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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Who is the "Anonymous Donor" behind the Heartland Institute's Denialgate? Here's one possibility -- Chicago's Barre Seid of Trippe Manufacturing and Fiber Bond of Michigan City, IN, the same guy who stacked the board at Shimer College and tried to take it over

#OPERATIONPAPERSTORM Anonymous Suit & Rose - Black
Beware of invisible men bearing gifts.
The Valentine's Day exposure of key Heartland Institute internal documents, exposing (inter alia) a scheme to "dissuade teachers from teaching science", made national and international news.  The story has now been covered at length on DK andelsewhere.  
But throughout this story, a recurrent but unanswered question has been the identity ofthe "Anonymous Donor" who ponied up the support for Heartland's "science" "education" campaign.  
In this diary, I will make the case for one person whom I believe to be an extremely strong candidate for this role -- much stronger than alternative candidates like the Koch brothers:Chicago industrialist Barre Seid.  
(Seid has previously been featured right here on the Great Orange Satan for his known role in theattempted takeover of Chicago's resolutely independent Shimer College, and his extremely likely role in funding the Clarion Fund's Islamophobic "Obsession" campaign.)
(For the TLDR, click here.)
Who is Barre Seid?

This is the only known photo of
Barre Seid as an adult.
Barre Seid is a wealthy Chicago industrialist with a talent for staying just out of sight.  Companies he owns or controls include Chicago's Trippe Manufacturing (makers of Tripp Lite surge protectors, power supplies and related products) and Fiber Bond of Michigan City, IN.  Seid's net worth is unknown, but large.
Chiefly through the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation, Seid provides funding to a range of causes, including many quite unexceptionable ones.  His philanthropic choices show a particular interest in music and education, and in both cases it is likely that his enthusiasm is genuine; he was, for example, the founder and for some years the producer of Chamber Opera Chicago.  
the new UPS:  Tripp-Lite 1000VA ($90 at Costco)
One of many Trippe Manufacturing products.
Proceeds benefit only the finest wackadoodle causes.
But his politics ... oh, his politics.  Seid has been funding the fringe right wing since at least 1990, when his role as a conservative "angel"first attracted media attention, when he was found to be a principal donor behind the scandal-ridden campaign of Steve Baer.  (As far as I can determine, he hasn't spoken to a reporter since -- even calls about his philanthropic work have gone unanswered.)  He has continued to make some campaign contributions, mostly at the state or Congressional level, but for the most part it appears that he has chosen to pursue his political ends by other means -- means usually somewhere on the continuum between education and propaganda.  Seid's probable role in the Islamophobic Obsession video fits this pattern, as do his other investments in right-wing propaganda TV.  
Image Hosted by
Barre Seid (center) at age 14,
when the world was a simpler, blurrier place.
Seid's seemingly unlikely interest in tiny, iconoclastic Shimer College probably also had something to do with the fact that he himself was an early entrant at the University of Chicago before that institution abandoned the Hutchins reform program which Shimer continues (with modifications) to follow.  
I think this bit of background can tell us something about his motivations: like any good Great Books graduate, Seid has a well-honed appreciation for the Very Long Game.  He may not be able to throw around truly ginormous sums of money like a Charles Koch or a Foster Friess, but he understands that the real payoffs are to be found elsewhere, in making political investments that will pay off in conversational shifts over decades and generations.  That's why he wanted a college -- and specifically a small college not beholden to anyone else, that could be shaped as he saw fit.  It's why he has been for many years the largest single donor to the Heartland Institute -- again, a  small think tank, not significantly beholden to anyone else.  It may also be why he makes his largest and most important donations anonymously: he doesn't care whether he gets the credit, he just wants his vision toprevail, and he knows that having his name associated with the effort will only be a distraction.
Seid may be very wrong about a lot of things, but he's not wrong about the importance of the long game.  And that's why he has to be taken seriously.
Summary of coincidences
In order for Seid not to be the Denialgate mystery man, there has to be an alternative explanation for every one of the following coincidences.  This is not impossible, but it does not seem likely.
Channel: The channel for the donations of Heartland's "Anonymous Donor" was Virginia-based Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund of which Seid is a known heavy user.  Donors Trust was the channel by which various donations were made, for example, in support of the attempted Shimer College takeover (both direct donations and pass-through donations to legitimate the presence of Seid's proxies on the Board).  
One shouldn't go too far with this; Donors Trust is a donor-advised fund set up for the specific purpose of masking the source of donations to right-wing "charities", so it's not inconceivable that more than one wealthy Heartland sympathizer might choose to use it to channel their donations.  But just as Heartland is a small fish among the big think tanks, Donors Trust is actually a pretty small operation as donor-advised funds go -- handling between 10 and 40 million bucks in most years.  Furthermore, going through the grant lists, one is hard-pressed to find many donations much over $2 million that aren't targeted to one or another of Barre Seid's favorite causes.  (The top three disbursements in 2008, for example, were $17.7 million to the Clarion Fund (which blew his cover by crediting the donation to "Barry Seid"), $10 million to the Foundation for Jewish Camping (of which Seid is a strong supporter -- though why he wanted anonymity on that one is anyone's guess), and $4.4 million to the Heartland Institute.)
So if the donor is not Barre Seid, it must be some other very wealthy person who just happened to choose this uncommon and idiosyncratic vehicle for his donations to this relatively obscure think tank.  Color me skeptical.
Pseudonym: Lots of donors like to be anonymous, but Seid takes this further than most.  Back when he was donating to Shimer College, his name was never written in internal documents; he insisted on being "the Anonymous Donor" to all (and as in Heartland's case, typically capitalized, with gender but nothing else disclosed), and on knowledge of his identity being kept to the smallest circle possible.  It's not often that someone preparing to part with such large quantities of money would be so determined to avoid getting any credit whatever -- while nonetheless maintaining operational control -- let alone that they would insist on using this exact approach.  

