by Ilya Marritz
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
An atmosphere of conviviality greeted Republican attorneys general arriving in New Orleans for their recent winter conference. It was Mardi Gras, and tourists traipsed through the lobby of the historic Roosevelt Hotel wearing colorful beaded necklaces and clutching cocktails.
A few feet from the check-in desk, if any of the attorneys general stopped to notice it, stood a replica of former U.S. Sen. and Louisiana Gov. Huey Long’s “deduct box,” which reportedly contained more than $1 million in cash donations from businesses and wealthy individuals when the notoriously corrupt Long was assassinated in 1935. The attorneys general were in New Orleans on their own fundraising mission, albeit aboveboard. That evening, in a ballroom one flight up, the Republican Attorneys General Association hosted an invite-only Super Bowl party, where they mixed and mingled with donors, and alcohol flowed freely. There was reason to celebrate. Having endured its worst crisis since it became a standalone entity in 2014, RAGA was thriving again.
RAGA, a tax-exempt political group representing more than half of the states’ chief legal officers, had come in for particularly harsh criticism for its support of Trump’s election fraud claims in the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A RAGA sister organization had sent a robocall urging “patriots” to join Trump’s Jan. 6 rally on the Ellipse in Washington. Then the fuzzy recorded voice went one step further, saying, “We will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal.”
Only a few weeks earlier, Texas’ Republican attorney general, Kenneth Paxton, had brought an emergency motion to the Supreme Court to invalidate the results of the vote in four states Joe Biden had won. Seventeen Republican attorneys general, all RAGA members, supported the motion.
The response from corporate America was swift. A Comcast spokesperson told The New York Times, “We are appalled and condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms and have communicated that to R.A.G.A.” The University of Phoenix demanded RAGA return recent contributions. Regular five-figure supporters like Microsoft and Coca-Cola abruptly cut RAGA off, cold turkey. Contributions to the group dropped 36% in 2021 compared with 2020.
RAGA’s embrace of Stop the Steal also caused an organizational exodus. RAGA’s executive director resigned days after news of the robocall became public. Georgia’s Republican attorney general, Chris Carr, who was chairman of RAGA at the time, decided by April 2021 that he could no longer lead the group, citing a “fundamental difference of opinion” about “the significance of the events of January 6.” At least seven staffers left in the wake of the riot, with one writing a resignation note that said: “The direction is not one I can honestly stand behind.”
At the conference in New Orleans, there was little sign of such chaos. And those corporations that expressed such outrage? While some companies, like Microsoft and Coke, are still staying away, Comcast is more typical. The company resumed giving barely a month after condemning RAGA, and has since contributed close to half a million dollars. Many others are back in the fold as well, including Amazon, Walmart, Visa, Capital One, MasterCard, Intuit, Walgreens, General Motors, Altria, Home Depot and JPMorgan Chase’s PAC. Even the University of Phoenix, having pulled its donation, is filling RAGA’s coffers once again.
One might imagine that the corporate largesse reflects RAGA having distanced itself from the extremes of its party. Hardly. Since the Jan. 6 controversy, Republican attorneys generals have even more tightly embraced Trumpism and the movement that sows doubt about the legitimacy of elections.
Powered by returning companies, RAGA revenues in 2022 jumped 68%, reaching $21.6 million. The group used some of its funds to boost midterm candidates who pushed the lies that Trump won in 2020 and that the voting system is rife with fraud.
RAGA’s rapid return to health demonstrates that some corporations are willing to look past even the most extreme views because access to states’ top law officers is just too valuable. Ethics watchdogs have long been concerned that fundraising shindigs like the one in New Orleans, or at regular retreats at ski and golf resorts, allow corporate donors to buy access to RAGA and its opposite number, the Democratic Attorneys General Association. A 2014 series in The New York Times detailed how corporate lobbyists and lawyers used such access to advocate for lighter regulation and favorable legal settlements.
