By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office abruptly scrubbed her state website shortly after Jan. 6 to remove mention that she was a director of a conservative dark money group tied to the infamous insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The group is the Rule of Law Defense Fund, an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), whose “mission is electing Republicans to the Office of State Attorney General” across the country. And as a 501(c)(4) organization, the fund doesn’t have to tell anyone – not even the Internal Revenue Service – who gives them money, an opaque status conferred on 501(c)(4)s by the Trump Administration.
Moody is a proud member of RAGA and plays a leading role as a member of its 2020-2021 Executive Committee. In December, she signed Florida onto RAGA’s unpersuasive amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court supporting President Trump’s failed effort to delay the certification of presidential electors in four key states that Trump lost.
But after the Associated Press publicized the Rule of Law Fund’s disturbing Jan. 5 robocalls to Trump supporters urging them to “march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal” and “fight to protect the integrity of our elections,” Moody sought to distance herself from RAGA’s fund. Moody spokeswoman Lauren Cassedy even told the Tampa Bay Times that Moody left the fund’s board last year.
But RAGA itself continues to list Moody as a director of the fund, noting that “since taking office as Attorney General” in January 2019, “General Moody has been recognized as a national leader having been appointed to the Executive Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General and to the Board of Directors for the Rule of Law Defense Fund.’’
Hoping to pin down details about when and why Moody says she departed her oversight post at the fund, Florida Bulldog asked to speak with Moody. “We are not available for an interview,” said Moody’s press secretary, Kylie Mason. “As you know, Attorney General Moody swiftly condemned the violence on Wednesday [Jan. 6] and continues to do so. She had no prior knowledge of this decision” regarding the robocalls.
Moody not alone
Moody wasn’t alone in trying to separate herself from the fund. For example, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, RAGA’s chairman, told reporters he knew nothing of the “unauthorized decisions” to send out the robocalls. Then he threw fund staffers under the bus, and RAGA executive director Adam Piper resigned.
What is the Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF)? “RLDF was created in 2014 to provide a forum for conservative attorneys general and their staff to study, discuss, and engage on important legal policy issues affecting the states,” says its website.
Likewise, it was created by the Republican attorney generals so they could hide who was giving them big money. Why? RAGA, created in the late 1990s, is a tax-exempt 527 organization that can accept unlimited contributions, but must publicly disclose its donors.
The RLDF is a tax-exempt “social welfare organization.” It can also accept unlimited donations from businesses, but it has the added benefit of being able to keep its donors completely secret. That’s thanks to a new IRS rule finalized by the Trump Administration in the spring that removes the mandate that 501(c)4 organizations must report to the government the names of donors who gave more than $5,000 in a year.
One of the RLDF’s earliest chairmen was Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, later Trump’s controversial pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Under Pruitt, the RLDF organized legal challenges to the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which limits greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, fracking and an Obama-era rule making 4 million American workers eligible for overtime pay, according to a 2017 investigation by Maplight, the nonpartisan not-for-profit that reports on money in politics.
Maplight’s description of RLDF: “The shadowy organization at the center of a web of dark money nonprofits that have worked to advance conservative interests, and has helped organize state challenges to environmental regulations that could hurt polluters financially.”
RLDF muscles up
The Rule of Law Defense Fund has muscled up in recent years. The group’s federal tax returns for 2018 and 2019, obtained exclusively by Florida Bulldog, show it has more than doubled its contributions from prior years.
In 2018, the fund received contributions and grants jumping from $907,000 to $2,250,000. Prior to that, the most contributions it took in were less than $1.1 million in 2016, according to its tax returns posted on Pro Publica.
In 2019, the RLDF’s contributions grew again, to $2.44 million. One individual gave $700,000.
Who gave all that money, and for what purpose, isn’t known. What is known is that in 2018 the fund kicked back $375,000 in freshly anonymized funds to RAGA “for general political purposes.” Also in 2018, the fund gave grants of $150,000 and $25,000, respectively, to two other 501(c)(4)s, Citizen Engagement Forum of Beaverdam, VA and United Alliance of Salt Lake City.
The fund transferred another $580,000 in laundered funds to RAGA, mainly to reimburse the cost of salaries and benefits, according to its 2019 tax return. The fund also gave grants totaling $90,000 to the Forever Freedom Fund (FFF), yet another 501(c)(4).
A visit to the FFF’s site is instructive. Besides a few vague words declaring that it seeks to protect the right to life, property rights, the Second Amendment and religious freedom, the site is after money – big money. The smallest suggested contribution is $5,000.
You have to click to contribute before you get a clue as to who is behind the FFF.
“Forever Freedom Fund, Inc. does not accept contributions from foreign entities. Contributions from individuals under investigation by the Indiana Office of the Attorney General, or individuals who have a pending bid or application for a state contract on which the Office of the Attorney General has decision-making authority are prohibited. Contributions are not publicly disclosed,” says a disclaimer.
Indiana’s Attorney General is former congressman Todd Rokita.
Gruters recruited for D.C. march
Ashley Moody, who is either a current or former director of the fund, isn’t the only key Florida Republican to be tied to this month’s political machinations in Washington, D.C. State Republican Party boss Joe Gruters, a Trump loyalist and state senator from Sarasota who was unanimously re-elected to a second term in Orlando over the weekend, helped recruit right-wing supporters for the march on Washington.
“If you want to go to DC for the rally for the President on the 6th please reach out to my friend @Traci Williams as they just opened up a 3rd bus,” Gruters wrote on his Facebook page the evening of Jan. 2, with a link to Williams’s Instagram post about the trip.
Florida Bulldog called Sen. Gruters to ask about his recruiting effort and also to get his response to social media posts that said he was present at the Capitol riot, took a selfie and later deleted it from his Facebook page. Gruters did not respond.
Williams was identified last year by the Sarasota Republican Club as the “National Leader of the America First Coalition, with over 1.5 million followers throughout Florida’s 27 Congressional districts.” Williams could not be reached for comment.
Gruter’s sidekick, Republican Party of Florida Vice Chairman Christian Ziegler, was at the President’s Jan. 6 rally. He told Tampa television station WFLA that day that he didn’t see any violence as he watched from a distance, but saw a large crowd gathered on the Capitol’s steps.
“I could tell you there were hundreds of thousands of people, it was overwhelmingly peaceful, then they led a march down Constitution Avenue from basically the White House all the way to the Capitol. That was peaceful, but then when they got to the Capitol, that is when the issues kind of started,” said Ziegler, a Sarasota County commissioner.