If you want to know why we have such political division in the country, all you need to do is look at who funds it.
Harlan Crow is more than Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s secret patron—he’s also deeply intertwined with the shadowy world of Republican dark money. In fact, Crow personally took part in the creation of the post-Citizens United dark money system and secretly helped bankroll some of the new groups.
Crow’s political spending started long before Citizens United opened the floodgates for anonymous money in American elections in 2010. Between 1977 and 2009, Crow and his companies gave more than $2.4 million to federal candidates, parties, PACs, and other political entities. Since Citizens United, he’s spent $13.8 million on federal politics, bringing his lifetime total to more than $16 million. But that’s not all he did. While it is impossible to track Crow’s undisclosed political giving, public information demonstrates his longstanding ties to the biggest figures and groups in Republican dark money.
One of Crow’s first forays into large donations was by providing some of the initial financing of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an organization that spent millions running attack ads in 2004 against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and was later fined nearly $300,000 by the Federal Election Commission for failing to register as a political committee. Later, in 2009, Crow and his company spent more than $5 million on a failed ballot initiative in Dallas trying to block the city from building a city-owned convention center hotel which would have competed with Crow’s hotel.
Immediately after Citizens United, Crow took part in one of the first key events leading to the creation of the dark money system. As recounted by Kenneth Vogel in his book Big Money and separately by the Wall Street Journal, just weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in January 2010, four leading Republican political figures set out to obtain the “seed funding” they needed to launch several post-Citizens United groups. The four Republicans: consultant and former Bush White House aide Karl Rove, former RNC Chairman Ed Gillsepie, fundraiser Fred Malek, and former senator Norm Coleman, “laid out their blueprint for a sort of shadow party” to about “20 Republican plutocrats” at the Dallas Petroleum Club in early February 2010. They wanted funding for a network of what became some of the biggest players in outside political spending, including super PAC American Crossroads, which Rove explained would work to defeat then-President Obama and win Republican control of Congress, and dark money group the American Action Network.
Crow was one of the deep-pocketed billionaires who attended the fundraiser. Whether he gave that day or how much is not known. But after hearing Rove’s pitch, another Texas megadonor, Harold Simmons, proclaimed “I like this. I’m in for five [million].” Others followed suit.
Even as the Supreme Court was deliberating Citizens United, Crow reportedly provided the major funding for Liberty Central, another dark money group, this one with links to Justice Thomas. Liberty Central was a 501(c)(4) organization founded by Ginni Thomas in late 2009 that counted Federalist Society co-chair Leonard Leo as a board member. Ms. Thomas served as president through November 2010 and was paid a salary of more than $120,000. According to Politico, of the $550,000 in anonymous start-up funds the group received in 2009, $500,000 came from Crow, who also held an event for the group at his Dallas home a few months after it launched.
Liberty Central engaged in partisan politics during Ginni Thomas’s time in charge. The group acknowledged on its 2010 tax return that it spent a small amount of money on political activity, but as described in a 2012 IRS complaint filed by Common Cause, Liberty Central appeared to do far more than that, endorsing and supporting dozens of House and Senate candidates, conducting polling, and issuing scorecards of congressional candidates.
Asked later about his support of the group, Crow refused to even confirm his contribution, saying: “I disclose what I’m required by law to disclose, and I don’t disclose what I’m not required to disclose.”
“Crow has taken full advantage of the diminishing transparency laws around our politics.”
In 2011, Crow also made a contribution to another notorious dark money group called Americans for Job Security (AJS), which was uncovered by a CREW lawsuit and has not been previously reported. AJS spent more than $25 million in federal independent expenditures and electioneering communications in the 2010 and 2012 elections, making it one of the largest dark money groups at the time. CREW filed an FEC complaint against the group in 2012, alleging that it should have registered as a political committee and disclosed its donors. After years of litigation, AJS settled the case, resulting in the first and largest release of dark money donors in the post-Citizens United era. The disclosure showed that Crow, through his company Crow Holdings, gave AJS $50,000 in May 2011.
How much more Crow has given to dark money groups over the years is unknown. He has, however, also donated huge amounts to super PACs closely associated with dark money groups, including several Rove and others pitched to him just after Citizens United. Between 2011 and 2018, Crow personally and through his companies gave $2.5 million to super PAC American Crossroads, which is closely related to dark money groups Crossroads GPS and One Nation. Crow also gave almost $1.5 million between 2016 and 2022 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC sister of the American Action Network.
Crow’s secret political contributions and undisclosed gifts to Justice Thomas can be seen as two sides of the same coin, offering opportunities to exercise influence, while keeping the public in the dark about who is pulling the strings.
We do know that Crow has given extensively to politicians and political committees, thanks to reporting requirements, and that he has given significant gifts to Thomas, thanks to investigative reporting. But that spending is just what Crow and Thomas have been forced to disclose, and what came out against their will. In helping bankroll the Republican network of dark money groups following Citizens United, Crow has taken full advantage of the diminishing transparency laws around our politics—which Justice Thomas has been instrumental in dismantling. As a result, we will likely never know the true impact of Crow’s political spending on our government and our elections.