ProPublica reached out to all the companies mentioned in this story. Few returning donors responded to requests for comment. Others, like AT&T, emphasized that they give equally to Democratic attorneys general. An Intuit spokesperson wrote: “We believe engagement with policymakers is essential to a robust democracy.”
RAGA did not answer ProPublica’s specific questions but offered this written response from executive director Peter Bisbee: “Our nation’s Republican attorneys general are the most effective group of elected officials in combating federal overreach, protecting the Constitution, and stopping the left’s woke agenda that targets everything from the innocence of school children to the retirement accounts of hundreds of millions of Americans. I do not believe violence has any place in the political discourse of our country.”
“Jan. 6 was a gut punch to our democracy,” said Chris Toth, the former executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General, a bipartisan group. “And the fact remains that many of these contributors who said that they were going to cut off RAGA are now contributing money.”
The comeback is the product of assiduous courtship.
In the summer of 2021, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and RAGA’s executive director scheduled a virtual meeting with four representatives of the pharma and medical devices giant Johnson & Johnson. Wilson had recently become leader of the organization’s effort to rebuild relationships with donors: He had taken over as RAGA’s chairman after Georgia’s Carr, who unambiguously said that Trump lost the election, resigned.
At the time, Johnson & Johnson was on the record as “reviewing” its political giving. The company’s then-CEO, Alex Gorsky, said in a statement shortly after the Capitol riot: “As a U.S. military veteran who served overseas to protect our democracy, I’m devastated by this assault on what our country has stood for since its founding: free, fair and peaceful elections.”
But Johnson & Johnson was also facing threats to its bottom line. More than 40 attorneys general were investigating the company’s marketing of talc, a mineral that has been linked to cancer. Separately, Wilson was one of 47 state attorneys general actively pursuing a settlement with a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Janssen, for its sales and marketing of opioids.
The calendar invite to the meeting, on Aug. 26, 2021, included two of Johnson & Johnson’s top executives handling opioid lawsuits: worldwide vice president for litigation Erik Haas and senior counsel Marc Larkins. The initial email to set up the meeting proposed “a RAGA call with J&J.” RAGA executive director Bisbee was invited as well, according to the records, which were obtained by American Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog focused on transparency in government.
It’s not clear what was discussed, but Wilson’s consultation appeared to have an effect. Within a month, J&J sent a $285 check to RAGA, followed by a $50,000 donation in November 2021. The law firm that set up the meeting is a longtime RAGA supporter and contributed to Wilson’s 2022 reelection campaign.
Legal experts said that attorneys general should not take meetings where active litigation could be discussed alongside appeals for political donations.“There’s an incredible conflict of interest there, and there’s certainly an appearance of impropriety,” said Toth. “It’s not rocket science to stay on the right side of the ethical line here.”
In February 2022, Wilson announced an opioid settlement with Johnson & Johnson and three opioid distributors, worth $361 million to the state. Larkins’ name appeared on the consent judgment. South Carolina’s settlement with Johnson & Johnson followed a formula negotiated jointly by dozens of states. There is no indication that the drug company received preferable treatment because of its support for RAGA.
Wilson did not respond to an extensive list of questions from ProPublica.
Johnson & Johnson did not comment, but provided a link to its “Political Engagement” webpage, which states, in part: “Interactions with any government candidate or official must be conducted in a legal and ethical manner consistent with Our Credo, Company policies, and applicable laws.”
In the summer of 2021, Wilson courted United Parcel Service as well. After the Capitol riot, UPS had said it “believes the democratic process is a fundamental and sacred cornerstone for America” and that “since our founding, our country has stood for free, fair and peaceful elections.” The calendar entry for Wilson’s July 16, 2021 virtual meeting with two UPS lobbyists was titled, simply, “Call - RAGA.”
RAGA laid Wilson’s task out for him clearly in a pre-meeting fact sheet on UPS: “Please remind them that their membership lapsed in February and ask that they renew this quarter,” it said, noting that the company had donated at the Committee Club level, $15,000.
