Big Mystery Donors Fund COVID Conspiracy Nonprofit
Nine large donations make up most of the 2021 budget of the Brownstone Institute, which is led by a man with a neo-Confederate past
This original report was produced by Important Context and the OptOut Media Foundation.
Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported roughly 3,900 American deaths from COVID-19 in the week ending on Jan. 11—more than died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The number, which represented a 44% increase from the previous week and added to a national pandemic death toll already well above one million, hardly made the news. Such was the case in November when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a report on long COVID revealing that as many as 23 million Americans were suffering post-viral symptoms.
The country’s media, and to a large extent, policymakers, have moved on from the ongoing crisis—a reality that is, at least in part, a testament to the work of one man: Jeffrey Tucker, the founder of the Brownstone Institute, a shadowy new nonprofit dedicated to waging war on public health measures.
With his receding white hair, comically small circular glasses, and signature bowtie, Tucker looks positively academic. He can almost sound the part too. Tucker once told an interviewer from libertarian think tank the John Locke Foundation that he’d arrived at the name for his institute by looking to history. Brownstone, he explained, was a common building block in the 1800s before the advent of steel. He’d felt it an apt metaphor for the group’s purpose.
“I think going back to that time at the birth of the modern is really important now,” Tucker said. “We need to rediscover the principles of the founding, the principles of the enlightenment, get optimistic about the use of science within the framework of integrity, and deal with crises like pandemics within the framework of freedom and human rights. Those are all things that we discovered in the 19th century that we’ve somehow forgotten in the 21st century.”
Tucker has long had one foot in the distant past. In 2016, he advocated for the return of child labor. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) from 2000 noted that he had written for the white supremacist, neo-Confederate League of the South and was listed on the organization’s website as a founding member. Tucker denied his membership. In the 1980s, he was an assistant to Lew Rockwell, a fellow League of the South founding member and then editor of former Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s infamous racist and homophobic newsletter—Tucker himself is suspected of contributing writing but has declined to comment about it. He and Rockwell worked together for years at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which has “strong neo-Confederate principles,” according to the SPLC, and which Rockwell founded with financial backing from Paul.
With his Brownstone Institute, a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Tucker has sought to turn the clock back on public health—and perhaps on child labor laws as well. The organization has become a prolific and prominent source of misinformation related to the COVID pandemic, including vaccine misinformation, with connections to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.
Just last month, Mother Jones reported that a majority of the members of DeSantis’ new “Public Health Integrity Committee,” which he established to scrutinize federal public health recommendations, had ties to Brownstone. That same month, DeSantis’ surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, spoke at a conference the group hosted.
Despite Brownstone’s prevalence, however, funding for the institute remains shrouded in secrecy thanks to America’s lax disclosure rules. But, new federal tax filings obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and provided to Important Context and the OptOut Media Foundation reveal that the organization has little popular support. Instead, it is bankrolled mostly by large donations of up to $600,000.
‘An Elite Protected Class’
Tucker, who has called for “reparations for the business victims of lockdowns,” fancies himself a populist these days, standing up for the little guy against out-of-touch “elites” imposing unnecessary public health measures that help the powerful at their expense.
“I know of no exceptions: every person I've heard claim that lockdowns are completely normal and much needed is a member of an elite protected class,” Tucker tweeted in November 2020.
But the man behind the Brownstone Institute has made his career in the world of well-financed, big business-aligned libertarian nonprofits. Tucker is a veteran of groups in the political orbit of right-wing billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. As recently as 2017, he worked as a director for the Foundation for Economic Education, which has gotten Koch support for years, including $205,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2021. DonorsTrust, a money conduit that Koch network donors and other conservatives use, also gave the foundation $295,000 that year. The fund is the biggest known donor to white nationalist groups, the Center for Media and Democracy found.
From 2017-21, Tucker worked as the editorial director and vice president of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a libertarian think tank that has also received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, including a nominal amount in 2021. The group also received $55,000 that year from DonorsTrust.
