Democratic ‘dark money’ critic Sheldon Whitehouse has deep ties to secret donor world

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has long been the Left’s foremost critic of “dark money,” which he’s said “corrupts” politics and poses a “threat to democracy.”

But a Washington Examiner review of the senator’s donors, green energy affiliations, and efforts to transform the Supreme Court tell another story. He has for many years benefited from the influence of dark money and held certain ties to dark money groups.

Since 2010, Whitehouse has helped introduce the DISCLOSE Act, which has not been passed and would require 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups and Super PACs spending money on federal elections to report their donors of more than $10,000 in a given cycle. More recently, Whitehouse has taken aim at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas over the conservative’s purported dark money affiliations, including with Leonard Leo, chairman of the public relations firm CRC Advisors, and well as co-chairman of the Federalist Society, a powerful right-leaning legal group. The senator has also slammed conservative Justice Samuel Alito over his relationship with hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer.

Whitehouse accused Senate Republicans in 2022 of carrying water for “megadonors and secretive special interests to protect the most corrupting force in American politics — dark money,” upon the lawmakers blocking the DISCLOSE Act. That sentiment hasn’t deterred the Democrat’s campaign, joint fundraising committee, and leadership PAC from taking over $192,500 combined over the last decade from the PAC arm of the League of Conservation Voters, an influential 501(c)(4) dark money environmentalist advocacy group, according to campaign finance disclosures.

Moreover, the Rhode Island Democrat took a $1,000 donation this year from the PAC for the NRDC Action Fund, the 501(c)(4) arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a left-wing climate charity, disclosures show. The action fund endorses Whitehouse, who has appeared at events alongside NRDC personnel, including at an environmental conference he organized in 2013 in Washington, D.C., records show.

Entities that have 501(c)(4) tax-exempt “social welfare” status are often called “dark money” groups because they don’t have to disclose their donors to the IRS, may spend money on elections, typically in the form of independent expenditures, or advertisements, and can also engage in unlimited lobbying.

And Whitehouse’s efforts to frame anonymous donors as peddling so-called dark money has continued to elicit eye rolls from top conservative groups, like the watchdog Americans for Public Trust, as well as Republican lawmakers, for two reasons in particular: the Right views the Left’s crusade against “dark money” as contrary to a pro-free speech society, and is, secondly, perpetually frustrated with Democrats criticizing dark money despite relying on it to win elections.

“Senator Whitehouse is the walking definition of a hypocrite,” Mark Paoletta, ex-general counsel for President Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, told the Washington Examiner. “He attacks Justices Thomas and Alito on made up ‘ethics’ charges, but he takes actions as a senator to directly benefit his wife’s organizations, crafting legislation that explicitly helps them, including pushing for taxpayer funding.”

‘Double standards’

“If he were in the Executive Branch, he would be prosecuted for this unethical conduct,” Paoletta, a close friend of Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas, claimed. “If he were a federal judge, he would be forced to recuse.”

Paoletta was referring to how Whitehouse has helped put forth legislation, including the Federal Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act, that could benefit Running Tide Technology, a climate firm that has included Sandra Whitehouse, his wife, as an ocean policy adviser. the Washington Free Beacon reported. The bill would allocate subsidies to companies capturing carbon dioxide from seawater or air, and the senator’s spouse appeared in July over Zoom to advocate for a measure modeled after the federal bill called the Massachusetts Carbon Dioxide Removal Leadership Act.

Like other private companies, Running Tide’s financials are “much further in the dark” than nonprofit groups, given they don’t have tax-exempt status and have fewer obligations when it comes to public disclosure than nonprofit groups, according to Scott Walter, president of the conservative think tank Capital Research Center. Running Tide spent over $300,000 from 2022 to 2023 lobbying on “issues related to carbon sequestration using deep water kelp,” disclosures show.

