Influential activist Leonard Leo helped fund media campaign lionizing Clarence Thomas
The 25th anniversary of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court was approaching — a moment that would draw attention to his accomplishments on the bench but also to the misconduct claims that had nearly derailed his rise. Among the wave of retrospective accounts set to come out that year, 2016, was a star-studded HBO film dramatically recounting Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations.
That spring, a flurry of opinion articles defending Thomas and railing against the film appeared in news outlets, penned by a D.C. lawyer who had worked in the George H.W. Bush White House during the confirmation. Websites celebrating Thomas’s career — and attacking his onetime accuser — popped up. And on Twitter, a new account using the name “Justice Thomas Fan Account” began serving up flattering commentary.
“Justice Thomas: The most open & personable of Justices, intimate in sharing his feelings, easily moved to laughter,” read one early tweet on the account.
It was not apparent at the time, but the rush of favorable content was part of a coordinated and sophisticated public relations campaign to defend and celebrate Thomas, according toa Washington Post examination of public and internal records and interviews with people familiar with the effort. The campaign would stretch on for years and include the creation and promotion of a laudatory film about Thomas, advertising to boost positive content about him during internet searches and publication of a book about his life. It was financed with at least $1.8 million from conservative nonprofit groups steered by the judicial activist Leonard Leo, the examination found.
Leo, a longtime executive of the Federalist Society, the influential nonprofit organization for conservative and libertarian lawyers, is well-known for his efforts to push the judiciary to the right. Using a network of closely related nonprofits over which he holds sway, Leo has led advocacy campaigns to help confirm every conservative Supreme Court justice over the past two decades. He advised President Donald Trump on his selection of three justices.
The public relations campaign shows how he has continued to exert influence in support of right-leaning justices after helping them secure lifetime appointments. It adds to an emerging portrait of Leo as a behind-the-scenes benefactor, defending the justices from public criticism and exalting their jurisprudence while tending to personal matters including private travel and a spouse’s employment.
Leo steered tens of thousands of dollars in consulting payments to Thomas’s wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, in 2012, The Post reported recently. He also arranged a fishing trip to Alaska for Justice Samuel Alito in 2008, a vacation that included a free ride on the private jet of a billionaire businessman who later had interests before the court, ProPublica reported. Those and other revelations about wealthy conservative donors gaining access to justices outside the public eye have brought scrutiny to the court in recent months.
The resources available to Leo expanded vastly in 2020, when a nonprofit organization he chairs received a $1.6 billion contribution from the Chicago businessman Barre Seid.
The extent of Leo’s involvement in the public relations campaign, including the financial backing for websites and articles defending Thomas,has not been previously disclosed. Leodeclined to answer detailed questions from The Post about his role in the campaign. In a statement, he praised the film he helped finance about Thomas, titled “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.”
“Our network was thrilled that Created Equal brought Justice Clarence Thomas, in his own words, into the homes of millions of Americans, so they could learn firsthand who he is, what he stands for, and what the Constitution really means,” Leo said in the statement.
He also noted that liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been the subject of a documentary, “RBG,” distributed by a company that says it creates content that “stands at the intersection of art and activism” and whose founder has donated to left-leaning causes.
Thomas did not respond to questions sent through a court spokeswoman.
In 2016, Mark Paoletta, the D.C. lawyer and former White House aide who helped with Thomas’s confirmation, set the public relations campaign in motion and served as its public face.
On required forms he filed when he later joined the Trump administration, Paoletta disclosed that a nonprofit group called the Judicial Education Project had paid him and his firm nearly $300,000 that year for “media projects.”
In response to questions from The Post, he confirmed that the projects were related to Thomas and that “my good friend Leonard Leo’s group provided funding for this work,”including the Thomas film. As with many of the nonprofit entities in his network, Leo has no formal role on the Judicial Education Project, meaning his influence is not apparent from public records. Leo previously told The Post that he is an adviser to the organization.