RAGA also itemized past UPS donations to RAGA and DAGA and identified some of UPS’ “policy interests.” They included labor issues, the interstate shipment of illegal or illicit goods and a Securities and Exchange Commission proposal to require companies to report on greenhouse gas emissions.
Three days after the Wilson-UPS meeting, UPS rejoined RAGA with a $15,000 donation, records show.
It’s not clear what was discussed at the meeting. Michelle Polk, a UPS spokesperson, wrote in an email, “We support elected officials in both parties with whom we engage on issues relevant to our business.”
Jeff Modisett, a former Democratic Indiana attorney general who now teaches a unit on attorneys general and ethics at UCLA Law School, said both RAGA and DAGA encourage officials to be attentive to donors’ priorities.
“RAGA is a little more blatant about it, but I think both of these organizations try to find areas of concern for the companies,” Modisett said. “The whole idea of avoiding the appearance of impropriety seems to have been forgotten by an awful lot of attorneys general.”
At the same time it’s been winning back donors, RAGA has stayed loyal to MAGA. In April 2021, RAGA selected Bisbee as its new executive director. Previously, Bisbee led the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the sister organization to RAGA that commissioned the Jan. 6 robocall. After refusing to concede that Joe Biden won the 2020 election fairly, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was elevated to RAGA chairman in late 2022. The vice chairman is Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen. His office in 2021 hosted election denier Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO, who was then looking for a plaintiff to sign on to a lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election. Knudsen’s office did not say whether Knudsen attended the meeting.
Over the past two years, some of the attorneys general have signed legal actions aimed at helping Trump in his current legal travails, including an amicus brief objecting to the investigation into the former president’s possession of classified documents, which they labeled a “ransacking” by the Biden administration. And they filed a brief arguing that Sen. Lindsey Graham should not be forced to testify before the Georgia grand jury probing Trump’s election meddling. And even before the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment of Trump was unsealed, a number of attorneys general assailed the case, with West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey calling it “political” and “a travesty.”
In the 2022 midterms, RAGA funded candidates who baselessly cast doubt on the legitimacy of elections. The group spent more than $3 million in Arizona to boost the attorney general campaign of Abe Hamadeh, who said the 2020 election was “rigged”; following his general election loss in 2022, Hamadeh continued to insist he won, despite a recount that confirmed his opponent was the victor. Another RAGA-backed candidate, Matthew DePerno, is under criminal investigation for possibly tampering with voting machines in Michigan. (He also lost.) DePerno told ProPublica “I did not tamper with any voting equipment.” Election denialism was not a losing proposition in all races: Kris Kobach, a longtime proponent of the idea that cheating is rampant in elections, was elected attorney general in Kansas, with RAGA spending over $500,000 to support his campaign. In all, RAGA spent at least $8 million to support eight candidates who denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, according to data from AdImpact.
Rejoining RAGA hasn’t stopped some companies from publicly celebrating their civic engagement. UPS has continued to connect its image with democracy. In 2022, it was listed as the presenter of a “Democracy Game Show” hosted by TV personality Terrence J at Democracy Fest in Atlanta. The Sept. 20 event, on Voter Registration Day, aimed to boost civic awareness among high schoolers.
RAGA owes its returning health to corporations like J&J and UPS, but its life force comes from another source entirely: the nonprofits around conservative judicial activist and longtime Federalist Society executive Leonard Leo, including the Judicial Crisis Network and its parent organization, the Concord Fund.
The Judicial Crisis Network was one of RAGA’s very first donors in 2014, and the first to give five figures. In 2021, when many corporations paused their giving, the Concord Fund stepped in with gifts totaling $2.5 million, amounting to nearly 20% of RAGA’s income that year, compared with contributing just 15% a year earlier. In 2022, as companies came back, Concord’s contribution share dipped only slightly, to 19%.
The money has gone both ways. A for-profit political strategy company partly owned by Leo, CRC Advisors, has collected payments from RAGA worth about $250,000 since 2020. Expense reports describe its work simply as “consulting.”
