Mainers learned this week that left-wing mega donor Johann Georg Wyss, known as Hansjörg Wyss, bankrolled a national nonprofit’s purchase of five daily news papers in Maine, including the Portland Press Herald.
At the same time, a Wyss-funded nonprofit, States Newsroom, has launched a new online outlet in Maine, the Maine Morning Star.
Wyss is hardly a newcomer to influencing Maine politics — even if he is, as a Swiss foreign national, prohibited under federal law from voting in America or donating to American political campaigns.
Through his $2.7 billion Wyss Foundation, his $232 million Berger Action Fund, the Democracy Alliance’s Democracy Fund, and the Arabella Advisors network of dark money, Wyss has joined other progressive billionaires like George Soros, S. Donald Sussman, and Pierre Omidyar in financing Democratic politicians and progressive activists, in Maine and nationally.
Most Mainers, however, haven’t the foggiest idea who Wyss (Pronounced VEES) is despite the fact that he holds more sway over American and Maine politics than most voters and most elected officials.
So who is this mysterious billionaire with such a keen interest in sculpting the news Mainers consume and the policies we live under?
Meet Hansjorg Wyss
Hansjörg Wyss joined the Switzerland-based medical device company Synthes after a fortuitous flight placed him in conversation with one of the surgeons who had founded the company. An airplane salesman at the time, Wyss had attended Harvard Business School. The chance meeting opened the door for him to start Synthes USA. Wyss would eventually become CEO of the whole company and spend the next three decades building a medical device empire, by hook or by crook.
Wyss resigned as CEO of Synthes in 2007, but he remained involved as Chairman until the company was sold to Johnson & Johnson in 2012 for $20 billion, one of Johnson & Johnson’s largest-ever acquisitions. At the time, Wyss and his family owned half of the company. Forbes estimates his net worth at $5.1 billion.
Wyss’ transformation from Swiss businessman to American political titan has not been without scandal. Three years before Wyss offloaded his company, the U.S. Justice Department accused Synthes and its subsidiary, Norian Corporation, of conducting illegal experiments on unknowing human subjects. At least five patients who were subjected to the illegal procedures at Synthes direction died.
The illegal procedures involved two products called Norian XR and Norian SRS, which were bone cements. Synthes and Norian had clearance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market these products for certain orthopedic uses, but not for treating vertebral compression fractures of the spine. Laboratory tests had shown that the bone cement, while useful in some applications, could quickly clot blood and cause potentially fatal complications. For these reasons, the FDA explicitly barred Synthes from trials that involved spinal fractures.
Despite lacking FDA approval for this specific use, the company carried out unauthorized clinical trials between 2002 and 2004. Synthes had forged close relationships with surgeons by funding educational trips where they could learn how to use Norian, including in the spine. Surgeons were trained and encouraged by the company to use the bone cement products for spinal surgeries. The subjects of those experimental treatments were never informed that the procedures had been prohibited by the FDA, and surgeons were often kept in the dark.
The first spinal test subject for Norian’s bone cement died from the procedure on January 28, 2003. Eight months later, a second patient died under similar circumstances. Four months later, a third died. On all three occasions, according to the Justice Department, a Synthes sales rep was in the operating room watching. Despite the three deaths, Synthes never took steps to withdraw Norian products from the market or to alert the roughly 50 surgeons it had trained on the use of Norian products for spinal fractures.
The U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia charged Synthes and Norian in 2009 with 52 felony and 44 misdemeanor counts related to the unauthorized clinical trials. The charges included conducting unauthorized clinical trials, making false statements to the FDA, and shipping adulterated and misbranded products in interstate commerce.
The U.S. Attorney described an elaborate conspiracy whereby Synthes employees intentionally flouted federal rules and medical ethics in order to gain approval for a lucrative application of their bone cement. Knowing the fatal risks, the company conducted the illegal experiments anyways, never informing patients that they were undergoing experimental and FDA-banned treatments. Following the deaths, company executives took steps to conceal what had happened, including lying to FDA officials.
In 2010, Norian Corporation pleaded guilty to the charges and agreed to pay a $22.5 million fine. Synthes, meanwhile, also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, agreed to divest Norian, and agreed to pay a $669,800 fine. Although it is rare for corporate executives to face prison time for corporate misconduct, the conduct in this case was so egregious that four top executives were held criminally responsible, receiving prison sentences.
