From 2018 to the present, a powerful, out-of-state group played a huge role in influencing Maine elections using a kind of shell game to deploy resources to left-of-center causes. Arabella Advisors presides over a shadowy network of at least five separate “dark money” funds, all of which contributed to Maine entities during this period to the tune of at least $15 million, and probably more.
What is “dark money” anyway? In 2010, the Sunlight Foundation coined the politically correct term to describe funds that go into elections without being specifically designated to one candidate or party. In Buckley v. Valeo, a 1976 Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, the court designated “eight magic words” to define a political contribution, but designations outside those words – say for issue advocacy – is where “dark money” plays its role.
I first learned of Arabella Advisors in 2005, around the time Eric Kessler set it up. Kessler had been the National Democratic Institute’s country representative in Kazakhstan, where I had also worked and, like I was at the time, he was married to a Kazakh. As he explained it to me then, Arabella was set up to help ultra high net worth individuals give away their money to “good” causes. At the time, I wrote it off to just another example of the very rich virtue-signaling one another.
Since then, Arabella has grown into one of the major powerhouses for financing liberal causes that overlaps and in some instances succeeds and exceeds the giving of George Soros. Drawing its own funding from like-minded billionaires, Arabella supports groups across the spectrum of the modern Democratic Party.
According to the Capital Research Group, in 2021 it was a $1.6 billion network of affiliated funds that support the same causes nationally, and even globally. It blends political advocacy and charitable giving into an almost indistinguishable stew. That, together with the general assumption that they’re “the good guys,” has deterred most journalists from looking too closely at their activities.
In sheer size, Arabella-affiliated funds dropped the most money into Maine in the run-up to Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) 2020 re-election. From 2019-20, its funds funneled $10 million to a group called “Maine Momentum,” whose scant online presence claims it is dedicated to “expanding economic opportunity” – for political consultants in Maine, anyway.
One of the questions Influence Watch, an independent watchdog group, has examined of Arabella is potential funding of “fake” groups.
But beneath the big, eye-catching, seven figure contributions, Arabella funds have systematically supported other groups prominent in Maine leftist ecosphere. For instance, in the period from 2018 to 2021, the Maine People’s Alliance and its Maine Peoples’ Resource Center received about $6.4 million, $3.5 million of which in a lump sum in 2021. Because federal tax forms for 2022 are not yet available, the actual total is undoubtedly higher still.
“We get money into the hands of leaders doing critical organizing and activism for justice,” declares the website of the group Maine Initiatives. Arabella funds provided Maine Initiatives with over $700,000 over the last several years.
Other Maine groups that have received Arabella funding during this period include the Maine AFL-CIO, Mainers for Working Families, Maine Equal Justice, the Maine Women’s’ Lobby, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the Mabel Wadsworth Womens’ Health Center, and Maine Gun Safety.
Nationwide, Arabella funds give to a constellation of similarly-focused groups in practically every state. Globally, they hand out tranches of funding for “capacity building” in every region, suggesting they are supporting some kind of programming similar to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grants, though it’s difficult to read through the vague descriptions. Kessler had worked as a USAID grantee, as had I, so he is familiar with its methodology.
Some of Arabella’s spending is hard to stretch to meet the idea of charity. For example, Arabella funds “granted” Perkins Coie, the law-firm that represented Hillary for America, over $10 million in recent years. This period overlaps with the firms legal defense of Michael Sussman, the Clintonista lawyer charged with lying to the FBI amid Special Counsel John Durham’s investigation of “Russia-gate” (he was acquitted by a DC jury that found while he may have lied, his lies were not important).
One of the charities with which Arabella co-mingled funds is the David and Lucille Packard Foundation – a major funder of the Monterey Aquarium and Seafood Watch, which last year “red-listed” the Maine lobster as non-sustainable. Another is the Susan Buffett Foundation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is Arabella’s largest funder, with almost half a billion in contributions. Also among its funders is a controversial Swiss billionaire named Hansjorg Wyss, who believes it’s his mission to attack Republican and promote Democrats, the New York Times reported.
Even left-of-center The Atlantic took a skeptical view of Arabella’s practices of moving money between its respective funds in a 2021 piece on what it called “the group you’ve never heard of.” It credits Arabella with helping the Democrats edge out Republicans in funding during the 2020 cycle.
There is a curious model for the kind of fundraising and contributions that Arabella embraces. It is the “obschak” which in Russian loosely means ‘common fund.’ One of the reasons Vladimir Putin never shows up on the Forbes’ list of billionaires is because experts have speculated his money is likely held in such a fund, common among Russian organized crime.
Of course this would never have crossed Eric’s mind…