WASHINGTON — He is not as well known as wealthy liberal patrons like George Soros or Tom Steyer. His political activism is channeled through a daisy chain of opaque organizations that mask the ultimate recipients of his money. But Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss has quietly become one of the most important donors to left-leaning advocacy groups and an increasingly influential force among Democrats.
Newly obtained tax filings show that two of Wyss’ organizations, a foundation and a nonprofit fund, donated $208 million from 2016 through early last year to three other nonprofit funds that doled out money to a wide array of groups that backed progressive causes and helped Democrats in their efforts to win the White House and control of Congress last year.
Wyss’ representatives say his organizations’ money is not being spent on political campaigning. But documents and interviews show that the entities have come to play a prominent role in financing the political infrastructure that supports Democrats and their issues.
While most of his operation’s recent politically oriented giving was channeled through the three nonprofit funds, Wyss’ organizations also directly donated tens of millions of dollars since 2016 to groups that opposed former President Donald Trump and promoted Democrats and their causes.
Beneficiaries of his organizations’ direct giving included prominent groups such as the Center for American Progress and Priorities USA, as well as organizations that ran voter registration and mobilization campaigns to increase Democratic turnout, built media outlets accused of slanting the news to favor Democrats and sought to block Trump’s nominees, prove he colluded with Russia and push for his impeachment.
Several officials from organizations started by Wyss and his team worked on the Biden transition or joined the administration, and on environmental policy in particular, Wyss’ agenda appears to align with President Joe Biden’s.
Wyss’ growing political influence attracted attention after he emerged last month as a leading bidder for the Tribune Publishing newspaper chain. Wyss later dropped out of the bidding for the papers.
Born in Switzerland and living in Wyoming, he has not disclosed publicly whether he holds citizenship or permanent residency in the United States. Foreign nationals without permanent residency are barred from donating directly to federal political candidates or political action committees, but not from giving to groups that seek to influence public policy — a legal distinction often lost on voters targeted by such groups.
Wyss’ role as a donor is coming to light even as congressional Democrats, with support from Biden, are pushing legislation intended to rein in so-called dark money spending that could restrict some of the groups financed by Wyss’ organizations.
This type of spending — which is usually channeled through nonprofit groups that do not have to disclose much information about their finances, including their donors — was embraced by conservatives after campaign spending restrictions were loosened by regulatory changes and court rulings, most notably the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case.
While progressives and election watchdogs denounced the developments as bestowing too much power to wealthy interests, Democratic donors and operatives increasingly made use of dark money. During the 2020 election cycle, groups aligned with Democrats spent more than $514 million in such funds, compared with about $200 million spent by groups aligned with Republicans, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Some of the groups financed by Wyss’ organizations played a key role in that shift, though the relatively limited disclosure requirements for these types of groups make it impossible to definitively conclude how they spent funds from the Wyss entities.
Wyss and his advisers have honed a “strategic, evidence-based, metrics-driven and results-oriented approach to building political infrastructure,” said Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist.
Stein, who founded the influential Democracy Alliance club of major liberal donors in 2005 and recruited Wyss to join, added that “unlike most wealthy political donors on the right and left,” Wyss and his team “know how to create measurable, sustainable impact.”
Wyss, 85, was born in Bern, first visited the United States as an exchange student in 1958, and became enchanted with America’s national parks and public lands. After becoming wealthy while helping lead the Switzerland-based medical device manufacturer Synthes, he began donating his fortune through a network of nonprofit organizations to promote conservation, environmental causes and other issues.
The organizations gradually increased their donations to other causes backed by Democrats, including abortion rights and minimum wage increases, and eventually to groups more directly involved in partisan political debates, particularly after Trump’s election.
Asked about the shift, Howard H. Stevenson, who has been close to Wyss since the two were classmates at Harvard Business School in the 1960s, pointed to Trump’s sharp reduction to the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. One of Wyss’ foundations had teamed with five other foundations to commit $1.5 million to preserving the monument. (The Biden administration is now reviewing Trump’s policy on Bear Ears, which was broadly opposed by Democrats and conservation groups.)
“You don’t have to look at people destroying your work to say maybe you want to try and figure out how you respond in the most effective way,” said Stevenson, who is an adviser to one of Wyss’ foundations and whose son sits on the board of another Wyss organization.
Wyss did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, and most of the people interviewed either declined to discuss him or requested anonymity to do so.
Price Floyd, a spokesperson for two of Wyss’ operations — the Wyss Foundation and Berger Action Fund, both of which are based in Washington — pushed back on suggestions that his giving was intended to help the Democratic Party, suggesting that his focus was on issues important to him.