Michael D. Huggins, the president of Synthes North America, was sentenced to nine months in prison; Thomas B. Higgins, the Senior Vice President of Synthes’ Spine Division, was sentenced to nine months in prison; Richard E. Bohner, the vice president of operations, received an eight-month prison sentence; and John J. Walsh, the director of regulatory and clinical affairs for Synthes Spine, was sentenced to five months in prison. All four were charged under the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine. Prior to the Synthes case, the doctrine had not been used to charge such a crime.
At the time, there was speculation as to how Wyss could escape charges while four top executives faced jail time. During the trial, the Justice Department presented evidence that showed Wyss was closely involved with the Norian trials. It emerged that top Synthes employees brought their concerns about the experiments directly to Wyss. One subsequently saw their contract cancelled. Another dropped their concern after a one-on-one meeting with Wyss.
The grand jury in the Synthes case referred to “Person #7” as a major shareholder and chief executive officer of the company from 2001 to 2004, when the experiments occurred. That description only fits Wyss. According to the indictment, Person #7 decided in 2001 that the company should skip costly clinical trials demanded by the FDA for the Norian products to be used on spinal injuries. Instead, Person #7 directed the company to facilitate up to 80 of the prohibited procedures and publish the results as a way of popularizing the off-label use of the Norian bone cement.
A 2012 investigation by CNN, based on interviews with surgeons, court transcripts, and company documents, confirmed that Wyss and Synthes leadership disregarded multiple warnings that it was breaking the rules and ignored warnings from scientists that the Norian product could cause lethal blood clots. The report also highlighted testimony from former employers that drew an even brighter line connecting Wyss and the Norian trials. Former employees of Wyss’ described how he would micromanage the minutiae of the company’s affairs, including the brand of toilet paper provided in restrooms or the shape of plates in the company cafeteria.
The implication being: If Wyss was this involved with toilet paper, how was he not involved with a potentially billion dollar application of the Norian technology?
Despite the information that emerged from the trial, the Obama Justice Department somehow never brought charges against the progressive billionaire who would go on to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to progressive political activists.
In 2016, Citizens United submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Justice Department seeking documents that would shed light on why Wyss was never charged.
The Justice Department denied the request on the basis that it would infringe on Wyss’ privacy.
Sexual Abuse Allegations
Wyss has also faced allegations of sexual assault from a former employee.
In 2015, the Daily Caller News Foundation reported that Wyss had entered a seven-figure settlement agreement with a woman who claimed to have endured repeated sexual abuse by Wyss.
Wyss had just made a $5 million commitment to a Clinton Foundation project aimed at “Women’s Empowerment,” but that didn’t stop him from fighting to keep allegations that he harassed and sexually abused a former female employee out of public view.
The allegations revolved around a May 15, 2013 settlement Wyss agreed to with a former employee, Jacqueline Long.
Wyss agreed to pay Long $1.5 million in return for her silence regarding sexual abuse she claimed to have suffered while working for the HJW Foundation, a now-dissolved forerunner to the Wyss Foundation.
In Sept. 2014, Long filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that Wyss enticed her to move to Colorado and enter a “personal” relationship with him before reneging on the deal. According to Long’s complaint, she agreed to move out to Colorado and “maintain a personal relationship” with Wyss in exchange for the house.
That complaint was ultimately dismissed.
Long first spoke publicly about her relationship with Wyss in 2015 in an exclusive interview with the Daily Caller News Foundation.
From DCNF‘s Richard Pollock:
Hansjorg Wyss, a generous donor to major liberal groups like the Center for American Progress and longtime financial patron of Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta, also launched a “Women’s Equality Program” at his $2.1 billion Wyss Foundation. His net worth is estimated at $6.1 billion.
At issue in the federal district court case was a $1.5 million settlement of a suit brought by Jacqueline Long, a Colorado woman who charged that Wyss brutally and sexually abused her for years while serving as his employee.
Long, who had worked as a development officer at the HJW Foundation, told DCNF that Wyss would fund grants to nonprofits working with at-risk youth and victims of sex trafficking in return for sexual favors from her.
“He was not interested in these programs,” Long told DCNF. “He was only doing it in reward for my having sex with him. It was a tool for leverage.”
Wyss’ attorneys argued in court that agreements between he and Long needed to remain private, casting the conflict as a mutual relationship between consenting adults that ended badly.
