Leonard Leo Backed PR Campaign Praising Clarence Thomas: WaPo

  • Leonard Leo, a conservative activist, has spent decades moving federal courts to the right
  • He oversees a large network of groups that back advocacy campaigns for conservative judges.
  • But one recent PR campaign has centered on Justice Clarence Thomas, The Washington Post reported.

A yearslong public relations campaign praising and defending Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas can be traced to a network of nonprofit groups tied to a prominent conservative activist, The Washington Post reported.

Leonard Leo, co-chairman of The Federalist Society, has spent several decades pushing federal courts to the right by leveraging a large network of nonprofit organizations in which he holds formal or informal roles.

According to the Post, Leo has also used that network to support the confirmation of every conservative Supreme Court justice in the past two decades. But one more recent campaign was directed at Justice Thomas, who had already spent about three decades on the Court’s bench.

The initiative includes a two-hour movie, “Created Equal,” released in 2020, that followed Thomas’ upbringing; websites that praise Thomas’s life or dispute the sexual harassment allegations made by Anita Hill; and even a Twitter fan account with close to 30,000 followers. The Post found that the effort cost at least $1.8 million from conservative nonprofits tied to Leo. 

The campaign began in early 2016, the Post reported, when HBO was set to release “Confirmation,” a film that centers on Hill’s explosive allegations during Thomas’ 1991 nomination hearings. The movie starred Kerry Washington as Hill and Wendell Pierce as Thomas.

One person who was tapped to lead the elaborate public relations campaign was Mark Paoletta — a former Trump White House aide, attorney, and close friend of Thomas. According to the Post, a nonprofit called the Judicial Education Project paid the lawyer about $300,000 in 2016 for “media projects.”

Leo does not have a formal role in the Judicial Education Project nonprofit, according to the Post. Still, he previously told the newspaper he is an advisor to the organization.

Paoletta did not return a request for comment sent outside of business hours and during the weekend.

Paoletta denounced the HBO film after reviewing the script and sent a letter to HBO’s then-president on March 7, 2016, claiming the movie contained “numerous distortions, omissions and fabrications” in an attempt to bolster Hill’s “credibility and smearing.” 

Len Amato, HBO’s president at the time, disputed the assertion to Politico and said there was “no agenda” behind the film and that it’s “quite evenhanded.”

In the time surrounding the film’s release, the attorney began submitting op-eds to conservative outlets such as the Daily Caller, National Review, and Washington Examiner, defending Thomas and attacking the film.

Paoletta also sought help from Javelin, a Virginia-based PR firm, to launch a website, confirmationbiased.com, to dispute or “fact check” the 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,” Paoletta told The Post.

Records obtained and interviews conducted by the Post show Paoletta worked with another public relations firm called CRC Public Relations — now CRC Advisors, which Leo chairs — to drum up websites and a social media account.

According to the Post, CRC helped create a Twitter fan account around September 2016 to post quotes from Thomas or video clips of the justice. The account’s bio now shows that it’s run by Judicial Crisis Network, a nonprofit also led by Leo, although his name does not appear in the group’s tax filings. The New York Times has previously reported how Leo has worked closely with the group during confirmation hearings.

The firm also helped create anitahillcase.com, dedicated to disputing Hill’s allegations, and justicethomas.com, which praises Thomas. 

“This site is dedicated to Justice Clarence Thomas and his three decades of jurisprudence on the Supreme Court of the United States,” the website states. “Since his confirmation on October 15, 1991, Justice Thomas has been a stalwart defender of the original meaning of the Constitution.”

According to the Post, Paoletta would also seek help from conservative filmmaker Michael Pack to make “Created Equal,” which only features interviews from Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas. The film’s financial backers included the Judicial Education Project and the Crow family.

Harlan Crow was recently the subject of a ProPublica investigation that revealed how the GOP donor poured lavish gifts onto Thomas. 

The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) also spent $1.5 million to promote the film in 2022 during Kentanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings. One ad took a dig at Jackson for saying she doesn’t “understand” how Thomas grew to hold his conservative views as a Black man. The comment was made years ago in a 2007 biography of Thomas, “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas.”

A spokesperson for JCN did not respond to a request for comment sent during the weekend.

The film later spawned a book of the same name, in which Pack said that Paoletta was “an unsung, uncredited executive producer” of “Created Equal,” the Post reported.

In a statement to the Post, Paoletta confirmed that the work he paid to do for the Judicial Education Project was related to Thomas and that “my good friend Leonard Leo’s group provided funding for this work.”

A spokesperson for The Federalist Society did not respond to a request for comment sent during the weekend.

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