Tucker is currently an adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which received $500,000 in 2021 from Stand Together Fellowships (formerly the Charles Koch Institute), $150,000 from the Koch-funded State Policy Network (SPN), and another $150,000 from DonorsTrust. He is a research fellow at the free market think tank Acton Institute. An associate member of SPN, Acton received $250,000 from Stand Together in 2021 and over $1.4 million from DonorsTrust in 2021. Tucker is also listed as a policy adviser to the Heartland Institute, a free market, climate science-denying think tank and SPN affiliate that has received money from Koch in the past. In 2021, Heartland received $26,000 from DonorsTrust.
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‘Spiritual Child of the Great Barrington Declaration’
Throughout the pandemic, business-aligned groups and the political right have been pushing back against public health measures. Koch-backed organizations have been in the fight since March 2020, messaging against business closures and later, school closures and masking in an effort to minimize economic disruption. The Brownstone Institute arose out of those efforts; specifically, an October 2020 conference Tucker helped organize while at AIER.
Held at AIER’s headquarters in Great Barrington, Mass., the conference spawned an influential open letter—the “Great Barrington Declaration”—calling on governments and scientists to reject broad public health measures in favor of pursuing herd immunity through mass infection and “focused protection” only of the vulnerable. Similar ideas had been proposed in a reopening plan from the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation months earlier.
The declaration and its authors, three scientists from prestigious universities—Drs. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford and the Koch-funded Hoover Institution, Martin Kulldorff (then) of Harvard, and Sunetra Gupta of Oxford–were promoted by the political right, including the Trump White House, DeSantis, and Koch-tied groups, to undermine scientific consensus around public health measures.
The mainstream scientific community rejected the declaration. After the document was published, 14 major public health organizations, including the American Public Health Association, denounced it in an open letter, while World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it “unethical.” But the damage was done. The document had provided an academic veneer to a laissez-faire economic agenda: reopening businesses, without protections for workers, despite the circulating virus.
The declaration signaled that public health was the new front in the war over the size and scale of government.
Tucker left his role at AIER to commit full-time to that war. Brownstone, which he founded in May 2021, would be his primary weapon. Initially billed as the “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration,” the group brought on Bhattacharya and Kulldorff as senior scholars and Gupta as a contributor.
The Brownstone founder’s efforts were welcomed by Koch-tied organizations. For example, Tucker was interviewed in October 2021 about his new institute by the John Locke Foundation, which got $150,000 that year from SPN. A year later, Hillsdale College—which gave Bhattacharya and Kulldorff teaching fellowships—brought Tucker in as a lecturer on the economic consequences of lockdowns and vaccine mandates. In 2021, Hillsdale received $55,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation, $30,000 from DonorsTrust, and $17,000 from Donors Capital Fund, another funding conduit of the Koch network.
Tucker denies that Koch has played a significant role in supporting the policy agenda articulated in the Great Barrington Declaration and blasted out by Brownstone.
“That’s a hell of a conspiracy theory…Koch orgs have been tragically acquiescent toward lockdowns,” Tucker wrote in October 2020 in response to a tweet pointing out the link between Koch and AIER.
Since its inception, Brownstone has been churning out articles downplaying the seriousness of COVID to portray government mitigation measures—“lockdowns,” masking, travel restrictions, and mandates—as overreach at the expense of the common people. The pieces are generally misleading, rife with misinformation and faulty analysis, and promote a narrative that the institute and its writers are underdog truth-tellers against a powerful establishment.
Experts Important Context spoke to were highly critical of Brownstone. Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves called the organization “a collection of conspiracy theorists, disgraced scientists, radical libertarians, [and] anti-vaxxers, all of whom think they’re half-Galileo, half-Spartacus when it comes to their views on COVID-19 and public health more generally.”
“Despite the fact that their work is incoherent, unmoored from any real scientific evidence, they maintain that it’s a vast conspiracy that has kept them from being heard, even as many leading figures were the darling of the Trump Administration and current politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis,” he continued. “We’re in tin-foil hat territory.”
