Leonard Leo Is Funneling Dark Money Into Law Schools

Leonard Leo had a vision for his alma mater, and he had the money to back it up. With a donation of as much as $25 million, he wanted Cornell Law to establish the Center for the Study of the Structural Constitution — the biggest effort yet by the conservative megadonor to reshape academia in his right-wing image. 

After months of courtship, the proposal — which has before never been disclosed — hit a snag in the fall of 2021.

Cornell professors worried a center sponsored by Leo, one of the architects of the conservative legal movement, would establish a beachhead for far-right scholarship. Unable to convince the school that gave him both his undergraduate and law degrees to build his research center, Leo walked away, or so he claims.

But he didn’t abandon his law school campaign.

Snubbed by the Ivy League, Leo found a new home for his pet project. The Intercept followed the money trail to reveal how the man known primarily as the Trump administration’s “court whisperer” has secretly funneled part of his billion-dollar war chest to the law school at Texas A&M University. Money has also flowed to several other law schools through one of Leo’s favorite dark-money funds, with many donations bearing the hallmarks of his broader aim to overhaul the legal academy.

Professors at the law schools Leo targeted for shadow philanthropy — more than a dozen of whom spoke with The Intercept, most on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions — are worried Leo is trying to incubate fringe conservative scholarship at top programs.

And many think he’s just getting started.

Students on Libe Slope at the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, US, on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. US college costs just keep climbing and the increase is pushing the annual price for the upcoming academic year at Ivy League schools toward yet another hold-on-to-your-mortarboard mark. Photographer: Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Students on Libe Slope at the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, N.Y., on April 11, 2023.
Bing Guan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Double Cornellian

Leo is a Cornell man twice over, having finished his undergrad in 1987 and his J.D. from Cornell Law in 1989. After founding Cornell’s student chapter of the Federalist Society, he went on to become the national organization’s executive vice president and now co-chair. In the decades that followed, Leo advised on every conservative nomination to the Supreme Court since Chief Justice John Roberts.

On top of handpicking judges, Leo made himself a dominant fundraiser for conservative legal causes, especially efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade. During the Obama administration, groups linked to Leo spent millions to stonewall the nomination of then-Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. In 2018, Justice Clarence Thomas, a longtime friend, quipped Leo had made himself “the Number Three most powerful person in the world.”

In 2021, Leo orchestrated a historic $1.6 billion windfall for his primary dark-money vehicle, the Marble Freedom Trust, which he controls as chair. It was likely the largest donation to a political nonprofit ever.
Along the way to becoming one of the conservative legal movement’s chief architects and piggybanks, Leo honed his academic philanthropy chops too.

In 2016, Leo helped broker a $20 million anonymous gift to George Mason University in exchange for renaming its law school after the late Justice Antonin Scalia. This donation is widely suspected to be from the same donor who later gave Leo more than $1 billion.

An Intercept investigation reveals:

  • Right-wing megadonor Leonard Leo considered donating $25 million to Cornell Law School to establish a research center; the deal fell apart amid faculty opposition.
  • Instead he secretly donated $15 million for a research center with a nearly identical name at Texas A&M School of Law, the university’s former president confirmed.
  • Leo’s preferred donor-advised fund distributed millions to other law schools across the country to fund research centers and endowed professorships.

Leo maintained a close relationship with Cornell over the decades, including during his time advising the Trump administration on judicial nominations, when he gave two talks at Cornell Law discussing his views on the “structural Constitution.” Cleverly bland and amorphous — much like “originalism” or “textualism” — a “structuralist” analysis of the Constitution can mean many things, including basic principles like separation of powers and federalism.

To many Cornell Law professors, however, a Leo-sponsored center devoted to the “structural Constitution” registered as a potential launchpad for right-wing legal theories at an elite, generally liberal institution. They saw it as an attempt to buy credibility for Leo’s broader, arch-conservative views, many of which have extraordinarily low support among legal scholars nationwide.

Leo first discussed a donation of up to $25 million with Cornell Law’s then-dean, Eduardo Peñalver, who stepped down in late 2020, according to a source close to Leo. The donation would have been among the largest in Cornell Law’s history. (Peñalver, now the president of Seattle University, did not respond to The Intercept’s inquiries.)

