How a Secretive Billionaire Handed His Fortune to the Architect of the Right-Wing Takeover of the Courts

One of the key architects of conservatives’ efforts to reshape the American judicial system is a secretive and ultra-secretive elderly businessman from Chicago. He has made the largest known donation in the history of U.S. Political advocacy groups, worth $1.6 billion.

Barre Seid, a 90-year-old industrial tycoon, transferred a substantial amount of money to a nonprofit organization headed by Leonard Leo, who holds a co-chair position at the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. These financial transactions, carried out over the last two years, were conducted in a manner that lacked transparency.

The details from papers obtained separately by the media outlets were verified by The Lever and ProPublica. The donation was initially disclosed by The New York Times on Monday.

Our reporting sheds additional light on how two men, one a prolific but mysterious conservative donor and the other a judicial kingmaker, came together to likely further supercharge efforts to create a political chest war that will shift American politics to the right.

Leo, a Catholic conservative, has helped select judges to nominate to the Supreme Court and has made a series of sweeping pro-business decisions. Leo has also recently played a role in building the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, which has resulted in the elimination of Constitutional protections for abortion rights. Leo is an adviser on judicial nominations to President Donald Trump.

Leo derives immense political power through his ability to raise huge sums of money and distribute those funds throughout the conservative movement, influencing policy battles, judicial appointments, and elections, making him one of the biggest funders in the mystery operation.

The donation promptly propels him into the league of prominent sponsors such as the Koch brothers and George Soros. Seid, who headed the surge protector and data-center equipment manufacturer Tripp Lite for over fifty years, has been virtually unrecognized beyond a limited group of political and cultural beneficiaries.

Leo was allowed to maximize his money disposal by structuring the enormous donation to the Freedom Marble Trust, in order to avoid taxes as much as possible. However, there are a few practical limitations on how Leo can spend the donation.

Leo, who is 56 years old, currently has the opportunity to fund his already extensive network using one of the most significant reservoirs of political influence in the history of the United States. Leo has passed down his heritage to Seid.

Brendan Fischer, a lawyer specializing in campaign finance at the impartial monitoring organization Documented, expressed, “As far as I know, it is completely unprecedented for a political strategist to be granted authority over such a remarkable sum of money.” “Leonard Leo is already immensely influential, and now he will possess more than a billion dollars to further disrupt the establishments of our nation.”

Leo and Seid did not comment on requests to respond immediately. Leo stated in a statement to The Times that they are among the ranks of philanthropists and left-wing advisors who are fighting toe-to-toe to defend our ideals and constitution, and it is a high time for the conservative movement.

The Freedom Marble Trust is a so-called dark money group that has a wide latitude to directly spend on organizing efforts, religious institutions, think tanks, issue-advocacy funding, as well as ideological projects and elections. It is not required to publicly disclose its donors.

In an unusual maneuver, Leonard Leo was added as an officer to Barre Seid’s company. Seid left the company’s board, and his name was crossed out in state corporate disclosure filings. Credit: Illinois Office of the Secretary of State

The founders of the Marble Freedom Trust concealed their undertaking in secrecy for over two years.

The name of the group does not appear in any public database for securities or tax business records. Freedom Marble Trust is organized as a trust for legal purposes, rather than a corporation. It does not disclose basic details like its address and directors publicly, which means that.

The trust was established in Utah. Its address is a house located in North Salt Lake, owned by Clarence Thomas, a lawyer who previously worked as a clerk for Justice Thomas of the Supreme Court. Green is listed as the administrative trustee for the trust’s tax return. The donation does not seem to violate any laws.

In the past decade, donations have increased to millions and sometimes tens of millions of dollars. Political causes and candidates now have the ability to spend unlimited sums of money, thanks to weak federal oversight and subsequent changes. This landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court in 2010, known as Citizens United, ushered in a new era of deregulated political spending, including Seid’s $1.6 billion donation.

Financing networks of nonprofit organizations, billionaires like the Koch family and Soros have invested billions in order to attain significant political power. These nonprofit organizations were given greater leeway to impact elections, while the ruling enabled individuals to donate unrestricted sums of money to nonprofit groups before the Citizens United case.

