South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who has faced long-running controversy over his role in impeding an investigation into State House corruption, has been an active participant in the Republican AGs’ national pay-to-play operation, according to records obtained by the nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog American Oversight.
Wilson became the national chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) in May 2021 and in June 2022 coasted to an easy primary victory for his fourth term as AG—thanks to a 30-to-1 fundraising advantage over challenger Lauren Martel.
The Democrats did not field a candidate.
Every year RAGA accepts millions in unlimited contributions from corporations, individuals, and special interest groups—including Koch Industries, Altria, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce— to fund the campaigns of Republican candidates for attorneys general and coordinate the official actions of Republican AGs.
Together with its affiliates the Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF), a 501(c)(4), and the Center for Law and Policy, a 501(c)(3), RAGA runs a cash-for-influence operation that sells its corporate funders access to those AGs and their staff.
RAGA AGs are “the object of aggressive pursuit by lobbyists and lawyers who use campaign contributions, personal appeals at lavish corporate-sponsored conferences and other means to push them to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements or pressure federal regulators,” the New York Times reported in an extensive 2014 investigation.
RAGA’s 2019 Membership Benefits document details the level of access to AGs and their staff corporate lobbyists receive with contributions from $15,000 to $250,000, including the opportunity to “lead issue briefings” with the AGs if they pay $50,000 or more.
Public records confirm that Wilson has been an active participant in that pay-to-play arrangement.
Dinners and Calls With Donors
Emails obtained by American Oversight from the South Carolina AG’s office reveal a pattern of Wilson meeting with RAGA’s corporate donors when requested, followed by those corporations making five-figure donations to RAGA and, in some cases, to Wilson’s reelection campaign.
For instance, at RAGA’s request Wilson had a phone meeting on Sept. 9, 2020 with the vice president for corporate affairs at the lawn care company TruGreen. The briefing email RAGA sent in advance included the “ask” that Wilson thank the company’s VP “for their generous support” and a background section that highlighted TruGreen’s Roundtable-level membership, which costs the company $25,0000 a year.
The RAGA briefing email mentions Covid-19 business restrictions and the court case Beyond Pesticides v. TruGreen as public policy areas of interest to the company. Beyond Pesticides sued TruGreen in 2020 for misleading the public about the safety of its products. The complaint alleges that “TruGreen purports to offer environmentally friendly, sustainable lawn care services that use no chemicals that may cause cancer, allergic reactions, or other health or environmental harms,” but that these claims are false and deceptive.
Two months after the call with Wilson, TruGreen contributed $2,500 to his campaign, reaching the maximum of $3,500 in contributions allowed for the cycle. Overall, the company gave a total of $72,500 to RAGA during the 2020 election cycle, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) found. RAGA received $20,000 of that just two days after the Sept. 9 phone meeting.
On July 16, 2021, Wilson had a phone meeting at RAGA’s request with two lobbyists from UPS. This time the “ask” was for Wilson to give “an update on RAGA” and “remind them that their membership lapsed in February and ask that they renew this quarter.” RAGA’s 2021 year-end IRS filing suggests that UPS promptly complied, renewing its membership with a $15,000 contribution just three days later—on July 19, 2021. In the 2020 election cycle, the UPS PAC contributed $25,000 to RAGA.
The briefing email Wilson received before the call lays out the company’s RAGA giving history and public policy interests in great detail. It describes those interests as a proposed SEC rule to require increased “climate change-related disclosures” that RAGA opposed; “claims of labor discrimination or unfair labor practices [that] may be submitted to state attorneys general offices”; “regulation of future technologies”; and a New York lawsuit against UPS for “illegally shipping cigarettes to Native American reservations in circumvention of state tax laws.”
Emails from Wilson’s office also indicate that he attended dinners with RAGA donors. In November 2021, Wilson RSVP’d for a dinner with the “state AG team” of the powerful corporate law firm Cozen O’Connor during RAGA’s Fall National Meeting in California.
“When AGs, either alone, in multi-state actions, or jointly with federal agencies, focus their attention on a company’s activities or business practices and an investigation or lawsuit ensues, we have the experience and knowledge to mount a vigorous defense,” Cozen O’Connor states on its website.
Cozen O’Connor also contributed the maximum $3,500 to Wilson’s 2022 reelection campaign a month before the dinner, according to a report filed with the South Carolina Ethics Commission.