By fall 2021, the plan was put in writing. The source shared a copy of an undated proposal, which he said Cornell sent to Leo in October 2021.

Do you have information about Leo’s push into law schools? Use a personal device to contact Shawn Musgrave on Signal at shawnmusgrave.82 or by email at [email protected].

Cornell declined to answer The Intercept’s questions about its discussions with Leo, including why the deal ultimately stalled. “We have many conversations with alumni and others around potential philanthropic gifts — conversations that are confidential,” the current Cornell Law dean, Jens David Ohlin, said in an emailed statement.

The proposal laid out the vision for the “Charles Evans Hughes Center for the Study of the Structural Constitution,” to be named for the Supreme Court’s chief justice during the New Deal. Hughes briefly served on Cornell’s faculty in the late 19th century, and, as the proposal highlights, he wrote a unanimous opinion gutting one of the New Deal’s legislative centerpieces.

According to the document, the center would be funded by Leo to the tune of $15 million over five years, with $5 million committed to an endowed chair. “This professor will be the intellectual heart of the center and the architect of its scholarly program,” per the proposal, which also floated a list of four “thinkers we would consider for the role.”

The center would have its own physical space, staff, programming, visiting professors, and fellows-in-residence, making it “a locus of activity for the structuralist movement, with a sort of gravitational pull attracting the very best of those at its heart.”

The goal was to turn Cornell Law School into “a destination, or least a necessary stop, on the intellectual journey undertaken by structuralism’s proponents,” reads the proposal.

When Ohlin presented the idea of the center to the faculty, they pushed back on “what appeared to be fairly strong constraints about what the center would study,” said George Hay, a longtime Cornell Law professor.

Faculty worried the center would be “politically tilted toward supporting a certain view of how the legal system should run, which fit in nicely with Federalist Society principles,” Hay said.

“It seemed like the agenda was preset and the faculty didn’t want it with those strings,” Hay said.

“It seemed like the agenda was preset and the faculty didn’t want it with those strings.”

Professors urged Ohlin to politely decline. When Cornell sent a revised proposal the following month, its terms had changed. The draft letter, addressed to Leo and the Marble Freedom Trust and shared with The Intercept by the source close to Leo, nixed the center.

Instead, Cornell proposed a $10 million endowment for the “Charles Evans Hughes Professorship in Constitutional Law,” which would be attributed publicly to Leo and Marble Freedom Trust. The professorship would be awarded at the discretion of the dean “to an outstanding scholar of the structural constitution,” per the letter.

Leo took the letter as a renege, since the center had been his priority. Leo walked away in early 2022, the source said. Cornell did not respond to requests for comment about Leo’s rendition of the split.

But the collapse of the Cornell deal was a temporary setback for Leo’s vision. In the fall of 2022, the law school dean of Texas A&M, more than 1,500 miles away in Fort Worth, sent an email announcement: “COMING SOON: Center on the Structural Constitution.”

An email announcing the Center on the Structural Constitution at Texas A&M University School of Law.
Source: Texas A&M School of Law

Leo Goes West

The hundreds of millions of dollars Leo pumps into the conservative legal movement each year are difficult to trace. He controls multiple pots of dark money, most of which he then funnels through various pass-through mechanisms, including via donor-advised funds that make certain disclosures opaque.

One such fund, DonorsTrust, is a favorite of Leo and like-minded right-wing donors, which has earned it the nickname “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.” DonorsTrust’s tax filings were the key to unraveling Leo’s unsuccessful wooing of Cornell and landing his research center at Texas A&M.

Texas A&M, which is steadily climbing the law school rankings, received $5 million via DonorsTrust in 2022. Per the filing, this was earmarked specifically “for the Center on the Structural Constitution” — virtually the same name as the scuttled Cornell Law program.

Asked when he first approached Texas A&M with the idea for the center, Leo declined to comment.

By June 2022, Texas A&M had signed a $15 million deal — payable in three installments of $5 million — to establish the “Center on the Structural Constitution,” according to a copy of the agreement provided by the school, which redacted the donor’s name.