Paoletta, who described Thomas as a “dear friend,” saidin a written statement that the justice has been “outrageously maligned because he is a black conservative who has never bowed to those on the Left who demand that he think a certain way because of the color of his skin.”
“Unlike Presidents or Members of Congress, Justices do not have an infrastructure of employees to help defend them from these political attacks,” added Paoletta, who now works at a law firm headed by former clerks forThomas and Justice Antonin Scalia and is a senior fellow at the nonprofit Center for Renewing America, which lists among its key policy areas fighting big tech, mask mandates and “woke” culture.
Paoletta said he has not been paid by Leo or anyone else to defend Thomas since the end of 2016, shortly before he joined the Trump administration, although the film Paoletta was paid to develop that year did not come out until 2020. He remains close to the justice and his wife, serving as their outspoken defender,representing Ginni Thomas before the Jan. 6 congressional select committee and sitting next to her last month in the justice’s reserved courtroom seats on the occasion of Thomas’s 75th birthday.
Another nonprofit entity advised by Leo, the Judicial Crisis Network, continued parts of the public relations campaign more recently. The nonprofit has said it spent $1.5 million last year to promote the Thomas film. It still maintains three social media accounts honoring Thomas.
Thomas’s allies have long worked to bolster his legacy.
Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire and GOP donor whom ProPublica revealed this year has taken Thomas on luxury vacations, has made donations to dedicate a library wing to Thomas in Savannah, Ga., to transform a cannery in the community where Thomas grew up into a museum and to commission a painting of Thomas to be displayed at his alma mater, Yale Law School.
The public relations campaign, however, marked a more aggressive approach that sought to sway public opinion through mass media.
This report is based on a review of nonprofit organizations’ tax filings, government financial disclosure forms, domain registration and other website data, and internal documents from a public relations firm that worked on the campaign. It also draws from interviews with people who worked at the firm, CRC Public Relations.
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The HBO movie “Confirmation” starred Emmy-nominated actress Kerry Washington as Hill, a law professor who had testified that Thomas sexually harassed her when he was her superior at the Department of Education and later at the U.S.Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where Thomas was chairman.Wendell Pierce, known for his role as Baltimore detective Bunk Moreland in the HBO series “The Wire,” played Thomas.
Paoletta obtained a copy of an early script and said he was outraged by what he viewed as falsehoods and an overly sympathetic portrayal of Hill. He began prodding the filmmakers before the movie’s release.
“The numerous distortions, omissions and fabrications in the script all appear to be done with the goal of bolstering Anita Hill’s credibility and smearing those who debunked her 11th hour allegations,” Paoletta wrote on March 7, 2016, in a letter to HBO’s president, its chief executive and the writer of the screenplay.
In response to public criticism from Thomas’s allies, HBO’s then-President Len Amato said in an interview at the time that the network had “no agenda” and called the movie “quite evenhanded.”
Paoletta has written that heand Thomas first met when Paoletta was in college and Thomas was chairman of the EEOC and that they reconnected in 1989, when Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. At the time, Paoletta worked on judicial nominations for the Bush administration, and their friendship grew when he helped with Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation in 1991.
Paoletta later spent a decade on Capitol Hill as the chief counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He joined the Trump administration in 2017, first as counsel to Vice President Mike Pence and then as general counsel for the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget.
By the time he sent the letter to HBO executives, Paoletta had contacted Javelin, a public relations firm in Alexandria, Va., for help building a website, called confirmationbiased.com, to rebutportrayals inthe film.
“I was determined to not let these lies go unanswered, so I reached out to Javelin to help me develop a media presence to push back,” he told The Post.
It was around this time that the Judicial Education Project began paying Paoletta to run“media projects (e.g., articles, websites),” records show. Paoletta was paid $84,000 as a consultant for the group from March to August 2016, he reported in a financial disclosure form he filed while joining the Trump administration.
“It is not surprising to see HBO, a network with a history of liberal bias, make such a movie,” he wrote in March 2016 in the Washington Examiner, which described him as a lawyer who worked in the White House Counsel’s Office during the Thomas confirmation hearings. He did not disclose in any of the op-edsthat he was being paid.