In 2018, Cozen O’Connor participated in RAGA’s AG Academy, a two-day training session for candidates running for state attorney general.
Also, on Mar. 2, 2020, an email shows that Wilson met at the offices of Altria for “Dine-Around Dinners” during RAGA’s Winter National Meeting in Washington, D.C.
One of the world’s largest producers of tobacco products, Altria has donated $375,000 to RAGA since January 2021, IRS filings show. With $609,154 in contributions, it also proved to be the organization’s seventh largest donor during the 2020 election cycle.
Altria has also given the maximum of $3,500 for Wilson’s 2022 reelection bid.
Serving RAGA’s Top Donor
The top donor to RAGA in 2021 and the first quarter of 2022 is its longtime biggest funder, the Judicial Crisis Network (formally registered with the IRS as The Concord Fund). Leonard Leo, Trump’s “judge whisperer” and co-chair of the Federalist Society, leads the dark money group, which has given RAGA $3.5 million so far this election cycle, an analysis of IRS filings by CMD found.
On June 10, 2021, weeks after becoming RAGA’s national chairman, Wilson was scheduled to meet with a “Judicial Coalition” including Mike Thompson and Gary Marx. The Concord Fund’s latest publicly available IRS filing shows that Marx serves as secretary, treasurer, and director of the organization.
Peter Bisbee, RAGA’s executive director, is listed as point of contact (“POC”) on the email along with RAGA scheduler Seline Morrissette. Bisbee previously worked as director of state courts and deputy director of external relations at the Federalist Society when Leo still served as its executive vice president.
Leo’s court capture network has raised at least $600 million since 2014 to reshape laws and shift the federal court system to the far right, True North Research reported.
HEP is a dark money voter suppression group created in February 2020 as a project of The 85 Fund, a well-funded cog in the Leo network that distributes millions in grants to an array of rightwing groups. In addition to his roles at The Concord Fund, Marx also serves as treasurer of The 85 Fund.
AG Wilson was invited to deliver a keynote speech at HEP’s two-day voter suppression “academy” in conjunction with the July 2021 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Annual Meeting, emails detail. When Wilson declined, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, an avid proponent of Trump’s Big Lie and a member of RAGA, delivered the keynote instead, CMD first reported.
ALEC is working with HEP to develop and promote model bills that are less about honesty in elections than voter suppression and perpetuating mistrust in the process, CMD revealed.
Wilson Promoted Judge Barrett for Koch Network
Before he became RAGA’s chairman, Wilson participated in a Facebook Live event in October 2020 to promote Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Americans for Prosperity (AFP), billionaire Charles Koch’s astroturf operation, facilitated his involvement.
Koch’s network of companies and political organizations are also among the top donors to the Republican AGs’ group. Since January 2021, RAGA has received $130,400 from AFP, $375,000 from Koch Industries, and $1,270 from Koch Companies Public Sector. During the 2019–20 election cycle, Koch Industries contributed $425,000 to RAGA, with Koch Companies Public Sector chipping in an additional $23,000.
On Oct. 5, 2020, Andrew Yates, state director for AFP-South Carolina, wrote Wilson’s office to ask for his participation in a Facebook Live event supporting Barretts confirmation:
We [AFP] are working hard across the country to get Judge Barrett’s nomination passed through the senate. We have had conversations with friendly AGs in several states with more currently planned out and I would love to set up a FB live with myself and a colleague (cc’d) to discuss the nomination and why it is so vital for our country with AG Wilsons [sic] point of view on the issue and policy.
A week later Wilson and Yates joined AFP’s VP of Judicial Policy Casey Mattox for a Facebook Live event on the morning of Oct. 12, 2020 to discuss a series of questions composed by AFP to aid the confirmation effort.
Koch Industries supported Wilson’s reelection campaign in 2018, CMD reported, and has contributed the maximum $3,500 to his 2022 reelection bid.
RAGA Forever Tied to Jan. 6 Insurrection
RAGA was a member of the March to Save America coalition, which organized the Jan. 6 rally in D.C. to overturn the presidential election results that culminated in a violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol. Its former chair, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, spoke at the rally alongside then-President Trump, and RLDF ran robocalls ahead of time explicitly urging Trump supporters to travel to Washington and march on the Capitol.
RAGA attempted to distance itself from its involvement in the uprising, but many longtime employees resigned when RLDF’s Executive Director Peter Bisbee, who was responsible for the robocalls, was selected to lead RAGA.
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