Leo has not spoken publicly about the unfounded narrative that the 2020 election was fraudulent. But the Concord Fund gave a quarter of a million dollars to the Republican attorneys general as they petitioned the Supreme Court to invalidate the vote in four states in late 2020. And in 2022, Leo wrote a check to support Raúl Labrador, a primary challenger to the incumbent Republican attorney general of Idaho, Lawrence Wasden, who had criticized Texas’s effort to challenge the election results of other states. Wasden lost, and Labrador, who said he would have supported the Texas suit, won the primary and then the general election (with support from RAGA) to become attorney general and a RAGA member.
Leo’s influence has been felt in other ways, too. In recent months, an obscure controversy has flared up, as some Republican attorneys general have quit the organization that supports bipartisan multistate settlements, the National Association of Attorneys General. In January, a group called the Alliance for Consumers Action Fund ran TV adsassailing NAAG as a “left wing racket” and accusing Ohio’s Republican Attorney General Dave Yost, who is the group’s chairman, of “protecting NAAG’s cash stash.” The Alliance for Consumers is a trade name for the Concord Fund.
Neither Leonard Leo nor the Concord Fund commented.
With a solid 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, state attorneys general are able to play the role of batting practice pitcher, lobbing the justices the kinds of cases they need to make precedent-setting rulings on all kinds of matters of law. Paul Nolette, chair of the political science department at Marquette University, notes that state attorneys general are the second most common Supreme Court litigator, behind the federal government itself.
“They are a perfect vanguard for a bunch of these doctrines and arguments that had been sitting around in law review articles and now you can actually put this into reality,” Nolette said. “The Leonard Leo-linked groups or other conservative libertarian ideological groups are realizing the time is right.”
A case decided in 2022, West Virginia v. EPA, demonstrates that synergy. The Supreme Court endorsed West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s argument that the Clean Air Act did not give the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to regulate emissions of gases that cause climate change. The ruling could hobble regulators writing rules at other agencies, too.
Leo has particularly strong ties to RAGA’s new executive director. Unlike his predecessor, whose background was in political strategy, Bisbee came to the job as someone steeped in the conservative judicial movement. He worked for more than seven years at the Federalist Society, as membership director and director for state courts.
Last year, Bisbee was a candidate for school board in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. Records show that about half of the $6,350 he raised for his campaign came from staffers at CRC Advisors, the Leo-owned consultancy. (Bisbee lost.)
Bisbee has never publicly spoken about his role in the robocall. The fact that he was even considered for the RAGA job caused the organization’s then-finance director to resign, writing: “Pete Bisbee approved the robocall expenditure, and was the only other person accountable for RLDF involvement in the January 6 events. Over the last few months, I have fielded, reassured and assuaged concerns from our core donor base on the future direction of our organization. The result of the executive committee vote to nominate Pete as RAGA’s Executive Director is a decision I cannot defend.”
The day after the Super Bowl, the conference at Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans got down to business. The first panel after breakfast was entitled “Election Law.” The moderator was Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who has cast doubt on the result of the 2020 presidential election. The panelists, including a state legislator, a lawyer and a policy specialist, agreed that there is rampant cheating in elections, and that Democrats want to make it even easier to commit voter fraud. One panelist, North Carolina Speaker of the House Tim Moore, was the plaintiff in Moore v. Harper, a closely watched recent Supreme Court case built around the once-fringe doctrine that state legislatures, rather than the courts, should have the last word on how votes are counted. (Many Republican attorneys general joined an amicus brief in favor of Moore’s arguments; the case has yet to be decided.) Another speaker was Jason Snead of the Honest Elections Project, a nonprofit that is part of the Leo-linked Concord Fund, who spoke about the need for more restrictive voting rules as a means to restore public trust.
More than 200 people sat in the ballroom, many of them lobbyists and lawyers representing some of the best-known corporations in America. After about half an hour, the panel ended, and the room was filled with sustained polite applause.