Even in this financially saturated world, Seid’s $1.6 billion donation surpasses all publicly recognized one-time contributions to a politically focused organization.

The Quiet Contributor

One day in November 2015, the employees of Tripp Lite, a manufacturer of power strips and other electrical equipment, gathered at the company’s headquarters on the South Side of Chicago to celebrate. A sign held up on an easel read “Congratulations Barre!” And numbers “56” were spelled out on frosted cupcakes in white and blue.

A petite, bald man with a white beard and a flushed complexion seized the microphone. Barre Seid, a person who typically preferred to maintain a low-key presence, was recognized, but on the 56th commemoration of his tenure as the leader of Tripp Lite, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak to his staff. Seid smiled for a photographer from the company and took a bite of a cupcake, which was subsequently shared on the company’s Facebook page.

Even this partially public view of Seid was uncommon.

Seid, the sole owner and president of one of the most successful electronics makers in the country, has spent the majority of his 90 years guarding his privacy. However, despite his status as one of the country’s most prolific conservative funders, Seid was recently ushered into his office at Lite Tripp headquarters by a select group of fundraisers, academics, and political activists he has known for several decades.

There is even some confusion over how to pronounce his last name, people who have dealt with him say. There are no buildings, university theaters, opera companies, or art galleries emblazoned with his name in his hometown of Chicago.

The Lever and ProPublica reconstructed the specifics of his life and his reasons for his extensive contributions by gathering information from public-records requests, interviews, court records, and other documents.

Seid, born in 1932 to Russian Jewish immigrants, grew up on the South Side of Chicago, according to census records. One of the oldest brothers, he could be found walking across campus as a 14-year-old in a small group, as shown in photos from ProPublica and Lever. He was not far from his childhood home, as he had chosen the special bachelor’s degree program at the University of Chicago as a precocious child.

He took a job as an assistant to businessman and investor Graham Trippe, whose company produced rotating warning lights and headlights used by police cars, tow trucks, and other emergency vehicles. According to later testimony given in a court case, he eventually returned home to Chicago and served two years in the Army. After college, Seid attended the University of Chicago in the early years of the Chicago “school,” a group of researchers and professors who sought to reimagine the field of economics by emphasizing the importance of free markets, liberty, and assailing massive government interventions in the economy.

During the mid-1960s, Seid took control of Trippe Manufacturing’s president position. Over the following decades, the company transformed into Tripp Lite, a business closely associated with the digital gold rush. Tripp Lite now specializes in selling power strips for computers, as well as server racks, cooling equipment, and network switches that are essential for running data centers. The company experienced a significant increase in business due to the rise of cloud computing and the widespread expansion of large-scale data centers.

The sudden surge propelled him from the category of simply wealthy to the ultra-wealthy. Seid was earning approximately $30 million per year by the mid-1990s, as evidenced by tax records acquired by ProPublica. His yearly earnings, with the overwhelming majority stemming from Tripp Lite’s profits, skyrocketed in the mid-2000s and continued to increase steadily, reaching approximately $157 million in 2018. Tripp Lite, entirely owned by Seid, accounted for $136 million of his total income during that year.

Forbes never paid attention to him and he didn’t attract much public attention either, even though Seid built a business worth billions of dollars. He was rarely mentioned in the political and business press.

Seid, a major donor, distributed a small portion of his income, reported to be $1.7 billion between 1996 and 2018, to various civic-focused groups, medical research organizations, religious universities, and Chicago-area charities. He donated at least $775 million to charitable causes during this time period.

Utilizing provocative language and deceptive strategies to weaken the credibility of climate science, the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that has a track record of employing such methods, has also received donations from Seid. Seid’s family foundation has provided support to the University of Chicago’s Becker Friedman Institute for Economics, which is named after two influential thinkers from the Chicago school, Gary Becker and Milton Friedman. Although Seid has never publicly discussed his ideology, occasional indications of his worldview have surfaced.

