Meet the Tax-Exempt Nonprofit Behind the "Corrupt Hillary" Narrative—And Its Funders

Whatever you think about the Clintons, chances are your opinions have been shaped to some extent by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal “watchdog group” with a decades-long record of promoting "transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law," as it describes its mission.

Oh, and it's also pretty good at digging for dirt on the Democratic Party establishment.

True to its name, Judicial Watch engages in frequent and repeated litigation to “hold to account politicians and public officials who engage in corrupt activities.” The “corrupt officials” in question are almost always liberals, with a few Republicans throw in now and then.

The Clintons, in particular, have often found themselves in the group’s sights. If there ever was a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Judicial Watch is a card-carrying member. And like any organization operating within its definition of the "public interest," Judicial Watch needs money to do its work. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the group’s big donors. But first, a bit more on why this under-the-radar organization is so important, especially now.

Judicial Watch got its start in 1994 as the brainchild of Larry Klayman, a public interest lawyer who emerged from President Reagan’s justice department to become a perennial thorn in the side of a whole host of liberal luminaries. Klayman’s brand of legal aggression was and is relentless. During his tenure, Judicial Watch launched 18 lawsuits against the Clinton administration.

Klayman no longer leads Judicial Watch, and he didn’t leave peaceably. In fact, he sued the organization he founded, targeting its current president, conservative media activist Tom Fitton. Memorably, Klayman also sued his own mother. (He’s also a birther, by the way.) But while Klayman’s no longer at the helm, Judicial Watch hasn’t let up on its pointed political attacks. Among its many controversial investigations, several concern “voter fraud,” a term often masking efforts to disenfranchise voters of color.

This group was also on the forefront of the endless attacks on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in the "Fast and Furious" weapons case, which was widely viewed in Washington (at least among Democrats) as a partisan and personal vendetta. Attacks like this embody a phenomenon described by scholars Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Schefter as "politics by other means," whereby the law is used to destroy politicians on the opposing side. Both parties have played this game, going back to Watergate, but Republicans have played it better and in a nastier way, with Judicial Watch heping at every step along the way, even though it's officially a nonpartisan organization that enjoys tax-empt status. 

Judicial Watch has lately continued its long-simmering war with the Clintons, spearheading the effort to “uncover the truth” about her emails as Secretary of State. As in times past, Judicial Watch acts as a first source for many of the hungrily covered Clinton scandals, most of which turn out to be innocuous or well within the bounds of realpolitik.

So who’s behind Judicial Watch? As it turns out, many of the same players bankrolling the movement to fund conservative policy research over the past few decades. In the 1990s, early Heritage Foundation supporter Richard Mellon Scaife gave generously to Judicial Watch.

From Whitewater to Travelgate, Judicial Watch played a role in all the major Clinton scandals of that era. And the money still flows from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Carthage Foundation after Scaife’s death. Since 1997, Scaife sources have given an estimated $8.7 million to Judicial Watch.

The other main Judicial Watch funder of the 1990s was the John M. Olin Foundation. Though its endowment has now been spent down, Olin played a key role in fostering the focused right-wing intellectual movement we’ve tried to shed some light on.

More recently, Judicial Watch has received gifts from DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund, two conservative donor-advised funds that back right-wing policy work. That money came from anonymous donors, however. 

The lesson here? Private money doesn’t just fund research. It can be strategically applied via media-oriented organizations like Judicial Watch to affect politicians’ electoral prospects. And while Judicial Watch operates from the (increasingly far) right, the left isn’t immune to that kind of thing, either.

As it impacts the Clintons, Judicial Watch teaches us that a conspiracy need not be vast to be effective. Targeting the right weak points and releasing the right press releases, especially over 20-odd years, can move the media establishment inexorably toward a particular narrative.

Bottom line: This is another example of how, if you want to influence electoral outcomes, there's plenty of ways to do so while also getting a tax-deduction for your "charitable" gift.

You can stay totally anonymous, too. Plenty of philanthropic dollars are part of today's river of "dark money" seeking to sway politics. And it's all perfectly legal, thanks to a foundation and nonprofit establishment that worships at the altar of "philanthropic freedom," even as evidence piles up that such unchecked freedom can imperil other values we care about more, like civic equality.