Most Mainers have probably never heard of Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss.
The dark money groups influencing Maine politics would probably like to keep it that way.
That’s because Wyss is one of the top funders of left-wing advocacy groups across the country, and in Maine — groups that work hand-in-glove with Democratic Party candidates, operatives, and officeholders.
Although Wyss cannot contribute directly to candidates or political committees because he is a foreign national, he can donate to nonprofits, and those nonprofits do not have to report donors publicly.
Wyss’s contributions to progressive political groups were reported on Tuesday by the Associated Press:
“Newly available tax documents show that his giving through the Berger Action Fund, which describes itself as advocating for “solutions to some of our world’s biggest problems,” swelled in 2021 to $72 million, cementing Wyss’ status as a Democratic-aligned megadonor.
“Representatives for Wyss insist they comply with laws governing the giving of foreign nationals and have put in place strict policies limiting the use of donations to “issue advocacy” — not partisan electoral activities. But the fact that the money cannot be publicly traced highlights the difficulty of putting such assertions to the test.“
Wyss has a record of stretching campaign finance laws to support Democratic candidates. The AP reported that Wyss gave directly to candidates in the past, but the donations were so long ago that the statute of limitations has passed.
“Between 1990 and 2006, he donated $119,000 directly to candidates and political committees, as previously reported by The New York Times. Wyss has not addressed the contributions. The statute of limitations to bring any charges has long since passed and the Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, declined to take action against him.“
Billionaires, millionaires, corporate interest groups, and other nonprofits like the Berger Fund provide money to these pass-through organizations, often anonymously, and those organizations then redistribute the money to ground level advocacy groups.
By using the pass-through entities, wealthy people who want to influence politics can, in some cases, obscure the nature and extent of their giving. Those groups will sometimes even contribute money to each other or separate groups, which further obscures where the money is ultimately coming from or going.
According to a Maine Wire review of tax documents, campaign finance records, and publicly available reporting, both of those Wyss-funded groups have given considerable amounts of cash to advocacy groups that are very active in Maine politics.
THE SIXTEEN THIRTY FUND
According to AP, the Sixteen Thirty Fund has received $208 million from Wyss since 2016.
The Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), a progressive 501(c)4 dark money group, has historically not been required to disclose their donors under IRS rules.
However, the group has formed several Ballot Question Committees (BQC) in recent years. As part of Maine law, the opaque group is required to disclose their top five biggest funders. They must disclose the top donors, but not the amounts.
In two separate 2022 disclosure documents, MPA disclosed that the Sixteen Thirty Fund is one of its top five funders.
Contributions from Wyss flow through the Sixteen Thirty Fund and into organizations like Maine People’s Alliance, and the Maine People’s Alliance in turn supports left-wing candidates and causes.
In this way, Wyss can use his money to wield more influence over political outcomes in Maine — even though he’s a foreign national who can’t legally vote in Maine.
MPA has historically lobbied for far left policies that expand the scope and power of the government while increasing taxes.
For example, MPA lobbyist Adam Zuckerman has been actively lobbying Maine lawmakers in the current legislative session, according to lobbyist disclosures filed with the state.
In the group’s March lobbyist disclosure form, the group disclosed lobbying on LD 199, a bill to provide Medicaid to illegal aliens, and LD 738, a bill to create a new payroll tax that would fund paid family leave, along with various other proposals.
But MPA has also had success installing its employees in the Maine legislature.
Sen. Mike Tipping (D-Penobscot), for example, in addition to his work in the legislature, is a paid employee of the Maine People’s Alliance and its 501(c)3 sister organization, the Maine People’s Resource Center, according to his personal income disclosure.
That means money from a Swiss foreign national, who cannot legally contribute to American political candidates, is nonetheless flowing via a circuitous route through nonprofits and into the bank accounts of a Maine lawmaker and a lobbyist influencing Maine politics.
To put that differently: The guy in this video (Sen. Tipping) telling his colleagues in the legislature to raise taxes on Mainers is paid, in part, by a Swiss billionaire who pays no taxes in Maine.
(It’s worth pointing out: this is all perfectly legal under state and federal tax and campaign finance law, as well as rules from Maine’s Commission of Government Ethics and Election Practices).
The ballot question filings show that Maine People’s Alliance is also funded by the Omidyar Network, the Renew New England Alliance, Community Change Action, and People’s Action. Each of these groups are pass-through organizations, similar to Sixteen Thirty Fund, that allow donors to mix and obscure their contributions to political influence groups.
How much does all that dark money add up to?
In 2019, the Maine People’s Alliance disclosed to the IRS having received $1.86 million in contributions. In that same year, IRS records show the Maine People’s Resource Center collected receipts totaling $1.93 million, which means Zuckerman and Tipping’s employers that year raked in more than $3.75 million from undisclosed donors, including Wyss.
The most recent tax documents from Sixteen Thirty Fund (2019) show a contribution to MPA totaling $250,000.
In Maine, $3.75 million in dark money, or money now known to come from a Swiss foreign national, can go a long way.
To put that amount into perspective, the Maine Democratic State Committee raised just under $5 million for the 2022 election cycle.
That’s part of the reason why Maine has always been an attractive place for outside interest groups to run political experiments: we’re a cheap date.
The New Venture Fund, which is related to the Sixteen Thirty Fund, has reported contributions to Maine Equal Justice Partners (MEJP), Maine Initiatives, Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP), and MPRC in recent years.
Those groups together fund a constellation of left-wing activists that exert pressure on elected Democrats at the State House to vote in favor of progressive legislation.
Born in Bern, Switzerland in 1935, the 85-year-old Wyss attended Harvard and made his fortune in medical device manufacturing. In 2012, he reportedly sold his company, Synthes, to Johnson & Johnson for nearly $20 billion.