It’s a story that goes to the very heart of the left’s mountains of shadowy funding and professional activism: a foreign billionaire infamous for illegally funding Democrats, backing ghoulish medical treatments resulting in multiple deaths, and bankrolling a multi-million-dollar “dark money” campaign to transform America.
Meet Swiss-born Hansjörg Wyss (pronounced “Veese”), perhaps the most important megadonor you’ve never heard of. His Wyss Foundation, founded in 1998, quietly commands a stunning $2.2 billion in assets (as of 2018) and annually pours out tens of millions of dollars to activist groups—more than half a billion dollars between 2000 and 2018—so it’s little wonder that he’s been called the “new George Soros.”
Wyss is one of the best-connected megadonors on the left. He’s a member of the Democracy Alliance, a cabal of the rich and powerful that meets regularly to strategize funding to leftist activists. He’s also a substantial contributor to and sits on the board of the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal think tank founded by Clinton crony John Podesta, who chaired Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign. Podesta has reportedly advised Wyss on his funding of public policy efforts.
To the degree Wyss is known, it’s for his contributions to green groups, such as the Wilderness Society, where he sits on the board (along with a top lieutenant, Molly McUsic). In the past two decades Wyss has made substantial contributions to environmental groups on the center left and far left, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and Natural Resources Defense Council.
But his money extends beyond environmental advocacy. For years Wyss has backed groups involved in getting out the vote for Democratic politicians, such as the League of Conservation Voters, Environment America, and even the infamous ACORN successor group Project Vote (defunct since 2017).
This brand of “philanthropy” has made this billionaire a hero to the same Acela Corridor liberals who loathe the very idea of billionaires and who howled over foreign meddling in U.S. politics for years after the 2016 election. The left’s hypocrisy aside, Wyss is the wrong horse to back.
He’s declined to tell even the New York Times whether he holds U.S. citizenship and as recently as 2014 stated that he does not hold a green card granting permanent residency. In 2016 he got into trouble when it was revealed that Wyss had contributed $41,000 to Democratic political action committees (PACs) in violation of the federal government’s strict ban on foreign nationals giving to U.S. political campaigns. This foreign national has also donated at least $1 million through his foundation to States Newsroom since 2018, a bundle of partisan attack sites posing as impartial news outlets spawned by Washington, D.C., consultants Arabella Advisors.
So it was refreshing in April when New York Times reporter Ken Vogel revealed Wyss’s efforts to purchase the parent company of the Chicago Tribune and other failing newspapers around the country for $100 million—a display of genuine investigative journalism that came at a time when so many were busy framing Wyss as a liberal white knight bent on saving a venerable American industry.
It’s worth recalling that same crowd’s horror when the libertarian Koch Brothers announced they were considering buying the same parent company in 2013: It could “serve as a broader platform for the Kochs’ laissez-faire ideas” quoth the Gray Lady, could help the brothers “take on media reports they dispute,” opined the Washington Post, or could even “spark [a] ‘culture clash’” according to NPR.
Mute liberals probably played no role in Wyss’s rapid change of heart when—just four days after Vogel’s exposé—he quietly withdrew his bid for the newspapers, reportedly after reevaluating the Chicago Tribune’s financial troubles.
The 85-year-old Wyss will probably never achieve his goal of becoming a media mogul. His true legacy will be constructing a key “dark money” group created to help Democrats win elections and enact policy, situated within a $731 million nonprofit network run by Arabella Advisors.
No Love for the Limelight
Hansjörg Wyss is famously secretive. The few public interviews he’s given largely concern the environment and his deep interest in conservation, prime targets for his giving.
The future Swiss billionaire first came to the United States as a graduate student in 1958 and took a job as a surveyor for the Colorado Highway Department. The Rocky Mountains reminded him of the Swiss Alps, he explained in 2017, and he was particularly impressed with America’s system of national parks compared with Europe, where many natural areas are “privately owned, developed, or otherwise off-limits to the public.” Besides environmental activism, Wyss funds genuine philanthropy and is a major donor to universities, including Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
Wyss made his fortune as the head of Synthes USA, a major medical implants and biomaterials manufacturer that he built from practically nothing and sold to Johnson & Johnson in 2012 for $19.7 billion. Today, Wyss is worth an estimated $8.5 billion.