The next month, Texas A&M Law’s dean, Robert Ahdieh, announced the center internally, telling the faculty in an email that it was part of an anonymous $15 million gift.

Later that fall, the dean sent an email about the new center to “various law school faculty around the country,” according to a law school spokesperson, who provided a copy to The Intercept. Ahdieh’s announcement described the gift as “among the largest donations ever received by Texas A&M University.”

Texas A&M has never loudly trumpeted this hefty gift. Unlike at Cornell, Leo’s name is not explicitly attached, and many on the Texas A&M law school faculty were unaware of his involvement before The Intercept’s reporting. Under the agreement, Texas A&M promised “not to publicly name or recognize the Donor without prior express approval.”

Unlike at Cornell, Leo does not have a long history with Texas A&M. But he has a connection to its former president. In 2020, Texas A&M’s then-president, Michael K. Young, tapped Leo to serve as an external reviewer for Young’s new research institute on religion and international affairs. Young and Leo both previously served as chairs of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, though their tenures did not overlap.

Young, who returned to teach at Texas A&M’s law school at the end of 2020, confirmed that Leo funded Texas A&M’s Center on the Structural Constitution. “I was aware of the donation,” he told The Intercept.

In addition to the center’s name, the Texas A&M gift had plenty of Leo’s calling cards.

Last year, Texas A&M tried to hire a professor for the center who was also on the shortlist Cornell floated to Leo. After a job post circulated in Leo’s circles, the school hired an executive director with impressive Federalist Society credentials.

Ahdieh apparently exchanged emails with Leo himself, per responses to public records requests. Since January 2022, Ahdieh also sent or received dozens of emails related to Leo’s Marble Freedom Trust. Last week, the school said it would try to withhold at least some of the dean’s emails under a state law that protects the identity of donors to higher education institutions.

Ahdieh did not reply to numerous questions, including about Leo’s role in funding the center. “Under state law, the identity of a donor may remain confidential if that donor so chooses, which is what happened in this situation,” said a spokesperson for Texas A&M University.

Almost two years after Texas A&M accepted the gift, its Center on the Structural Constitution has not yet formally launched, said a law school spokesperson, who declined to answer additional questions. A spokesperson for the broader university said the law school was still “developing a proposal” about the center that “may be presented in the future to the Board of Regents for consideration and approval.”

Despite this bureaucratic limbo, last fall, Texas A&M tried to recruit a well-known originalist scholar, Gary Lawson, to join the center. Lawson, a founding member of the Federalist Society and current board member with Leo, was also on Cornell’s shortlist. Lawson told The Intercept he declined Texas A&M’s offer “for personal (largely geographical) reasons,” and accepted a different position.

Texas A&M also hired a non-faculty director for the center with sterling conservative bona fides. William Payne started as director of the Center on the Structural Constitution last October, according to his LinkedIn profile. (After The Intercept reached out to Texas A&M regarding the center, Payne changed his title to director of “New Initiatives,” but as of publication his title remained unchanged in Texas A&M’s public directory. Payne did not respond to questions about his role.)

The year before coming to Texas A&M, Payne clerked for Judge James Ho, one of the most right-wing members of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Payne, who was a vice president of Harvard Law School’s chapter of the Federalist Society, also previously worked for former Republican Sens. Ben Sasse and Orrin Hatch, according to his LinkedIn.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 9: Right-wing activist Leonard Leo, C, attends the 2023 Antonin Scalia Memorial Dinner that is part of the Federalist Society's 2023 National Lawyers Convention at the Washington Hilton Hotel on November 9, 2023, in Washington, DC.  United States Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, the night's keynote speaker, were also in attendance. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Leonard Leo attends the 2023 Antonin Scalia Memorial Dinner, part of the Federalist Society’s 2023 National Lawyers Convention, at the Washington Hilton on Nov. 9, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A Knight of Constitutional Originalism

Leo typically operates in the background and goes to considerable lengths to cover his philanthropic tracks. Each year, his groups send millions through DonorsTrust, which markets itself as a “principled philanthropic partner for conservative and libertarian donors” and a means to anonymously fund “sensitive or controversial issues.”