He described Wyss in a statement as “a successful businessman turned philanthropist who has pledged over a billion dollars to conserve nature and also sought to bolster social welfare programs in the United States.”
The Wyss Foundation, which is housed in a stately 19th-century Georgian Revival mansion in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, had assets of more than $2 billion at the end of 2019, according to its most recent tax filing.
It is registered under a section of the tax code that prohibits it from spending money to expressly support partisan political campaigns.
But it can, and does, donate to groups that seek to influence the political debate in a manner that aligns with Democrats and their agenda, including the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank where Wyss sits on the board. The organization was started by John D. Podesta, a top White House aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. A foundation that Wyss led as chairman and that has since merged with the Wyss Foundation paid Podesta as an adviser, and the two men remained close, according to associates.
The Berger Action Fund, which shares facilities and staff with the Wyss Foundation, had assets of nearly $65 million at the end of March 2020, according to its most recent tax filing. The fund is registered under a section of the tax code that allows it to spend money supporting and opposing candidates, or to donate to groups that do.
Floyd said Berger Action had its own policy barring “any of its funding from being used to support or oppose political candidates or electoral activities.”
Because the recipients of funds from Wyss’ organizations do not have to disclose many details about their finances, including which donations are used for which projects, it is not clear how they have used the money originating from Wyss’ operation. But some of the groups funded by Berger Action helped pay for campaign ads helping Democrats and attacking Republicans including Trump, or gave to other groups that did.
The voluntary restriction is potentially notable, given questions about Wyss’ citizenship.
While Wyss donated nearly $70,000 to Democratic congressional candidates and left-leaning political action committees from 1990 to 2003, he does not appear to have made any such donations to federal candidates or PACs since.
Wyss’ representatives provided the tax filings documenting the expansion of recent giving to politically oriented groups only after requests from a lawyer for The New York Times, and after Wyss dropped his bid for Tribune Publishing. Such filings are legally required to be made public upon request.
The tax filings show that his organizations’ biggest grants in recent years went to entities that mostly dispense funds to other groups, and sometimes act as incubators for new outfits intended partly to serve functions seen as lacking on the left.
Between the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2020, the Berger Action Fund donated more than $135 million to the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which has become among the leading dark money spenders on the left, filings from the IRS and Federal Election Commission show.
One of the nonprofit groups managed by a for-profit consulting firm called Arabella Advisors, Sixteen Thirty donated more than $63 million to super PACs backing Democrats or opposing Republicans in 2020, including the pro-Biden groups Priorities USA Action and Unite the Country and the scandal-plagued anti-Trump group Lincoln Project, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Another nonprofit managed by Arabella, the New Venture Fund, which is set up under a section of the tax code barring it from partisan political spending, received more than $27.6 million from the Wyss Foundation from 2016 through 2019.
Tax filings by the Sixteen Thirty Fund and New Venture Fund do not indicate how they spent the funds from Wyss’ groups, nor do tax filings submitted by the Sacramento-based Fund for a Better Future, which passes money from donors to groups that push to shape the political process in a way that helps Democrats. The Fund for a Better Future has received the majority of its funding — nearly $45.2 million between the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2020 — from the Berger Action Fund.
The Sixteen Thirty Fund, New Venture Fund and Fund for a Better Future did not answer questions about how they spent funds from Wyss’ organizations, except to say that the money did not go to partisan campaign efforts.
Sixteen Thirty and New Venture have helped create and fund dozens of groups, including some that worked to block Trump’s nominees and push progressive appointments by Biden.
Among the groups under the umbrella of Sixteen Thirty and New Venture is the Hub Project, which was started by Wyss’ philanthropic network in 2015 as a sort of incubator for groups backing Democrats and their causes, as first reported by The Times. It created more than a dozen groups with anodyne-sounding names that planned to spend $30 million attacking Republican congressional candidates before the 2018 election.
In response to questions about donations being passed through to other organizations, Floyd said the board of the Berger Action Fund has begun in recent years placing “a greater emphasis on supporting other nonprofit organizations or grant-making organizations, like the Sixteen Thirty Fund, that help identify, support and grow promising public interest projects.”
Several officials from the Hub Project were hired by the Biden administration, including Rosemary Enobakhare, a former Environmental Protection Agency official in the Obama administration who returned to the agency under Biden; Maju Varghese as director of the White House Military Office; and Janelle Jones as chief economist for the Labor Department.
Molly McUsic — president of the Wyss Foundation and the Berger Action Fund, and a former board member of the Fund for a Better Future and the Sixteen Thirty Fund — was a member of the Biden transition team that reviewed Interior Department policies and personnel.