money in politics state courts supreme court

Is Jeffrey Yass Pennsylvania’s Harlan Crow?

Written by Rachel Bracken

Last month, ProPublica released another groundbreaking report revealing the deep connections between U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Harlan Crow, the Koch brothers, and the conservative legal movement. As more connections and ethical violations are brought to light, the urgency for increased accountability of Supreme Court justices only grows. Pennsylvania could soon face a similar fate due to one man’s influence over the commonwealth’s politics. A quieter billionaire is blazing his way through Pennsylvania politics one donation at a time, and his name is Jeffrey Yass. 

Who is Jeffrey Yass? 

Jeffrey Yass, Pennsylvania’s richest man with a net worth of over $28.9 billion, has stayed in the shadows compared to other large conservative donors such as the Koch brothers or, more recently, Harlan Crow. Yass is one of the founders of Susquehanna International Group, a private equity firm. A graduate of SUNY Binghamton and son of two CPAs, Yass had already cultivated a deep interest in trading by the time he graduated.  

To establish Susquehanna, Yass and a group of friends transformed a series of gambling bets into the billion-dollar investment and trading firm it is today. Yass amassed his current fortune by gaming the stock market and the country’s tax and regulatory laws, according to reporting from ProPublica. Under current tax laws, long-term gains are taxed at a lower rate (20%) compared to the short-term gain tax rate (40%). Despite Susquehanna specializing in short-term gains and trades, the Yass’ revenue has almost exclusively been taxed at the long-term rate. This is in part because ProPublica identified a partnership with Susquehanna Fundamental Investments that creates deals to slash their taxes, placing bets for and against their own stocks, enabling them to claim both short-term losses and long-term losses gains on the same exact stock. Despite regulators’ best efforts to prevent these kinds of trades by, Yass and his colleagues have been able to take advantage of the market to make significant profits. This results in Yass getting richer every year. In 2018, he recorded an annual income of $2 billion. And, according to the 2022 ProPublica report, Yass has amassed at least $1 billion in tax savings due to the firm’s trading policies.  

The result: Yass transformed these capital gains into political capital across the commonwealth.  

Who is Yass Funding? 

Yass first spent his money on political causes within Pennsylvania starting in 2010 by supporting Students First, a political action committee (PAC), focused on school vouchers and school privatization. In 2016, he then emerged as a major national political donor with a $2.5 million donation to a PAC associated with Rand Paul that has since attempted to deny the 2020 election results. Since 2016, Yass has gradually increased his political giving to various PACS inside and outside of the commonwealth, giving GOP-leaning groups around $7 million in 2018 and then $30 million in 2020. Yass’ investments in Pennsylvania continued in 2022, spending over $18 million in the Pennsylvania primary election alone, influencing both Democratic and Republican primaries to get pro-charter school candidates through. His total spending in 2022 was close to $54 million.  

The causes supported by the Yass-sponsored PACs reveal a deep network of conservative interests attempting to further a range of policies in elections and lobbying.  

Since first giving to Students First PAC in 2010, Yass has since given more than $47 million to the group. Over the years, Yass has become the “sole funder” of Students First PAC, as reported by Spotlight PA. So far in 2023, Yass has spent $3 million. Students First PAC is part of a network of conservative groups and is able to exchange funds between itself and other conservative PAC interests and candidates attempting to cut taxes, roll back labor union protections, ban trans youth healthcare, ban abortion, and influence curricula in schools. Among the conservative PACs that Students First disseminates its Yass-sponsored money to is the Commonwealth Leaders Fund — a PAC that has almost totally funded Republican supreme court candidate Carolyn Carluccio’s campaign. To date, the Commonwealth Leaders Fund has donated $2.7 million to Carluccio out of the total $3.4 million she’s raised this year, meaning nearly of all her contributions can be traced to one man.  

The Stakes for Pennsylvania’s Future 

Unlike Harlan Crowe, Yass’ donations are not via luxurious vacations and flights on private jets, but the implications for his political giving are just as concerning. Critics argue that Yass’ massive political spending prioritizes the exertion of his personal influence on statewide politics and allows his individual ideology to shape party decision-making. This is illustrated by the fact that Yass has given mass contributions to candidates in the past due to their stances supporting charter schools, privatization, and other policies influencing school curricula, such as banning an accurate teaching of racism throughout history under the guise of “critical race theory.”  

The extension of Yass’ political giving into the state supreme court race endangers the future of rights the court has previously protected. For example, the court had previously reigned in charter schools, holding them accountable to their enrollment caps, meaning school districts would not be required to divert funding  from other public education programming—the exact opposite of Yass’ vision for the future of Pennsylvania schools.  

We have barely scratched the surface of the full impact Harlan Crow’s relationship with Clarence Thomas actually has on the rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. At a time of hyper partisan attacks on state supreme court justices in Wisconsin and North Carolina, the independence of the judiciary is being attacked before our eyes. It is clear state supreme courts are the last bulwark for our constitutional freedoms, especially when our federal courts fail to safeguard our rights. With the stakes for Pennsylvanians’ rights and freedoms higher than ever, the fact that a single person is the primary funder of a supreme court candidate should give us pause.

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