At the same time, Sen. Whitehouse has introduced various measures over the years related to ocean issues, as Sandra Whitehouse consulted for Ocean Conservancy, a charity that has hauled in cash from groups affiliated with the left-wing dark money behemoth and for-profit consultancy Arabella Advisors, according to tax forms.

The senator has made ocean and climate issues a priority as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, which in 2023 hired as its communications director Erica Handloff, who between 2015 and 2021 worked for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a nonprofit group whose donors “wish to remain anonymous,” according to its annual 2020 report.

Ocean Conservancy has been allied with the League of Conservation Voters, with the pair teaming up with other environmental advocacy groups in April 2021 in a letter to Biden calling on him to “accelerate locally-led land, water, and ocean conservation and restoration efforts at all levels of government.” LCV pocketed a staggering $18.9 million in 2021 from Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal dark money group managed by Arabella Advisors.

It also took roughly $10.7 million from Fund for a Better Future, another left-leaning dark money group that is bankrolled by Berger Action Fund, the advocacy arm of Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss’s private foundation, tax forms show.

LCV Action Fund has long made formal endorsements of Whitehouse, who’s praised the group as one that “has done so much to further policies that protect our environment.” Ironically, at a forum a few years ago hosted by the dark money group LCV, Whitehouse condemned the “secret empire of dark money” and later claimed Republicans have a “real vulnerability” as far as its “dark money problem” and “fraudulent climate denial.”

Whitehouse is “the poster child for politicians with double standards,” Walter told the Washington Examiner.

Running Tide, Ocean Conservancy, and LCV did not reply to requests for comment.

Judicial ‘ethics’

Whitehouse has been one of the most vocal politicians accusing Supreme Court Justices of ethics violations due to them not disclosing certain gifts, despite conservatives firing back that there’s been a lack of laws requiring such reporting. The senator, for instance, demanded this year that Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate Thomas after ProPublica published a report on the justice not reporting selling Georgia real estate to Texas billionaire Harlan Crow in 2014, though Thomas in August provided information about the transaction in his financial disclosure — despite it being outside the covered period.

The Democratic senator also on Friday demanded that businessmen Paul Novelly and David Sokol provide details on reported “gifts” they gave to Thomas over the years, according to letters.

Whitehouse, who introduced a bill in July aiming to mandate a purported ethics code of conduct for justices, chalked up the ties between justices and wealthy moguls in an April interview with New York Magazine as part of a “dark money operation.” He name-dropped Leo, whose nonprofit group network that Democrats slam as peddling dark money is being investigated by D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb (D), and called him the “billionaire fixer of the court.” Leo notably helped former Trump select judicial nominees, according to reports.

Still, left-wing groups that Whitehouse has allied with in connection to alleged judicial ethics are dark money hubs themselves. The senator has included references in press releases at least seven times in 2022 and 2023 to Fix the Court, a “transparency” group the Washington Examiner first reported failed to disclose lobbying and, initially, never even filed 990 tax forms with the IRS until the outlet cited its failure to do so.

Fix the Court Executive Director Gabe Roth, who unwittingly leaked the Washington Examiner his group’s donors in May and expressed panic, appeared on Whitehouse’s podcast in July. The charity is a former project of New Venture Fund, another group managed by the dark money giant Arabella Advisors, tax forms show.

Other notable dark money groups focused on the judiciary that Whitehouse has allied with in recent years have included Demand Justice, People for the American Way, and Take Back the Court. And Democratic witnesses in 2023 hearings before Whitehouse’s Budget Committee have included a whole swath of individuals who have worked on behalf of dark money groups.

To Hayden Ludwig, policy research director for the conservative advocacy group Restoration of America, a 501(c)(4), the issue at heart isn’t dark money itself, but rather Whitehouse’s clear “hypocrisy.”

“‘Dark money’ has always been a political term meant to scare Americans into destroying their First Amendment free speech protections,” Ludwig said.

Whitehouse’s office did not reply to requests for comment.

© 2023 Washington Examiner
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