In his statement to The Post, Paoletta said: “No one has ever approved anything I’ve said in defense of Justice Thomas. They are my words alone.”
In September 2016, Paoletta launched his own firm called MP Strategies. The Judicial Education Project, which until then had paid him directly, paid the firm $210,000 through the end of the year, as Paoletta prepared to join the Trump administration, his disclosure form shows. He described the work as “media projects — articles, websites, and documentary.”
During that time, he continued writing op-eds about Thomas, including one in The Post headlined, “Why doesn’t Clarence Thomas get his due?” An op-ed carrying his byline in The Hill criticized the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for including only a passing mention of Thomas — a reference to the Anita Hill allegations. After that criticism, the museum added a display on Thurgood Marshall and Thomas, the Supreme Court’s first two African American justices.
While it was financing the publicity campaign defending Thomas, the Judicial Education Project was pursuing its own interests before the court.
In April 2016, a month after it began paying Paoletta, the group filed an amicus brief challenging an Obama program that would have allowed undocumented immigrant parents to work legally in the United States. The Supreme Court, down to only eight justices because of the death of Scalia, split 4-4 on the case, United States v. Texas, meaning a lower court’s decision striking down the program was upheld. The court issued its decision without releasing how each justice voted.
The Judicial Education Project declined to comment for this story.
Organizations in Leo’s network have taken up a variety of conservative causes, including promoting religious liberties and curtailing abortion rights and business regulations.
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Paoletta’s work for the Judicial Education Project continued into new areas after the HBO movie was released.
Paoletta began working with the public relations firm closely tied to Leo, CRC Public Relations, to expand the digital component of the Thomas project, according to records and interviews.
CRC was the go-to public relations firm for nonprofit groups in Leo’s network, which paid the firm millions of dollars each year, tax filings show. Leo has since become chairman of the firm, which has changed its name to CRC Advisors.
Working with Paoletta, CRC created the Thomas fan Twitter account in September 2016 and posted quotes from the justice, video clips of his public appearances and tidbits about his career and personality, according to archived images of the account and a former employee of the firm who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss its inner workings.
The account’s bio at the time did not say who operated it but said it was “dedicated to Justice Clarence Thomas and his 25 years of jurisprudence on the Supreme Court of the United States.”
An internal document shows CRC was closely tracking the growth of its early Twitter activity about Thomas. Between Oct. 12 and Nov. 8 that year, the account’s posts about the justice generated nearly 21,000 impressions, according to the internal spreadsheet describing the reach of the “Justice Thomas” project.
Around the same time, CRC registered a number of new websites about Thomas and Anita Hill. They included anitahillcase.com, a still-active site that says it “presents the overwhelming evidence of why Hill’s story did not add up,” and justicethomas.com, which salutes the justice’s life and legacy.
Paoletta handpicked articles he wanted posted on the site honoring Thomas, according to the CRC employee and an internal spreadsheet listing his comments on dozens of articles.
“Mark says he likes quote about bushel, faith,” said one note in the spreadsheet, an apparent reference to a May 2016 speech Thomas gave at a Hillsdale College commencement ceremony in which he advised graduates not to “hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket.” Another note appeared to instruct CRC employees not to include articles that referred to Thomas’s well-known reticence on the benchduring that period: “Doesn’t like part about CT not asking Qs.”
The firm also bought ads from Google to boost favorable internet content about Thomas, according to the employee and a separate internal document. An internal CRC spreadsheet obtained by The Post shows that the Google advertising campaign generated almost 11,000 viewsbetween Oct. 12 and Nov. 8.
Paoletta did not directly address questions from The Post about who paid for CRC’s work. CRC declined to comment for this story.
But the Leo-advised Judicial Crisis Network disclosed in its tax filings from 2016 to 2018 that its activities included maintaining websites “recognizing the legacy of Clarence Thomas.” The tax filings do not identify those websites or specify what firm created them, but they do show payments to CRC in those and other years.
