He’s been dubbed “the new George Soros” (did we really need an updated model?) as increased public attention on Swiss billionaire philanthropist Harsjörg Wyss has begged comparison with the mega-donor Hungarian ex-pat, breaking Soros’s monopoly on being the bête noire of American conservatives. Wyss, like Soros before him, has earned this moniker due to the staggering amount of cash he pours into nonprofits determined to influence American politics and campaigns
The increased attention comes not only from conservatives: journalists and scholars of philanthropy are taking note of the murky ways that the massive “dark money” contributions by Wyss—as well as other progressive billionaires—have distorted, manipulated, and rejiggered the supposed no-politics-here world of American charities.
And with charges recently filed against Wyss in a federal court, maybe the legal system will take notice too (who knows . . . it might even take action).
Like Soros, notorious for his multi-million-dollar expenditures to elect, for example, soft-on-crime district attorneys in major American cities, the recipients of Wyss’s largesse are both individual candidates and that panoply of politicized nonprofits—such as Priorities USA, Berger Action Fund, Sixteen Thirty Fund, the Hub Project, and Center for American Progress—operating in the opaque waters of campaigns and elections, where the missions of 501(c)3s and 501(c)4s mix and mingle in a brackish stew.
Wyss has long been a philanthropist, with his main entity, the Wyss Foundation, holding assets over $2 billion. And he has long been a man of the left, with his key interests being biological engineering, national parks, and the environment (he has made a $1 billion commitment to green causes). Well, that, and American politics.
Whether he is an actual American is something Wyss—a Wyoming resident—and his associates have refused to directly answer, lending to the Soros comparisons, and providing the grounds for a possible legal rebuke. Born in Bern, Switzerland in 1935, Wyss graduated from Harvard Business School in the mid-1960s and worked in various fields and nations until 1977—when he founded the medical-device company, Synthes USA, which he sold in 2012 to Johnson & Johnson for nearly $20 billion.
His public notoriety was supersized in 2021, when the New York Times profiled the Swiss tycoon for his quiet but emerging role as “an influential force among Democrats”:
Newly obtained tax filings show that two of Mr. Wyss’s 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. . .
Mr. Wyss’s 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, Mr. Wyss’s organizations also directly donated tens of millions of dollars since 2016 to groups that opposed former President Donald J. Trump and promoted Democrats and their causes.
The alignment of massive contributions—their clouded destinations and tax-status permissibility—and Wyss’s citizenship suspicions prompted Americans for Public Trust, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization bringing actions to halt corrupt campaign spending, to file a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission “seeking an immediate investigation and enforcement action against Hansjörg Wyss, Wyss Foundation,” and other alleged “dark money” entities for a slew of reasons, including
Mr. Wyss indirectly funded federal electoral advocacy through his nonprofit organizations, the Wyss Foundation and the Berger Action Fund. The intended recipient of these funds was ultimately a variety of organizations whose primary purpose is to engage in electoral advocacy, including Sixteen Thirty Fund, New Venture Fund, the Hub Project, Change Now, and affiliated groups. . .
Mr. Wyss apparently made illegal direct federal campaign contributions during and before 2003 before recent information casting doubt on his citizenship came to light in violation of 52 U.S.C. § 30121 and 11 C.F.R. § 110.20. Since that time, he has made indirect contributions and expenditures by means of an intricate network of organizations in a scheme to obscure his role as the source of these funds.
The complaint targeted the fact that Wyss remains a “foreign national,” which has ramifications: Because he is neither a citizen nor a “lawful permanent resident” of the U.S., Wyss is banned—by the 1966 federal statute—from making direct and indirect political contributions. (Additionally, Wyss seems not to have a green card, an immigration status that would allow him to make legal campaign donations.)
The FEC’s own regulations emphatically state blanket restrictions on campaign activity by foreign nationals.
But laws and regulations seem to have mattered little to the leftist billionaire. In 2016 the Daily Caller published an exposé of Wyss’s long history of likely illegal campaign funding: recipients of direct contributions have included U.S. Senator Richard Durbin and former Congressmen Jay Inslee and Mark Udall.
That piece also reported on remarks—from a 2014 speech in his hometown of Bern, Switzerland—in which Wyss proudly stated “I only have a Swiss passport as a proof of identity. No Green Card. No American passport. So here I stand, as a true Swiss, in my homeland.”
But Wyss’s activities remained unperturbed—that is, until the Times’ 2021 in-depth article broke. APT filed its formal complaint with the FEC mere days after its publication.
Unsurprisingly, the complaint has been met with a year’s worth of resounding bureaucratic silence.
The FEC’s failure to respond, never mind to act, has prompted the watchdog outfit to take on the federal agency directly. This April, APT sued the FEC, claiming “unlawful agency delay,” and demanding the federal courts compel the FEC to act on APT’s initial demand for an investigation of Wyss’s political giving and his citizenship status.
APT executive director Caitlin Sutherland stated that the central cause for concern is the likelihood of “foreign money in our elections,” with Wyss “funneling hundreds of millions of dollars through the Arabella Advisors network to benefit liberal and left-wing causes. Until the FEC takes action, we won’t know the full extent of his foreign interference in our electoral process.”
The federal suit described the ways—reminiscent of some three-card monte scam—by which Wyss’s boodle has been routed through nonprofits to influence elections:
The facts are straightforward: Mr. Wyss contributes tens of millions of dollars to two nonprofit organizations that he established, the Wyss Foundation and the Berger Action Fund, Inc. Those entities then transfer the funds contributed by Mr. Wyss to two other nonprofit organizations that are not outwardly affiliated with Mr. Wyss, the New Venture Fund and the Sixteen Thirty Fund. Finally, New Venture Fund and Sixteen Thirty Fund use these contributions to fund the political advocacy of “The Hub Project,” which is not a stand-alone entity but a trademark registered to the New Venture Fund that operates its own Super PAC, Change Now. By operating through this network of nonprofits, Mr. Wyss is able to conceal his prohibited contributions. By conducting their political spending under a different (trademarked) name, the New Venture Fund and Sixteen Thirty Fund are able to conceal the true extent of their political activity and avoid registering as political committees with the FEC, a step which would require the public disclosure of their donors.
As reported by Real Clear Politics, “A spokesperson for the Wyss Foundation and Berger Action Fund . . . declined to speak to the question of [Wyss’s] citizenship or the nature of his political spending other than to say that both organizations ‘expressly prohibit their grant recipients from using grant funds to support or oppose political candidates or parties.’”
To date, there has been no response to APT’s initial complaint or subsequent suit from the FEC or the federal court.
(And all this time you thought official Washington was sincerely worried about foreign influence in American elections!)
A worthwhile discussion of the case, of Wyss’s history of political giving, and of the troubling and contrived uses of nonprofits for political activity—with Sutherland and reporters from Real Clear Politics and The Hill—can be viewed here.