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Dark Money Network Is Helping GOP Attack Climate-Friendly Corporate Investments

Groups tied to Federalist Society co-chair Leo Leonard are targeting environmental, social and corporate governance.

Dark clouds pass over a wind turbine in Hannover, England, on July 9, 2023.

Leonard Leo, a figure known for orchestrating the far-right takeover of the U.S. judiciary, is spearheading a dark money network that’s fueling the House GOP’s assault on environmental, social, and corporate governance, an investing approach that ostensibly considers climate impacts and other societal factors.

With House Republicans set to hold a hearing Wednesday and consider a slew of bills as part of their “ESG month,” the watchdog group Accountable.US released a memo and research spotlighting Leo’s role in the frenzied attack on what’s been dubiously called “woke capitalism.”

The group notes in its new memo that through the dark money organization Consumers’ Research, Leo “has engaged in an aggressive campaign targeting corporations for making climate-friendly investments,” helping lead the “far-right crusade against responsible investing.”

While Leo doesn’t have a formal role with Consumers’ Research, the group’s executive director, Will Hild, recently described Leo as an “adviser to the organization.”

Further, as Accountable.US observes, “Leo’s dark money DonorsTrust group has funneled $6 million to Consumers’ Research, which has, in turn, spent millions to publicly shame Fortune 500 CEOs and pressure firms against responsible investing. Leo’s for-profit consulting firm, CRC Advisors, has also raked in hundreds of thousands from Consumers’ Research.”

Late last year, Consumers’ Research joined more than a dozen Republican attorneys general in demanding a federal investigation into Vanguard, accusing the behemoth asset manager of “meddling with [the] energy industry to achieve progressive political goals at the expense of market efficiency,” despite the firm’s massive support for fossil fuels.

Just days later, as The Washington Post reported, “Vanguard announced it was quitting a coalition called the Net Zero Asset Managers Alliance and shelved its own modest pledges to cut the amount of greenhouse gas emissions linked to companies in which it invests. Leaders of Consumers’ Research were surprised — and elated.”

Leo told the Post in an email earlier this year that “Consumers’ Research and its leader Will Hild are executing the most impactful pushback I know against ESG and other aspects of woke corporate culture.”

“It’s time that businesses that are out of step with the sentiments of most Americans pay a price for their standing up for woke special interest instead of consumers,” Leo added, not mentioning that polls have shown a majority of U.S. voters support allowing asset managers to take climate into account in their investment decisions.

Groups controlled by Leo, the co-chairman of the right-wing Federalist Society, have also bankrolled state-level Republican politicians who have introduced more than 160 bills nationwide attacking sustainable investing policies, which companies often don’t adhere to in any case.

Accountable.US points to a recent report by Pleiades Strategy, which highlights “clear connections between anti-ESG legislation, the fossil fuel industry, and right-wing figures.”

“Involved right-wing activist groups have received funding from foundations controlled by executives from Koch Industries, which has significant fossil fuel operations. Many have received substantial funding from organizations controlled by Leonard Leo, including the Marble Freedom Trust, the 85 Fund, and the Concord Fund,” the report reads. “In potential violation of IRS nonprofit laws, Leo’s for-profit consulting firm, CRC Advisors, is a top contractor for many of the organizations.”

In its new research, Accountable.US notes that “between 2013 and 2019, Consumers’ Research paid CRC Advisors over $600,000 for public relations work. In 2020, CR paid CRC Advisors nearly $113,000, followed by a whopping nearly $625,000 in 2021.”

Accountable.US argues that by stoking political stunts like ESG month, “the Leo-money machine has concocted a perfect distraction from the unpopular, industry-friendly, anti-middle-class policies the Republican House majority is pursuing, like $1 trillion in new tax breaks for profiteering corporations and the billionaires Leonard Leo serves.”

Politico reported Monday that with their upcoming hearings, Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee intend to “target the process in which advocates pressure public companies to adopt environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals using the shareholder voting process.”

Earlier this year, congressional Republicans and two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana — joined forces to pass a resolution aimed at making it more difficult for pension fund managers to take climate and other considerations into account when making investment decisions.

President Joe Biden vetoed the measure.

“While framed around holding Wall Street to account,” Politico reported, “Financial Services Committee Republicans appear to be picking spots where they’ll minimize friction with the industry’s biggest players.”

That’s hardly surprising given that Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) — the chair of the financial services pane — and other Republicans on the committee are major recipients of industry cash.

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