Deep-pocketed benefactors like Leo can tell DonorsTrust where they want their money to ultimately go. Its board of directors will “always respect grant requests that fall within the DonorsTrust mission and purpose,” per its website.

DonorsTrust declined to discuss the specifics of any contributions identified by The Intercept. “We do not release to the general public either the names of our accountholders nor specific grants that they may have recommended,” said Lawson Bader, its president and CEO. Bader noted that some of the contributions listed on DonorsTrust’s tax filings may have originated from multiple donors.

But Leo’s funding vehicles — especially the Marble Freedom Trust and the 85 Fund, which he rebranded in 2020 and likely bankrolls via yet another donor-advised fund — are among the biggest contributors to DonorsTrust.

In 2022, the 85 Fund sent $92 million through DonorsTrust, more than a quarter of all contributions to DonorsTrust that year. Marble Freedom Trust has distributed more than $41 million via DonorsTrust, according to a filing for its 2020 fiscal year. The Rule of Law Trust, also run by Leo, gave $5.8 million via DonorsTrust in 2020.

Beside Leo’s groups, other top contributors to DonorsTrust include Rebekah Mercer of Cambridge Analytica and Parler fame, whose Mercer Family Foundation gave $31 million in 2022. Mercer and other top contributors to DonorsTrust did not respond to The Intercept’s questions for this article.

Whether from Leo or other sources, conservative money has been already flowing to law schools via DonorsTrust for years, mostly to premiere programs. Since 2019, Yale Law School has received $250,000 per year for the “Diversity in Democracy Professorship Fund”; Yale declined to explain the purpose of this fund or say whether these contributions came from Leo. New York University Law School received $350,000 in 2021 and $300,000 in 2022 for a libertarian research institute. NYU also declined to provide additional details about the source of these contributions. And since 2020, Stanford’s student chapter of the Federalist Society received $25,000 per year. Stanford referred questions to the Federalist Society and DonorsTrust.

There were also millions sent to George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, which Leo helped make one of the gravitational centers for conservative legal academia. Since 2017, Scalia Law School received at least $4 million each year via DonorsTrust, much of it earmarked for its Law & Economics Center, which puts on often lavish doctrinal bootcamps for judges, one of which was held in Leo’s literal backyard.

But in 2022, after the Cornell deal soured, new law school donations appeared on DonorsTrust’s filings. These anonymous gifts went to schools without the hefty endowments of Cornell, Yale, Stanford, or NYU, or the conservative cachet of George Mason.

And like the earmark for Leo’s new center at Texas A&M, these new donations also had explicit instructions for how the cash must be used, instructions which seem to align closely with Leo’s priorities.

One such school on DonorsTrust’s filing in 2022 was Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

In November 2022, after Texas A&M soft-launched his Center on the Structural Constitution, Leo took the stage at Catholic University’s law school alongside Patrick Kelly, “Supreme Knight” of the Knights of Columbus, the all-male Catholic fraternal order.

The occasion: to celebrate a new endowed professorship and the launch of a new research center, both focused on the intersection of the U.S. Constitution and the Catholic intellectual tradition.

It was a rare public recognition of Leo’s fundraising prowess at the intersection of faith and the law. A devout Catholic, Leo is a member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Catholic knighthood, and recipient of the top honor from Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center.

At Catholic University’s celebration, Leo said its law school was “becoming very impactful in the field of legal education.”

At first, money for the new center — the Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition — came in without any mention of Leo. In April 2021, Catholic University announced it had received $4.25 million from an “anonymous trust” for a three-year program, with the possibility of expanding “into a larger constitutional law center” after that, based on a joint assessment by the “supporting donor” and the school.

A year later, in May 2022, the school announced the creation of a new professorship to lead the new project. Leo, in partnership with the Knights of Columbus, had “directed a gift” to endow the “Knights of Columbus Professor of Law and the Catholic Tradition,” which was awarded to Kevin Walsh, a former Scalia clerk. The total funding for Walsh’s professorship and the center came to $8.25 million, according to the announcement.