“The agreement at issue are (sic) both highly confidential and relate to extremely private matters,” his attorneys said, according to DCNF.
Long filed a police report with the Morris Township Police Department in New Jersey on April 3, 2011, DCNF reported.
Long, in the police report, alleged that Wyss brutally sexually assaulted her at the Governor Morris Hotel when she rebuffed his advances.
“He sexually assaulted me – me screaming no (to) stop it,” she wrote in her own hand writing in a statement to police that was obtained by DCNF.
“I thought for sure he was going to kill me,” Long told DCNF, adding that Wyss penetrated vaginally her without her consent using a sex toy.
After Long went public with her story in DCNF, Wyss sought to punish Long for violating the terms of her settlement agreement.
On June 17, 2015, Wyss’ attorneys filed a petition for contempt with the Philadelphia County’s Court of Common Pleas. That petition was successful, and Long was ordered to pay back the $1.5 million settlement plus attorneys’ fees. If she could not, Wyss’ attorneys asked that a warrant be issued for arrest.
Wyss also threatened the Daily Caller News Foundation in a June 9 letter, just one day after Pollock’s story appeared.
Wyss, thorough his attorney, demanded a retraction of the story, claimed it contained “many blatant falsehoods”, and threatened to sue the nonprofit news outlet if it did not comply his with his demands.
The DCNF responded by asking Wyss’ attorney to identify any falsehoods in the story, but Wyss’ attorney, Carolyn P. Short, failed to identify even one error in the report.
The Swiss foreign national’s threat to sue an American journalist into silence for reporting on the sexual abuse allegations never materialized.
American Campaign Finance Violations
Though he has lived in America for decades and sought to influence American politics and society, Wyss has never obtained permanent legal status in the U.S. and has sought to remain in the shadows. On several occasions, he has bragged in European press about his ability to influence American politics at the highest levels while keeping his name out of the newspapers.
As a Swiss foreign national who never obtained U.S. citizenship or green card, Wyss is not legally allowed to contribute to the campaigns of American political candidates. Such contributions from foreign nationals have been strictly forbidden since 1966.
But that hasn’t stopped Wyss.
In 2016, the Daily Caller revealed that Wyss had made $41,000 in illegal donations to the campaigns of seven congressional candidates and four political committees from 1998 to 2003. State campaign records also showed Wyss donated tens of thousands of dollars to politicians in Colorado and New Mexico. The Daily Caller reported at the time that Wyss was an E-2 business visa holder, not a permanent resident, and Wyss has never claimed otherwise. The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) never took any enforcement action against the liberal billionaire.
Since 2016, Wyss has found a new work around to exercise influence over American politics. Namely, 501(c)3s, 501(c)4s, and, more recently, underwriting left-wing media outlets, like the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Morning Star, through the States Newsroom and the National Trust for Local News.
Wyss’ primary vehicles for influencing American politics and media — at least, the ones the public knows about — are his Wyss Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and the Berger Action Fund (formerly known as Wyss Action Fund), which is a 501(c)4. Those two organizations work in conjunction with the Arabella Advisors network of funds and the Democracy Fund to direct the flow of vast amounts of money into center-left groups at the national, state, and local level.
In 2021, the New York Times reported that Wyss had donated $208 million to groups that worked directly to advance progressive policies and get Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, elected.
From the Times:
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 the 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 Mr. Wyss’s foundations donated $208 million from 2016 through early last year to three 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 foundations’ money is not being spent on political campaigning. But documents and interviews show that his foundations have come to play a prominent role in financing the political infrastructure that supports Democrats and their issues.
Wyss directed most of his spending to the Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank founded by former Clinton and Obama aide John D. Podesta, and Priorities USA, a massive Democrat super PAC that supported Biden’s 2020 election. The Times reported that Wyss-funded organizations have also run “voter registration and mobilization campaigns to increase Democratic turnout, built media outlets accused of slanting the news to favor Democrats and sought to block Mr. Trump’s nominees, prove he colluded with Russia and push for his impeachment.”