Yet his success is marred by the macabre. In 2009, Synthes—with Wyss at its head—was charged by Philadelphia’s U.S. attorney with running illegal clinical trial on humans: injecting them with a cement that turns to bone inside the human skeleton. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reportedly told the company not to use the cement during spine surgeries, but Synthes ignored the warning, and five people died as a result. Four of Synthes’s top executives were ultimately sentenced to prison. One wonders if liberal billionaire privilege saved Wyss from sharing the blame—he wasn’t charged by prosecutors—since he’s been accused of purposefully ignoring clinical trials and of being a “hands-on,” “forceful,” “800-pound gorilla” who allowed little dissent in the ranks.
Add to that allegations of sexual assault in 2011 leveled against Wyss by a female former employee in New Jersey in late 2017, while the pair were staying at a hotel in Morris County. It’s unclear how the case was resolved.
Whatever the truth may be, it’s hard to shake the sense that Wyss is both a genuine conservationist and a liberal technocrat, using his vast wealth to control a country whose allegiance he refuses. Nothing better illustrates Wyss’s brand of paternalism than his longstanding relationship with the largest “dark money” network in politics.
The Hub Project: Born in “Dark Money”
The story begins in 2015, when the consulting firm Civitas Public Affairs Group—whose clients include the pro-gun control Brady Campaign and Democratic get-out-the-vote group Voter Participation Center—produced a private report for the Wyss Foundation outlining a plan for a “communications hub.” (It’s unknown exactly how much the foundation paid for the report, but between 2015 and 2018 it paid over $442,000 to Civitas.)
Seventeen members of the professional left were interviewed for the report, representing such groups as Pew Charitable Trusts, the attack group Media Matters for America, the Center for American Progress (where Wyss is a board member), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), abortion giant NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Brennan Center, and the Center for Popular Democracy.
This hub would support the foundation’s “core issue areas,” creating “research-based message frames” to “drive measurable change” and achieve “significant wins,” which in turn would “dramatically shift the public debate and policy positions of core decision makers,” “leading to implementation of policy solutions at the local, state, and federal level.” In other words, it would elect Democrats and make public policy.
The IRS strictly prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofits from contributing to or intervening in political campaigns “on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate,” period. Foundations, which fall under the 501(c)(3) rules, are subject to even stricter rules concerning funding of voter registration and lobbying activity.
From the start, the hub was “solely funded by The Wyss Foundation,” yet its ties to the foundation were intentionally hidden. The Civitas report even recommends it be disassociated with the Wyss Foundation so as to “give the foundation appropriate separation from the hub’s work” and “allow the hub to engage in a more robust way than it could if it was based within the foundation.”
In other words, the hub was designed to allow the foundation to bypass the IRS prohibition on intervening in elections.
Instead, the hub would be set up as an “independent organization with a fiscal sponsor.” Its advisory board would consist of Wyss Foundation officials, who would receive quarterly reports on its progress, making it a front for an established liberal nonprofit that specializes in incubating new advocacy groups. That sponsor would need to have the “flexibility to work across the spectrum of 501(c)(3), (h) election, and 501(c)(4) activities,” referring to the lobbying caps the IRS places on different kinds of nonprofits. And it would need set aside “15 to 25 percent of the budget for (c)(4) work funded by The Wyss Action Fund” (more on that later).
Not many fiscal sponsors fit that description in 2015. One stands out: Arabella Advisors, the then-obscure consultancy whose network of four in-house nonprofits already commanded a staggering $332 million in revenues in 2015 alone. That figure rose to $731 million in 2019, the year the Capital Research Center first exposed the network in a groundbreaking report.