The distribution of millions of DVD copies of the film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War on the West” specifically targeted households in battleground states during the presidential election. The donor, who appeared to be Barry Seid, gave $17 million to fund the distribution and was vehemently criticized for being anti-Muslim.

Members of the Extensive Right Wing Conspiracy, as Seid wittily addressed various administrators for the university, whose law school and economics department are renowned for their alignment with conservative, free-market principles. In the emails, Seid appears as an intellectually inquisitive figure, asking the dean of the law school to react to news stories about the worth of a law-school degree or the inner workings of higher education’s accreditation system. Seid’s character can be glimpsed in exchanges with George Mason University officials from the late 2000s to mid-2010s that were disclosed in response to a public-records request by the activist group UnKoch My Campus.

Two donor-advised funds, DonorsTrust or the Donors Capital Fund, offer an extra layer of secrecy by channeling donations to the school through a redacted donor — who activists suspect to be Seid based on other unredacted materials — as revealed in the GMU emails. Seid seems to have consistently looked for new means to distribute his funds and preserve maximum anonymity.

Leo eventually became a member of the foundation’s board. Seid established the Chicago Freedom Trust, a charitable organization that provided modest grants to nonpartisan organizations in 2009. The duo collaborated at a modest foundation called the Chicago Freedom Trust, which was established by Seid, although the origins of Seid and Leo’s professional connection remain obscure.

The emails from GMU provide a hint of the relationship between the two men, Leo Seid and Henry Butler. In early 2016, Leo Seid, the dean of the law school at GMU, emailed Henry Butler, urging him to work together and encouraging him to understand the intentions of Seid’s forwarded message to the prominent American Jewish organization’s head and dean of GMU’s law school.

“Do you possess any understanding?” Butler penned.

“I don’t, but I’ll find out,” Leo responded.

The Currency

The billionaires are planning to pass on their intricate estate-crafting skills to the next generation of the business family. They have fortified their vision to protect it from taxation. In April 2020, they set a motion in place to ensure that their fortune would go towards causes they favor. However, it seems that Seid, who apparently does not have any children, did not have the option to make sure his plan became a reality.

The Lever and ProPublica examined the records, and based on their findings, Seid later transferred his complete ownership interest in Tripp Lite to the Marble Freedom Trust, which was established during that same month.

Leonard Leo was manually inscribed, included as an executive of the corporation. Just like it had been doing for many years, Tripp Lite submitted its yearly filings to the state of Illinois in February 2021. Seid’s name, typed using a typewriter, had been invalidated as an executive of the corporation, however, this instance.

As per the disclosure filings, in March 2021, a subsidiary of Tripp Lite in Nova Scotia, Canada also appointed Leo as a director and dismissed Seid from the position of director.

Afterwards, in the same month, Eaton Corporation, a sizable publicly traded business, purchased Tripp Lite for $1.65 billion.

If the property is sold, the value of the property has grown, and if the property has grown in value, taxes on capital gains will be applicable. Similarly, if a person sells a share of stock, they will be treated in the same way for tax purposes as someone who has sold ownership in a company after decades of value growth.

To safeguard the funds for Leo’s surgical procedure, Seid managed to evade approximately $400 million in state and federal income tax by moving Tripp Lite to the Marble Freedom Trust, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, prior to the sale of the electronics company, according to legal experts.

According to Ellen Aprill, a professor of tax law at Loyola Marymount University, “However, you can evade the tax on the entire amount of that increase in value if you donate it to the 501(c)(4) organization; there is no tax deduction available for donating the money. If the individual who previously possessed the shares had sold them directly, they would have incurred taxes on the increase in value of the shares.”

Campaigns for or against political candidates cannot primarily serve the purpose of directly spending money on advocating. However, while super PACs or political campaigns can publicly disclose the gifts they receive, dark-money groups, also known as social welfare organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, can remain secret donors. Nonprofit advocacy organizations like Trust Freedom Marble are formally referred to as social welfare organizations.

In 2015, President Barack Obama, due to a modification that he approved, Seid also managed to evade an additional federal charge, the gift tax, when donating to a secretive organization that operates with undisclosed sources of funding.

Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, suggests that altering the governing documents of a corporation can pose more challenges compared to modifying the founding documents that outline the spending of funds by a trust. This aspect might have been appealing to an older and ideologically driven donor like Seid, which explains the preference for donating funds specifically to a trust.

Mayer added that corporations usually have at least three directors, who are responsible for the activities of the organization’s trustees in a single charge.

Leo, who fulfills the roles of trustee and chairman for the Marble Freedom Trust, is presently accountable for overseeing a considerable sum of finances.

The Rain Bringer

Leo had served for decades as the top executive at the influential Washington-based conservative group, the Federalist Society, helping to lead and launch pad careers for a group of influential lawyers.

Leo stated in an interview that he is stepping away from his day-to-day role with the Federalist Society to take on a more active role in steering a conservative network with a greater focus on funding. He also made an early announcement in 2020, suggesting that he plans to reshape American politics at every level, from federal and state to local, by using his successful model to reshape the courts.

Axios, as per the report, aimed to channel substantial amounts of money into conservative battles across the nation, which constituted the strategy to broaden the network’s reach. Leo did not discuss the formation of the Marble Freedom Trust, which is his largest-ever fund, during the interview.

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During his time in office, Leo, a judicial adviser and a supporter of social conservatives, helped President Trump confirm and appoint more than 200 nominees to the federal bench, including Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch. This move bolstered support among social conservatives, who were initially wary of Trump’s leanings in the past.

Leo’s efforts to reshape the country’s judicial system began long before Trump’s political ascent, when he joined the Federalist Society in 1991, which was only the beginning of his conservative stance on pipeline construction.

During that time, Leo advocated for an originalist perspective of the Constitution, which means that the nation’s founding document should be strictly interpreted based on the understanding of its authors in the 18th century. These same courts had also given authority to a group of unelected bureaucrats known as the “administrative state” to impose unnecessary regulations and grant excessive power to the federal government. According to Leo and his supporters, the U.S. Legal system had strayed dangerously far from its origins, creating privileged groups and principles that were not specifically mentioned in the Constitution and would not have been recognized by the Founders. Similar to his close friend Justice Antonin Scalia, the U.S. Legal system had veered dangerously far from its origins, creating privileged groups and principles that were not specifically mentioned in the Constitution and would not have been recognized by the Founders.

In 2005, Leo formed a dark money network to rally support for Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito and John Roberts, if Leo wanted to turn the tide back and build the activism he saw as needed to unchecked judicial activism, but something bigger and more lasting for George W. Bush’s Court.

Leo sought to establish an interconnected network of groups that could play a part in returning the country to its roots by bankrolling efforts to install conservative judges on the bench or funding scholarship for originalism, as he saw it as a way to train future generations in Scalia’s ideology.

From 2005 to mid-2021, Leo and his colleagues generated a minimum of $460 million (excluding the funds of the Marble Freedom Trust).

Throughout battles over Supreme Court confirmations, the Judicial Crisis Network — presently referred to as the Concord Fund and led by an ex-assistant to Justice Clarence Thomas and Leo associate named Carrie Severino — has invested large sums promoting commercials. Leo’s organization has directed those massive amounts into advertising initiatives and conservative-leaning organizations, as indicated by tax documents.

The fundraising group, Leo’s network, received a $28 million infusion from a single anonymous donor in That year. In 2016, when Leo’s network refused to advocate for the confirmation of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, it led a campaign to block his confirmation.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Leader of the Minority Senate, recently donated $9 million to a dark money affiliated group and has closely collaborated with Leo’s network along with Senate Republicans, showering them with support.

Additionally, Leo is best known for his influence and his network, which have also worked to shift the balance of the judiciary, including the state supreme courts and federal appellate and district courts.

At the state level, conservative candidates and groups that support them are funding a network. Nonprofits and subsidiaries of Leo’s have recently been pushing to tighten voting laws in states, opposing the critical race theory teaching in schools. These organizations are also pressing states to remove millions of Americans from Medicaid rolls and tighten voting laws.

With ambitions to match, Leo now has nearly four times the sum he raised over 16 years at his disposal, thanks to Seid’s generosity.