Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is under fire for recommending one of the top donors to her campaign, Jennifer Rearden, for a lifetime post as a Manhattan federal judge.
Gillibrand (D-NY) took in more than $30,000 in contributions from Rearden, and fellow Democrats are also fuming about the judicial candidate’s membership in an “elite” Connecticut country club that has been accused of maintaining a mostly white membership.
President Biden accepted Gillibrand’s recommendation and nominated Rearden in January.
Rearden gave Gillibrand and her political action committee $11,900 after telling the senator she wanted the job, Federal Election Commission filings show — and even hosted “several” fundraisers for Gillibrand at the Midtown offices of her law firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.
“In May 2016, I expressed an interest in serving as a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand,” Rearden wrote in response to a Senate questionnaire. “From that time through November 2019, I periodically had contact with Senator Gillibrand and her office.”
Rearden cut checks to Gillibrand for $5,400 in January 2017 and $1,500 in January 2019. She gave another $5,000 to Gillibrand’s political action committee, Off the Sidelines, in March 2018. Rearden didn’t donate to any other federal politicians since 2016, FEC records show.
The would-be judge gave a smattering to other politicians over the years, but 55 percent of her donations since 2011 went to Gillibrand, on whose behalf she solicited money from other people as well.
“I have co-hosted several fundraisers for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at the offices of GIbson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in New York,” Rearden admitted in her Senate disclosure forms. “My responsibilities principally consisted of arranging for the use of Gibson Dunn space, inviting Gibson Dunn attorneys (and sometimes others), and asking invitees to make a donation.”
The nomination is facing a late-breaking challenge from a coalition of left-leaning and environmental groups that are circulating word of Rearden’s generous donations and arguing that she is a suspiciously illiberal pick for a Democratic senator.
The knocks against Rearden include her membership at a Connecticut country club — Wee Burn Country Club in Darien — with little, if any, racial diversity.
The elite club has an initiation fee of $117,00 for new members and annual dues of up to $14,650 per year, according to a 2020 document outlining its rules and policies. As recently as 1997, the club restricted women from entering an all-male dining area or serving on the club’s governing board.
Wee Burn “restricts its golf memberships to 350 families” and has a lengthy waitlist, the New York Times said in a 1996 report.
Post reporters visited the club last week in an effort to assess the claim that non-whites are relegated to staff roles and found that most people of color at the facility appeared to be employees. Wee Burn chief financial officer Chris Meringol declined to comment on the club’s history.
“I refer you to our by-laws that state: ‘Membership in the Club is open to anyone regardless of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.’” Wee Burn General Manager Warren Burdock told The Post in an email.
Burdock did not respond to inquiries about the actual extent of racial diversity among club members. Rearden has a lifelong link to the club, revealing on Senate forms that her parents were members when she was younger.
“It’s no surprise that along with her illiberal record, she is a member at an elite country club with a recent history of discrimination against women and few if any known members of color,” said Lucas Sanchez, deputy director of New York Communities for Change, one of the special interest groups opposed to Rearden being confirmed to the federal bench.
“People are ready to mobilize against this nomination,” Sanchez added. “It’s a huge mistake, but there’s still time to fix it. President Biden should pull the nomination now.”
“Her appointment would betray so many people fighting for environmental and racial justice,” said Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, which works with environmentalist groups.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is poised to vote on the nomination in the coming weeks after a brief and little-watched confirmation hearing this month. The committee is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, meaning that if Republicans object, even one “no” vote from Democrats could spell doom.
A letter signed by 21 progressive groups, including Greenpeace and the Sunrise Movement, asks senators to reject Rearden due to her work for cigarette makers Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds in a case fighting against New York City’s high tobacco prices. The letter also fumed about her Gibson Dunn colleagues working on behalf of Chevron as the company sought to shirk a $9 billion judgment in Ecuador for dumping oil in the rainforest.
“We believe that after 16 years as a partner at Gibson Dunn, and a member of the crisis management group, Rearden bears moral responsibility for the firm’s actions and approach even if she did not work directly on its most troubling matters,” the letter says.
Gillibrand was in no mood to discuss the nomination this week on Capitol Hill.
