In August, The Lever and ProPublica exposed the largest political advocacy donation in U.S. history — a mammoth $1.6 billion donation to a dark money group led by Leonard Leo, who as former President Donald Trump’s judicial adviser helped build the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority to overturn federal protections for abortion rights.

Leo’s dark money network has been relatively quiet this election cycle, but Iowans are now getting a firsthand look at how the conservative legal activist and his allies intend to use their spoils to influence elections and crush efforts to protect consumers — such as taking the sort of financial misconduct accusations usually aimed at their allies and throwing them back at Democrats.

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In September, Leo’s dark money network registered a new fictitious entity, called the Alliance for Consumers Action Fund. The alliance soon began running TV ads in Iowa attacking the state’s Democratic attorney general, Tom Miller, over his role as chairman of the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG). According to AdImpact, the group has reserved $93,000 worth of ads against Miller, who is up for re-election next week.

Their message is quite jarring: “Consumers are hurting, but Attorney General Tom Miller isn't helping,” the ad says. “A Miller-run group took $280 million from consumer protection cases. Miller isn't sending that money to victims. He's using it for A-list trips to London, and stashing it in overseas investments. Miller's operation has been called a racket. It needs to stop. Tell Tom Miller: No more overseas trips and foreign investments. Give the money back to victims here in Iowa.”

There’s some irony to the accusation, given that Leo’s network has long been the top funder of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which critics have decried as a corporate “pay-to-play” operation.

NAAG, a century-old, non-partisan forum for state attorneys general, collects funds from settlement agreements between attorneys general and companies. A $574 million agreement with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. for helping fuel the opioid crisis sent $15 million to NAAG. The association and its Mission Foundation reported roughly $280 million in assets in 2021.

According to Miller and NAAG, the funds from settlements are used to support litigation assistance. “NAAG assists us in protecting constituents by funding conferences, training, and grants for investigations,” Miller said in August. “This is how our offices hold people accountable, from small-time scammers to big tech companies and opioid makers and distributors.”

A Racket

Leo’s Concord Fund — a dark money nonprofit that led the media campaigns to confirm Leo’s Supreme Court picks under Trump — registered the Alliance for Consumers Action Fund as a trade name on September 19, according to Virginia corporate records. The alliance announced its ad campaign targeting Miller ten days later.

“Our first ad campaign to educate everyday consumers about NAAG kicked off in Iowa because Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is currently in charge of NAAG,” O.H. Skinner, the alliance’s executive director, told The Lever in an email, adding that “this is the beginning, not the end of our NAAG-related efforts.”

Skinner, as the head of an affiliated nonprofit, called the Alliance for Consumers, has been criticizing NAAG since March 2021.

“Instead of sending money to victims, the McKinsey deal starts off with the type of arrangement only a politician could love — $15 million to the nonprofit National Association of Attorneys General, known as NAAG,” he wrote in the Washington Times. “Amongst other things, NAAG hosts events across the country for state attorneys general and their staff, culminating in an annual Capital Forum in December just down the street from the White House, with the D.C. political class in attendance.”

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This criticism has been echoed by Republican attorneys general. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) and seven other GOP attorneys general wrote a letter to NAAG in May this year calling for “greater transparency prior to NAAG receiving, holding, and expending certain kinds of funds.”

The letter continued: “NAAG’s $15 million McKinsey settlement is nearly double the amounts received by some states and nearly 40 percent more than Kentucky received. These states have lost thousands of their citizens to the opioid epidemic and represent thousands more who still struggle. Yet NAAG, an entity with no such constituency, collected $15 million.”

The Cameron letter was amplified in a Wall Street Journal editorial in July entitled, “The Attorneys General Racket.” The Alliance for Consumers Action Fund used this headline in its Iowa ad.

“Quintessential Pay-To-Play Group”

Leo has long sought to shape policy through state attorney general offices. His Concord Fund is consistently the top financier of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which elects GOP attorneys general, alongside corporate donors. The Concord Fund has donated $3.5 million to RAGA this election cycle, according to data from Political Moneyline.

Republican attorneys general have played a crucial role in advancing Leo’s conservative agenda at the Supreme Court — bringing and backing blockbuster cases like Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to ban abortions again, as well as putting forward efforts to limit and overturn environmental protections.

Lisa Graves, executive director of the watchdog True North Research, called RAGA a “quintessential pay-to-play group,” where companies get access based on how much money they donate. With RAGA, GOP attorneys general “are going on vacations, going to resorts, [and] letting companies tell them what their priorities are,” she said.

One way that Republican attorneys general have looked to cozy up to industry is by defanging their offices’ consumer protection and environmental divisions, as former attorneys general and high-level staffers who became lobbyists explained at a RAGA event in 2018.

Graves said the Alliance for Consumers Action Fund is a way for Leo to “support the right wing AGs and push their agenda and attack their opponents, Democratic attorneys general who have done public interest litigation and tried to hold corporations accountable.”

Skinner, for his part, told The Lever that his group will continue to attack NAAG: “We aren’t going to stop until consumers win this fight over the money at NAAG.”