee. "We don't know who the real donors are. It's dark money that is behind that entire operation."

Whitehouse was referring to the $10 million campaign led by the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative judicial watchdog that has spent millions on ads urging Democratic senators up for re-election in states that Trump won to support Gorsuch. Carrie Severino, the group's leader, said the group follows the federal government's disclosure requirements and does not disclose its donors to protect their privacy.

"We fully comply with all disclosure requirements. We are also ethically bound to protect the privacy rights of our supporters, and will continue to do so," she said in a statement.

Demos is not the first group to accuse Gorsuch of siding with political mega-donors at the expense of the rest of the country. In February, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced she would oppose Gorsuch's nomination because of his record on campaign finance and religious liberty issues.

"For years, powerful interests have executed a full-scale assault on the integrity of our federal judiciary, trying to turn the Supreme Court into one more rigged game that works only for the rich and the powerful," she said in a statement. "We don’t need another justice who spends his time looking out for those with money and influence. Based on the long and well-established record of Judge Gorsuch, I will oppose his nomination."

Sen. Warren's daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, serves as the chairman of Demos' board of trustees.