“I’m busy,” the senator said when first approached outside the Senate chamber Tuesday afternoon. She proceeded to vote to confirm White House budget director Shalanda Young before exiting out a different door.
Hours later, Gillibrand rushed into the Senate to vote on a proposed repeal of COVID-19 mask rules on public transportation and didn’t turn around to answer when The Post asked her if she nominated Rearden because of her more than $30,000 in donations.
Gillibrand again attempted to walk out a different exit from the Senate floor, but when she saw The Post waiting there, she abruptly halted her stride, did a 180-degree spin and briskly exited from the opposite side of the Senate chamber.
There’s nothing explicitly illegal about Senate donors later getting judgeships unless there’s proof of direct bribery, but Rearden’s donations to Gillibrand and her PAC still stand out.
A Roll Call analysis of donations by judicial nominees to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 2009 to 2019, for example, found that three in five nominees made political contributions, but just two of 479 judicial nominees gave more than $20,000 cumulatively to senators on the panel. The analysis doesn’t cover all senators, who traditionally are given deference in picking home-state nominees, but it does demonstrate the relative rarity of Rearden’s degree of generosity toward Gillibrand.
“Without a demonstrable quid pro quo, it’s routine campaign finance, which is a cesspool, but a legal cesspool,” said Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics attorney for President George W. Bush and a 2018 Democratic Senate candidate in Minnesota.
“These types of donations have long been viewed as a judicial version of pay-to-play,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.
“While many nominees are qualified, those qualifications seem to become more evident with contributions. Yet, there is no direct nexus that can be established short of a candidate writing their resume on the back of a check. You cannot show a quid pro quo just an incredible coincidence.”
Key members of the Judiciary Committee told The Post this week that they weren’t aware of the late-breaking controversy around Rearden’s nomination.
Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont told The Post he didn’t know enough to comment on the objections of progressive groups.
Fellow committee member Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a dogged anti-tobacco campaigner, said he’d gladly comment through a spokeswoman after researching objections to Rearden. The spokeswoman didn’t reply to subsequent emails.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also pleaded ignorance, telling The Post in a Capitol elevator bank, “I’ll look at it, I promise.”
Rearden did not respond to The Post’s request for comment. She previously was nominated in 2020 by then-President Donald Trump, also at Gillibrand’s urging, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a vote. Gillibrand and New York’s other senator, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, divvy up judicial nominations and recommend separate nominees, judicial sources told The Post.
Rearden donated much smaller amounts to other Democratic senators, giving $1,000 to Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada; $1,000 to Patty Murray of Washington; $1,000 to then-Sen. Kamala Harris of California and $250 to Ron Wyden of Oregon. She also gave $5,400 to Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and hosted a fundraiser for the then-Granite State governor in 2016 — the only fundraiser for a politician other than Gillibrand noted in her Senate disclosures.
Rearden has donated to some Republicans over the years, including former Staten Island Rep. Dan Donovan and Rep. Dick Zimmer (R-NJ). She gave $2,700 in 2015 to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as he sought the GOP presidential nomination and $2,300 to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who sought the 2008 GOP nod, between 2006 and 2008.
Most senators skipped Rearden’s March 2 confirmation hearing. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) grilled Rearden and two other judicial nominees about whether they agreed with the non-prosecution of certain crimes by left-leaning prosecutors “in the name of social justice” and slammed all three for not answering.
“Senator, I do not, sitting here today, have an opinion on that,” Rearden told Kennedy, adding, “I know there are positions on both sides. I have not refined an opinion on this.”
Kennedy jabbed: “Are you afraid of giving me your answer?”
“No, senator, I would give you an answer if I had it. I’m doing my best to answer your question,” Rearden insisted.
“You could have fooled me, counselor. We both know what we’re talking about,” Kennedy replied.
Gillibrand spokesman Evan Lukaske defended Rearden’s nomination, which requires a simple 51-vote majority if it reaches the Senate floor.
“Senator Gillibrand bases her recommendations solely on legal expertise, analytical ability and commitment to justice,” Lukaske said. “Jennifer Rearden’s extensive knowledge of federal law and record of accomplishment will make her a tremendous asset to the Southern District of New York. Senator Gillibrand was proud to recommend her to the president and expects she will receive a swift confirmation.”