At the November 2022 event, the Knights of Columbus were credited with chipping in $1 million toward the professorship, while an “anonymous donor” contributed $3 million that was “overseen” by Leo.

DonorsTrust’s year-end tax filings for 2022 show a $4.1 million contribution to Catholic University of America, earmarked “for the Knights of Columbus Professor of Law.”

Leo declined to comment about his involvement in funding Catholic University’s new center and professorship.

“I can’t thank enough our university trustees, Leonard Leo and Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly,” said the law school’s dean, Stephen Payne, in remarks at the November 2022 event, “for recognizing the value that a program and chair such as this will bring not only to our own law school but to legal education generally.” Both Leo and Kelly are on Catholic University’s board of trustees.

Catholic University and the Knights of Columbus did not respond to questions from The Intercept.

Since it launched, Catholic University’s new research center has hosted talks by two Supreme Court justices: Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett, two of six practicing Catholics currently on the high court. Alito serves as the project’s honorary chair, and it has also attracted powerful conservative appellate judges as “visiting jurists.”

“Catholic tradition is not an add-on, not something extra,” said Walsh at the November 2022 event. “It is the matrix within which we are to take hold of all reality, including the realities of law and justice.”

Funding Other Schools

Other law schools on DonorsTrust’s filing for 2022 don’t have clear fingerprints from Leo, who declined to comment on any of them.

But one earmark was even more targeted than a specific conservative legal center: In 2022, South Texas College of Law Houston received $1 million “for the endowed chair for Professor Josh Blackman.” This came after the school received $50,000 in 2021 via DonorsTrust “for an Endowed Chair,” without specifying any single professor.

South Texas College of Law, which is not attached to a larger university, is not a household name. In 2016, the school briefly changed its name to “Houston College of Law,” before being ordered to change it back during a trademark dispute with the University of Houston.

Blackman is a prolific pundit and “national thought leader on constitutional law,” according to his personal website. He frequently comments on Supreme Court rulings and other legal developments, quoted by local TV news as well as NPR and Politico.

In one profile of Leo’s role in the Trump administration’s judicial nominations, Blackman spoke with familiarity. “Leonard has a somewhat unique talent in Washington in that he can actually keep confidences, and he can be a trustworthy person,” Blackman told The Associated Press in 2018.

A self-described libertarian, Blackman is a regular on the Federalist Society speaker circuit who’s given talks to the student chapters at Cornell, Texas A&M, George Mason, and many other schools.
Blackman also contributed to the “Project 2025” manifesto and argued “heroically,” in one Federalist Society co-founder’s view, that former President Donald Trump could not be disqualified from this year’s ballot over his role in the January 6 insurrection based on the original meaning of the word “officer” in the Constitution. In March, the Supreme Court ruled for Trump without addressing Blackman’s argument.

Blackman has critiqued recent investigative reporting about conservative Supreme Court justices Alito and Thomas — including coverage of Alito’s apparent penchant for mixed-message flags.

Blackman directed questions about his funding to South Texas College of Law, which did not reply to The Intercept.

South Texas College of Law attracts very few large donations, its tax records show. Compared to the $1 million earmarked for Blackman in 2022, over the last decade for which records are available, the school never raised more than $10 million in a single year. In its most recent filing, which covers June 2022 through May 2023, it raised just $3.7 million total, and just $1 million excluding government grants.

In fact, the contribution to Blackman’s endowment is the single largest to South Texas College of Law since its alumni foundation folded and transferred $1.5 million in cash to the school in 2014, The Intercept found.

Despite the heft of the gift, South Texas College of Law, like Texas A&M, didn’t announce it publicly. In March 2023, without fanfare, Blackman became the “Centennial Chair of Constitutional Law,” according to his CV.

This was not the only lesser known school that received donations via DonorsTrust in 2022. Ave Maria School of Law, an independent Catholic law school in Florida, received $600,000. An Ave Maria spokesperson declined to identify who made that gift, citing the school’s “policy not to disclose donor information.” Leo previously served on Ave Maria’s board.

And $40,000 went to the University of San Diego, also a Catholic school, earmarked for a law school center with a familiar, though slightly different name: “the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism.”

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