Arabella’s nonprofits specialize in attacking Republicans, tilting elections, and passing radical legislation. Each of these nonprofits manages a host of “pop-up” groups, websites designed to fool viewers into believing they’re grassroots activist groups. To date, CRC has counted some 350 such “pop-ups,” with more appearing each month. What’s clear after studying this network over the past two years is that it’s the height of professional left-wing activism. When a donor goes to Arabella, they’re expecting a political payoff.
So it isn’t difficult to guess the kind of results the Wyss Foundation expected when it began funneling millions of dollars ($57 million since 2009) into the New Venture Fund, Arabella’s flagship 501(c)(3).
The “communications hub” described in the 2015 Civitas report is strikingly similar to an existing Arabella group launched in January 2017—the Hub Project. The Hub Project consists of two organizations: an action arm fronting for the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Arabella’s 501(c)(4) lobbying wing, and a research arm fronting for the New Venture Fund. Many of Arabella’s groups use this kind of pairing scheme, maximizing their respective tax status advantages for lobbying and fundraising.
The Hub Project has been busy trying to flip Congress and the White House since its founding. As the New York Times’ Vogel puts it, “the Hub Project came out of the idea that Democrats should be more effective in conveying their arguments through the news media and directly to voters.”
Early on the group organized a series of marches in 2017 to demand President Trump’s tax returns. Politico reports the group aided Democrats on “health care, taxes and the economy” in the 2018 midterm elections. The Atlantic cheerfully credits the Hub Project with doing “remarkable damage” to President Trump’s reputation among Wisconsin voters in the lead-up to the 2020 election. In April 2021 the group hired a campaign director whose last job was flipping the Senate in 2020 for a top Democratic PAC.
The Hub Project doesn’t contribute directly to campaigns. As its name implies, it provides messaging strategies and research to other groups involved in elections and issues like D.C. statehood and abolishing the filibuster.
But in good Arabella fashion the Hub Project links up with other Arabella-run groups to form a constellation of make-believe grassroots advocacy organizations: Arizonans United for Health Care, Floridians for a Fair Shake, Keep Iowa Healthy, New Jersey for a Better Future, and North Carolinians for a Fair Economy have been identified so far. Each of these groups is, in reality, run by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, but acts like a tentacle of the Hub Project, further obscuring the network’s connection to Arabella.
The Hub Project’s staffers come from the Obama administration, Democratic PACs, and a panoply of activist groups. Its founding director, Arkadi Gerney, is an old Arabella hand who has held senior positions with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the Bloomberg-funded Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund (the lobbying arm of the think tank where Wyss is a board member). Between 2016 and 2018 (and possibly before) he was a project director for the New Venture Fund (2018 compensation: $339,517), and he’s also listed in Sixteen Thirty Fund’s 2019 Form 990 (total compensation: $145,468 to work 8 hours per week, amounting to just under $350 per hour).
A Foundation with a Lobbying Arm?
Enter the Berger Action Fund, founded in 2007 as the Wyss Action Fund and perhaps the most unusual piece of the puzzle. Foundations are typically wary of associating themselves with 501(c)(4) advocacy nonprofits because of the strict limits the IRS places on their political activities. But the Berger Action Fund is formally listed as the Wyss Foundation’s advocacy arm on its Form 990—a phenomenon this writer has never seen before, though regular (c)(3) nonprofits regularly operate with a (c)(4) arm—because the two groups share “personnel and facilities,” for which the foundation reimbursed the lobbying arm with $173,012 between 2017 and 2018.
It was formally renamed in 2016, presumably after Wyss’s sister Susi Berger (née Susanna Ottilia Franziska Wyss, 1938–2019), a notable graphic artist and furniture designer in Switzerland. It’s unclear what triggered the change, but it’s possible that greater scrutiny of Wyss and his foundation in 2015–2016 led to this distancing of his foundation from its action arm.