Joe Bast walks past protesting students and alums on
his way to a meeting of the Shimer College Board of
Trustees in Feb. 2010.
(Linda Goldstein)
Also of potential significance, we know that Joe Bast, president of Heartland and one of Seid's chosen goons during the attempted takeover of Shimer, continued referring to Seid as "the anonymous donor" even after the Shimer events had run their course and Seid's involvement was a matter of public record.  (We know this because he hosted Seid and the wrecking crew at Heartland for a self-congratulatory confab in 2011, and thenblogged about it.)  So either Bast was dealing with two very wealthy, very anonymous donors at the same time and referring to them in exactly the same way, or there was never more than one person he was in the habit of calling "the Anonymous Donor".   The second seems far more likely; nobody wants to accidentally end up thanking the wrong Mr. Anonymous for a ten-million-dollar check, y'know?   (This seems especially persuasive, given that Mr. Bast's brain -- although capable of astounding feats of mendacity -- is not especially capacious to begin with.)
Place: If we suppose that the donor is someone other than Mr. Seid, we need an explanation for why they wouldn't take such a large and important project to one of the big national think tanks, like AEI or Heritage. Heartland's record of promoting right-wing lies in the service of industries from tobacco to coal is strong, but it's hard to say that it's any stronger than other larger and more prominent organizations.  Heartland is relatively small (around 40 employees) and Chicago-based -- characteristics that place it outside of the usual conservative gravy train, but which it shares with other recipients of Seid's largesse and interest, from legitimate causes like Shimer College and Chamber Opera Chicago to rather less legitimate ones like theglibertarian freak show of the Sam Adams Alliance.  So again, this fits Seid much better than other likely candidates who don't have specific close ties to Chicago in general or Heartland specifically.  And on that topic...
Connections to Heartland Institute: It is a matter of public record that Barre Seid is the largest (identified) donor to the Heartland Institute, via the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation; these donations amounted to $1,037,977 from 1998 to 2007.  On the one hand, this makes it seem more plausible that he would make an additional and even larger contribution; on the other, it also raises the question of why he would insist on being anonymous when he had already made such extensive donations.  But since Seid's political preferences have been public for some decades now, it seems likely that Seid's choice of anonymity for his most important projects has more to do with strategy and personal style than with any fear of being "outed".  
Nor are the connections limited to money.  Seid has turned to Bast for assistance with his pet projects before, particularly the 2009-2010 assault on Shimer College, in which Bast served asde facto spokesman for Seid's wrecking crew.
Image Hosted by
Trippe CFO Chuck Lang.
(As it happens, he was
on his way to a meeting with
Joe Bast when this was taken.)
(Linda Goldstein)
And Seid and Bast aren't the only two names that carry over from the Shimer effort to this one.  Seid deputy Charles ("Chuck") Lang, CFO of Trippe Manufacturing, who was part of the takeover crew on the Shimer College board along with Bast, joined the Heartland Institute board in 2012.(PDF)  The timing could certainly be a coincidence.  But as a top executive, Lang's time is valuable, and he isn't a serial trustee or conservative activist -- so to have him investing his time in Heartland suggests something of unusual importance either to him or to his employer. The occasional $100k from the Seid Foundation to Heartland that shows up in the 990s would certainly be enough to get a Seid man a position on the board, but it would scarcely be enough to explain why Lang or Seid would want to be spending time on that position.  It makes considerably more sense if Lang is there to see that Seid's investment goes smoothly.

I contend that Chicago industrialist Barre Seid is by far the most likely known candidate for the status of the Heartland Institute's "Anonymous Donor."  The project is a close fit with Seid's known interests, the method is a close fit with Seid's known MO, and Seid is already known to be closely connected with the Heartland Institute, to which he has been the largest single donor. In addition, Mr. Anonymous and Mr. Seid match up in at least three ways that are unlikely to be coincidental: the use of the obscure "Donors Trust" vehicle to mask his identity, the insistence on being referred to internally only as "the Anonymous Donor", and the very recent accession of known Seid deputy Chuck Lang to the board of the Heartland Institute.

More on Shimer College here:  Chronicle of Higher Education: At a Tiny College, an Epic Battle Over Academic Authority

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