Last year, publicly traded Eaton signed a open statement stand up for “American democracy” and acknowledge the country’s history of political disenfranchisement. “We should all feel responsible for defending the right to vote and opposing any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to vote,” reads the statement, which has been published in journals, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.
But just a month earlier, the power company had handed over $1.6 billion to a trust controlled by a man whose work allegedly went against those values. This individual, Leonard Leo, is perhaps best known for his efforts to pack lands with conservative judges. He has also been linked to groups like the Honest Elections Project, which has been accused of to push for controversial new voting restrictions, supposedly in the name of election security.
“I think Leonard Leo’s work, especially his recent work in terms of voting, has been quite detrimental to American democracy,” said Richard Hasen, a professor specializing in electoral law and campaign finance regulation at the UCLA Law School. “And I think with an extra $1.6 billion to play, there’s a lot more damage to do.”
The $1.6 billion infusion is the result of a complex maneuver, in which conservative billionaire Barre Seid donated shares of his manufacturing company to the Leo-led Marble Freedom Trust. Marble then sold the business to Eaton for over $1.6 billion in March 2021.
In hurry released announcing the acquisition, Eaton made no mention of the trust or Leo. In Hasen’s view, it’s possible the company didn’t know its money “would help fund Leonard Leo’s empire,” given that it’s not known. If so, he said, it would be “hard to blame them.”
Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at Boston University who is writing about secret political spending known as “dark money”, was skeptical Eaton could have overlooked the recipient of his funds.
“I don’t buy a minute that a 1.6 billion dollars [deal] is made without knowing where it is going and who is going to use it and what its track record is,” he said.
“Eaton has some explaining to do. Do they support American democracy or was it just talks to get good PR? added Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization aimed at “bringing to light the corporations and special interests that too often wield unchecked power and influence.”
Leo did not respond to a request for comment. An Eaton spokesperson said, “We have no additional information to share regarding the acquisition announced last year.”
In a statement, Honest Elections Project executive director Jason Snead said the group “is proud to support the right to vote in free and fair elections and to defend the common sense laws that Americans overwhelmingly demand for protect our electoral system… voting and clean voter lists.
Snead has previously distanced the group from some of former President Donald Trump’s voter fraud conspiracy theories. “We looked very carefully at all the allegations that came out after the election,” he said. Told the Associated Press last year. “We concluded, like many others, that there was no evidence of widespread fraud.”
However, as the vote approached, the Honest Elections Project was accused of fomenting panic on mail-in voting and so-called voter fraud, including through a $250,000 publicity blitz on attempts to “tamper with the election.” As The Guardian previously noted, in 2019 the band released a blog declare voter suppression a “myth.”
Hasen publicly assaulted Leo’s work with the Fair Elections 2020 project, saying on Twitter that he was “advancing crackpot theories that could be used to try to get the courts, which he helped stack with Tories, to accept false arguments of electoral fraud which could affect the results of the vote.”
Despite the backlash, Barre’s giveaway — and subsequent Eaton acquisition — could become a new political spending model, as it allowed both the billionaire and the trust to avoid paying taxes on the ‘OK. Not to mention that for more than a year, the whole affair remained secret.