No donors to Berger Action Fund have been identified. But Berger paid out nearly $159 million in grants to leftist groups between 2008 and 2019, including six- and seven-figure grants to the League of Conservation Voters (called a “‘dark money’ heavyweight” by a left-leaning watchdog), Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and the Center for Popular Democracy Action Fund, the lobbying wing of an ACORN agitation group successor funded by labor unions and a favorite of the Democracy Alliance.
Berger’s most notable grants are $12.4 million to Arabella’s Sixteen Thirty Fund and $1.3 million to the New Venture Fund (2010–2017). Berger didn’t specify how those funds were spent in its Form 990, but the grants likely bankrolled the Hub Project. We may never know, though, because officials from Arabella Advisors, the Hub Project, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the New Venture Fund, the Wyss Foundation, and the Berger Action Fund declined to comment to the New York Times’s Ken Vogel about their finances.
Leadership Ties to the Arabella Network
The ties connecting Wyss to the Arabella network—and possibly Arabella’s very origins—begin in the Clinton administration. Wyss Foundation president Molly McUsic (2018 total compensation: $458,349) and Arabella Advisors founder Eric Kessler both worked for Clinton administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (1993–2001), the former Democratic Governor of Arizona (1978–1987) and aggressive environmental regulator.
How closely McUsic and Kessler worked together is unclear, but both were political appointees from the broader activist world. Kessler came from the League of Conservation Voters, where he directed field operations, McUsic, who served on Babbitt’s legal counsel team, clerked for the liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun (author of the Court’s opinion on Roe v. Wade) and U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Dorothy W. Nelson, a Carter appointee. Interestingly, McUsic now sits on the League of Conservation Voters’ board.
Add to this pair McUsic’s predecessor at the Wyss Foundation, John Leshy. Leshy—an ex-staffer from Carter’s Department of the Interior and Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer—was solicitor general to Babbitt’s Interior (1993–2001), which would’ve made him McUsic’s boss. Leshy may have headed the Wyss Foundation in its infancy in 1998 (information before 2002 is scarce) but was certainly its president from at least 2002 until 2008, when then-chief operating officer McUsic succeeded him. Leshy—a professor of real property law at the University of California, Hastings, since 2001—co-chaired President Obama’s transition team for the Department of the Interior in 2009.
Although Kessler didn’t start Arabella Advisors until 2005, it appears that his ties to McUsic connected him to Hansjörg Wyss as the Wyss Foundation began making six-figure annual grants to the New Venture Fund (then the “Arabella Legacy Fund”) in 2007, just one year after the fund’s creation. In fact, Wyss could be described as the progenitor of the Arabella network. His foundation’s 2007 grant accounted for 55 percent of New Venture Fund’s revenues for that year.
At least one Wyss Foundation staffer, Kyle Herrig, jumped ship to Arabella. Herrig has ostensibly been on the New Venture Fund’s board since 2014 (although that cannot be verified in its Form 990 filings) and was a Wyss Foundation staffer from 2012 to 2013. Interestingly, he was one of the individuals interviewed in the 2015 Wyss Foundation report leading to the creation of the Hub Project. He now runs the left-of-center activist group Accountable.US, a former New Venture Fund project that controls a number of anti-Trump groups that began life as New Venture Fund projects: Restore Public Trust, American Oversight, and Western Values Project (which ran an attack site on Trump’s Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt). In early 2021 American Oversight got in trouble for trying to blacklist in Stalinist fashion former Trump administration officials so they wouldn’t be hired by big corporations. This earned the group a critical letter from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, condemning it for “trying to deny Americans the opportunity to earn livelihoods simply because they made the sacrifice to serve on behalf of the President.”
The Man Behind the Curtain
Wyss still commands billions of dollars that will almost certainly exist perpetually in his tax-free private foundation. Like any of the big lefty donors, his death will likely not liberate America from the reach of his money. The country needs to pay attention to the name Hansjörg Wyss. It won’t be the last time we’ll hear it.
Hayden Ludwig is a senior investigative researcher for the Capital Research Center.
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