The most important megadonor you have never heard of
Its a story that goes to the very heart of the lefts 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 youve 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 2018so its little wonder that hes been called the new George Soros.
Wyss is one of the best-connected megadonors on the left. Hes a member of the Democracy Alliance, a cabal of the rich and powerful that meets regularly to strategize funding to leftist activists. Hes 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 Clintons failed 2016 presidential campaign. Podesta has reportedly advised Wyss on his funding of public policy efforts.
To the degree Wyss is known, its 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 lefts hypocrisy aside, Wyss is the wrong horse to back.
Hes 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 governments 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 Wysss 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.
Its worth recalling that same crowds 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 Wysss rapid change of heart whenjust four days after Vogels exposéhe quietly withdrew his bid for the newspapers, reportedly after reevaluating the Chicago Tribunes 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 hes 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 Americas 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 Harvards 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, Syntheswith Wyss at its headwas charged by Philadelphias 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 Synthess top executives were ultimately sentenced to prison. One wonders if liberal billionaire privilege saved Wyss from sharing the blamehe wasnt charged by prosecutorssince hes 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. Its unclear how the case was resolved.
Whatever the truth may be, its 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 Wysss 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 Groupwhose 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. (Its 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 foundations 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 hubs 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.
Arabellas 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 theyre grassroots activist groups. To date, CRC has counted some 350 such pop-ups, with more appearing each month. Whats clear after studying this network over the past two years is that its the height of professional left-wing activism. When a donor goes to Arabella, theyre expecting a political payoff.
So it isnt 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, Arabellas flagship 501(c)(3).
The communications hub described in the 2015 Civitas report is strikingly similar to an existing Arabella group launched in January 2017the Hub Project. The Hub Project consists of two organizations: an action arm fronting for the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Arabellas 501(c)(4) lobbying wing, and a research arm fronting for the New Venture Fund. Many of Arabellas 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 Trumps 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 Trumps 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 doesnt 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 networks connection to Arabella.
The Hub Projects 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 Bloombergs 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 hes also listed in Sixteen Thirty Funds 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 Foundations advocacy arm on its Form 990a phenomenon this writer has never seen before, though regular (c)(3) nonprofits regularly operate with a (c)(4) armbecause 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 Wysss sister Susi Berger (née Susanna Ottilia Franziska Wyss, 19382019), a notable graphic artist and furniture designer in Switzerland. Its unclear what triggered the change, but its possible that greater scrutiny of Wyss and his foundation in 20152016 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.
Bergers most notable grants are $12.4 million to Arabellas Sixteen Thirty Fund and $1.3 million to the New Venture Fund (20102017). Berger didnt 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 Timess Ken Vogel about their finances.
Leadership Ties to the Arabella Network The ties connecting Wyss to the Arabella networkand possibly Arabellas very originsbegin 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 (19932001), the former Democratic Governor of Arizona (19781987) 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 Babbitts legal counsel team, clerked for the liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun (author of the Courts 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 McUsics predecessor at the Wyss Foundation, John Leshy. Leshyan ex-staffer from Carters Department of the Interior and Natural Resources Defense Council lawyerwas solicitor general to Babbitts Interior (19932001), which wouldve made him McUsics 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. Leshya professor of real property law at the University of California, Hastings, since 2001co-chaired President Obamas transition team for the Department of the Interior in 2009.
Although Kessler didnt 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 funds creation. In fact, Wyss could be described as the progenitor of the Arabella network. His foundations 2007 grant accounted for 55 percent of New Venture Funds revenues for that year.
At least one Wyss Foundation staffer, Kyle Herrig, jumped ship to Arabella. Herrig has ostensibly been on the New Venture Funds 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 Trumps 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 wouldnt 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 wont be the last time well hear it.
Hayden Ludwig is a senior investigative researcher for the Capital Research Center.