Epidemiologist Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, said she hadn’t been paying attention to Brownstone.
“The initial Great Barrington Declaration was clearly not a scientific document,” Murray said. “I teach and do research and advise students and consult with health departments; I don’t have time for them.”
Brownstone articles have suggested that school closures could be linked to school shootings like the May 2022 attack on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; that New York’s spring 2020 COVID wave, which saw New York City hospitals forced to rely on freezer trucks to store human remains, wasn’t actually serious; that ”the children” have been poisoned by exposure to masks, tests, disinfectants, and hand sanitizer.
Unsurprisingly, Brownstone has been a hub for vaccine-related misinformation as well, with multiple pieces questioning the safety and efficacy of the mRNA COVID vaccines. The institute has even featured writing from notorious anti-vaxxer Dr. Robert Malone, who falsely claims to have invented mRNA vaccines.
In September, a Brownstone article declared, “The vaccine narrative is as leaky as the vaccines” and claimed that “the ‘abundance of data’ demonstrates that vaccines do not prevent infection, transmission, hospitalization and deaths for the under-60s.” Earlier this month, the group published a piece titled, “Did National Security Imperatives Compromise COVID-19 Vaccine Safety?”
“We now know [the vaccines] do not prevent infection nor transmission and have not prevented a continuing high incidence of COVID-19,” it falsely stated. “Furthermore they are associated with an unprecedented incidence of serious adverse events and deaths compared to any other drugs in the history of the pharmaceutical industry.”
To substantiate the claim of “unprecedented incidence of serious adverse events and death,” the authors relied on VAERS data, which numerous fact-checkers have noted is unreliable.
The COVID vaccines have saved millions of lives. While breakthrough infections are not rare, studies have found that vaccination reduces transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the jabs, including the bivalent dose, for everyone ages six months and older. Major medical groups like the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Academy of Pediatrics backed the recommendation.
As Mother Jones noted, Brownstone has promoted quack COVID cures like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin and celebrated anti-vaccine demonstrations. The group has tacitly encouraged radicalism from its supporters. Tucker himself authored an article that ran with an image of a guillotine about holding public health officials and policymakers “accountable” for trying to save lives from a deadly, airborne pathogen. Tucker suggested that “consequences” would “set a fabulous precedent for the future.”
Brownstone fellow Paul Alexander, a former Trump administration HHS science adviser who famously advocated for mass infection, published an error-ridden, semi-coherent tirade on his blog calling for violent retribution against public health officials who sought to limit the spread of COVID.
“You beasts, you Fauci and Birx and Walensky and Hotez and Francis Collins and Howard Njoo and Tam, all of you, you know you had zero science to back up your lockdown lunacy, but you were power-drunk and IMO malfeasant, you illogical, irrational, absurd, inept and incompetent malfeasant untermensche, you beelzebubs,” Alexander raved.
“This must be Nuremberg 2.0, you must swing from gallows for what you did!” he concluded.
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Brownstone’s 2021 IRS Form 990 belies its populist appeals. Based on the group’s tax filings, a handful of large donations accounted for more than 83% of its total revenue.
Brownstone brought in nearly $1.2 million in 2021 in contributions and grants, with $1 million, or 85%, coming from just nine donations ranging from $25,000 to $600,000. Donation amounts for the remaining $179,000 were not disclosed.
Details surrounding the large contributions remain a mystery. Important Context/OptOut Media Foundation was unable to identify any grants to the institute from other tax-exempt organizations. It is possible that more information will be revealed over the summer when the tax filings of donor-advised fund managers—charities that manage individual donation accounts for their clients—come due. It is also possible that individual donors or corporations gave directly, meaning their identities will likely remain secret, barring transparency from Brownstone.
The group notably pledges on its website, “We do not and will not share donor names.” Tucker did not respond to our request for basic details about Brownstone’s funding.