Although Wyss, as a foreign national, is not legally allowed to give money to U.S. candidates or campaign committees, the Arabella groups that he has donated to can give money to candidates. The Sixteen Thirty Fund, to which Wyss has given at least $135 million, distributed $63 million to political action committees to attack Republicans, boost Democrats, and block former President Donald Trump’s nominees, including his nominees for the Supreme Court. Groups that received money from the Sixteen Thirty Fund include the pro-Biden “Unite the Country” PAC and the scandal-prone anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
Despite the flow of money from Wyss into groups that explicitly support or oppose candidates, Wyss has always maintained that his financial support is not about influencing elections.
The Blick Interview
In a rare Oct. 15, 2021 interview with the German-language Swiss publication Blick, Wyss offered perhaps his most expansive public comments about modern politics, COVID-19, and his relationship with America.
Blick described Wyss as having “played a significant role in Joe Biden’s election victory” — a charge Wyss did not deny.
In that story, Wyss called the Times’ reporting on the apparent loophole he found in American campaign finance laws as “bullshit,” claiming that the Times’ editor was a “well-known conservative editor.”
Wyss also claimed in that interview that he told everyone at the Wyss Foundation that they would be fired if they did not get the COVID-19 vaccination, the second documented attempt by an entity under his control to coerce individuals to undergo an experimental medical procedure. He never had to fire anyone, he said, “because I just don’t hire the stupidest people.”
According to Wyss, the reason so many young people had declined to get vaccinated wasn’t because the virus rarely had severe effects on people under 40. Instead, Wyss attributed this to the “sheer laziness” of young Americans and some “conspiracy theorists” whose skepticism of the vaccine was “like a religion.”
Vaccine passports were, in Wyss’ view, a “very good measure,” and anyone who opposed vaccine certificates and compulsory vaccination in his home country of Switzerland suffered, he said, from a “lack of intelligence.”
Asked what he thought was Switzerland’s biggest problem, Wyss said “growth of population,” adding that “Switzerland cannot be competitive with 11 million inhabitants.” (Switzerland’s population had grown from about 7.2 million to 8.7 million in 2020, so Wyss’ comments here refer to limiting population growth, not declining birth rates.)
Wyss clarified to Blick that he wasn’t interested in stopping immigration, as simply stopping immigration was “too simple a slogan” and immigration had brought many scientists to Switzerland.
“Population growth is a global problem,” Wyss said. “Switzerland cannot solve this alone.”
The Blick interview then turns to American politics. At that point, Wyss rather bluntly lays out the loophole that he uses to impose his politics and values on American society.
Wyss is asked whether he’s been thanked by President Joe Biden yet for helping Democrats win in the 2020 elections. Here’s that exchange from the Blick interview, translated from German by Google Translate, with the reporters questions in bold:
In America you are close to the Democrats. Has Joe Biden actually thanked you yet?
For what reason?
The New York Times reported in May that you helped the Democrats win Congress and the White House with donations.
Bullshit. This is a well-known conservative editor who repeatedly writes such factless articles. I have not donated a cent to any candidate in the 2020 US elections. Firstly, I’m not allowed to, secondly, I don’t want to.
No direct donations. But you support the causes of left-wing Democrats through your charitable organizations, right?
We only support independent organizations that organize themselves politically. However, we are not allowed to lobby ourselves because our foundations are tax-free.
So indirect lobbying for Joe Biden and Co.
I adhere to the applicable laws. We have internal and external lawyers who always check this. It’s just that the goals of my foundations tend to be more shared by Democrats than by Republicans.
That comment confirms that Wyss is not a U.S. citizen and is legally barred from donating to candidates or PACs. But his Trumpian assertion that the Times report is fake news is belied by financial records available at the time and since that show the flow of money from his groups to Arabella funds and into political campaigns. (Although it’s not clear who the conservative New York Times editor is, the lead byline on the Times’ story belongs to Ken Vogel, who was revealed in leaked DNC emails to have shared advanced copies of his Politico stories with a DNC official.)
Although Wyss denies that his political spending violates any U.S. laws, he appears to admit that he’s using nonprofit groups in order to support political activism that conforms with his political views, which include, among other things, limiting human population, land conservation, abortion, and forced vaccination. In this way, Wyss appears to have found a loophole in America’s laws against foreigners donating to elections.
Wyss’ influence has come under increasing scrutiny as the American press and conservative activists have learned more about the scope of his financial support for left-wing groups. According to an eight-page report on Wyss released by Americans for Public Trust, Wyss has spent more than $475 million to influence American politics using the nonprofit loophole.