The bio for the Thomas fan Twitter account started by CRC in late 2016 now says it is owned and operated by the Judicial Crisis Network. It had nearly 30,000 followers as of early July. The Judicial Crisis Network also now runs Instagram and Facebook pages honoring Thomas, according to bios on those accounts.
The Judicial Crisis Network declined to comment for this story.
Although Leo’s name does not appear on the Judicial Crisis Network’s paperwork, the group shared the same floor in a D.C. building as the Federalist Society, The Post previously reported. Leo said publicly in 2020 that he and an associate were rebranding the group the Concord Fund and planned to pump tens of millions of dollars into it.
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As the new Thomas-centered social media accounts and websites began championing the justice online, Paoletta embarked ona new venture: a film.
Paoletta enlisted the conservative filmmaker Michael Pack as the movie’s writer and director. Between November 2017 and March 2018, Pack spent more than 30 hours interviewing Clarence and Ginni Thomas for the film, Pack later wrote.
The result was “Created Equal,” a two-hour film in which the only people interviewed are Thomas and his wife. Funders of the film’s production or marketing included the Judicial Education Project, the Crow family and an “anonymous” donor, according to the film’s credits. One of Crow’s companies, Crow Holdings Pool, gave $100,000 in 2018 to a nonprofit led by Pack that raised money to produce the film, documents obtained by The Post show.
In the film, Clarence Thomas flatly denies Anita Hill’s allegations (“That didn’t happen,” he says, shrugging).
The movie traces the arc of Thomas’s rise from poverty in the Jim Crow South and argues that the left has attacked Thomas over the years because it believes he has the wrong politics for a Black man. The film shows political cartoons portraying him as a Ku Klux Klan member and showing him shining Scalia’s shoes.
In the fall of 2019, the film was screened at the National Archives for Thomas and his friends and allies. The Examiner’s editor in chief wrote in a column that the crowd of “judges and hard-bitten lawyers … wept,” and the Examiner’s editor declared the work a “magnificent and necessary corrective to the venomous falsehoods that have been heaped for a quarter of a century on a good man.”
CRC, the Leo-affiliated public relations firm, served as publicist for “Created Equal.” The film played in select theaters in early 2020 and was broadcast by PBS to a national television audience in May.
Together, Pack and Paoletta compiled the film’s interviews with the Thomases into a book, also called “Created Equal,” and released it in 2022. The book has sold about 8,600 hardback copies, according to sales data from Circana.
Paoletta does not appear in the Thomas film credits, but he has said he sat in on most of the interviews Pack conducted with the Thomases, which occurred while Paoletta was working in the Trump administration. In the book, Pack called Paoletta “an unsung, uncredited executive producer” who “was a key part of the production process throughout.”
Leo was also a critical backer. “Leonard Leo has been essential to both the film and the book, lending his support from behind the scenes, consistently and patiently,” Pack and Paoletta wrote in the book’s acknowledgments.
In his statement to The Post, Leo said the film about Thomas was “an important counter” to the “RBG” documentary, which he claimed was “produced as a political call to action.”
“Released during the 2018 midterm elections, RBG was frequently invoked by Democrats and their allies to show why they should gain seats in the Senate and retake the White House thereafter,” Leo said.
CNN Films produced the “RBG” documentary. Participant Media, founded by businessman Jeff Skoll, whose foundation has also donated millions to left-leaning groups, later acquired and distributed the film, Leo noted.
Participant declined to comment for this story or to provide comment from Skoll.
The Judicial Crisis Network spent $1.5 million to promote the Thomas film in March 2022 during the confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson, the group announced at the time. The 30-second ad, which was nationally broadcast on cable television and online, took a swipe at Jackson, who is Black, for previously saying she did not understand Thomas as a Black man.
“She should watch Created Equal and learn about Justice Thomas’s remarkable life, how he has been unfairly attacked for 30 years for thinking for himself,” the ad’s narrator says as scenes from the film flash across the screen.
Chris Dehghanpoor and Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.