Fueled By Mystery Donors, COVID Conspiracy Group Grew Budget Last Year
The Brownstone Institute raked in sizable, untraceable donations.
David Armiak, research director for the Center for Media and Democracy, contributed research for this piece. This piece has been updated from its emailed version.
An influential COVID-19 conspiracy nonprofit saw a significant increase in its funding in 2022, federal tax records reveal. While most of the money remains unaccounted for, Important Context was able to identify the sources for just over a quarter of the group’s total revenue.
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The Brownstone Institute is a public health-focused right-wing dark money group. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit was founded in May 2021 by anarcho-capitalist Jeffrey Tucker, who, as Important Context has previously reported, is a supporter of child labor and youth cigarette smoking. The group was initially formed to wage an ideological war on government efforts to stem the spread of COVID through the population. Although relatively small, boasting a budget of less than $2 million, it has been remarkably influential. In February, scientists affiliated with the group testified before a congressional subcommittee as part of a larger GOP-led investigation into the federal pandemic response.
Although there is an effective vaccine and treatment, the novel coronavirus has been killing 1000 Americans per week according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Gallup poll from September found that only about 30 percent of Americans are still worried about getting COVID, which the CDC warns can cause long-term health problems. Vaccines can reduce transmission of the virus and can mitigate its worse effects, but uptake has been low amid widespread public skepticism. The CDC reported earlier this month that only 7.7 percent of children and 17.2 percent of adults had received the updated shots.
Part of the problem is the big money behind groups that spread misinformation and vaccine skepticism—groups like Brownstone.
According to Brownstone’s 2022 IRS Form 990, the group increased its total revenue by roughly 50 percent from the previous year. The group brought in roughly $1.8 million, up from $1.2 million in 2021, and as with the earlier amount, the new total came largely in the form of big donations. A staggering 86 percent of Brownstone’s total 2022 fundraising haul, and 82 percent of its $1.8 million total revenue, came from just 9 large donations ranging from $50,000 to $400,000. Those percentages are close to the figures from 2021 when nine donations—from $25,000 to $600,000—accounted for 85 percent of its total fundraising haul and 83 percent of its total revenue.
As with 2021, we were only able to identify the funding sources behind a handful of last year’s donations to Brownstone. Those included two of the nine large contributions the group disclosed on its 990.
Some of the money came through donor-advised funds, which function as pass-through vehicles for wealthy donors looking to anonymize their giving. The basic idea is simple: Client donors give to the fund, legally transferring control over the money to the fund managers. Those managers then distribute the money with input from the client, and the donations are made under the name of the fund.
In recent years, these entities have been increasingly used to funnel money to controversial organizations like hate groups and anti-vaccine groups, as Important Context has previously reported. Brownstone is a good example of this trend. It received $100,000 donation through the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund and $26,000 through the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, both donor-advised funds affiliated with the major financial institutions for which they are named.
Most of the donations we identified, however, came through various foundations. The largest of those, $309,000—the second biggest donation Brownstone disclosed—came from the Chicago Community Trust, a community foundation that operates similarly to a donor-advised fund. Another $30,000 came through the Florida-based Bluebell Foundation, which also gave the group $50,000 in 2021.
The other donations we identified were significantly smaller. Brownstone got $3,000 from the Nebraska-based Creigh Family Foundation, which gave similar amounts to a number of other right-wing groups including AIER, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Enterprise Institute, and more. Another $3,000 came from the Maria Foundation, which also gave to the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, an organization known for its promotion of quack COVID treatments. The Diamond Mind Foundation and the Berger Family Foundation each gave $1,000.
Because the money was given through various funds and foundations, we could not identify individual donors behind any of it. Barring voluntary disclosures either by the group itself or the foundations that gave money to it—or new federal disclosure requirements—the mysteries surrounding who is really behind the operation may never be solved.
Questions about Brownstone’s funding have swirled since the group’s founding—particularly due to Tucker’s past ties to petrochemical billionaire industrialist and right-wing power broker Charles Koch.
Tucker has worked at a number of libertarian dark money outfits, including groups that have taken money from Koch. For example, he has been the editorial director at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which received roughly $8,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation between 2020-21, and a content director for the Foundation for Economic Education, which got over $200,000 from the same group in 2021. He is also a research fellow at the Acton Institute, which received more than $500,000 from Stand Together Fellowships, formerly known as the Charles Koch Institute, between 2020-2021, as well as an adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center, which got $850,000.
Brownstone has also been aligned with Koch’s network on issues like climate change, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) efforts to make corporations more accountable, and of course, public health. Throughout the pandemic, Koch-backed and other right-wing, business-aligned groups worked to reopen businesses and schools without new regulations and defeat mask and vaccine requirements. These groups worked to pressure lawmakers and influence public opinion. The New Civil Liberties Alliance, a Koch-funded litigation shop, even filed lawsuits targeting public health efforts.
At AIER, Tucker played a role in the COVID wars, helping to organize the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, an influential but widely rebuked document published in October 2020 calling on governments to embrace a pandemic herd immunity strategy reliant on mass infection of the “healthy” population. Written by three scientists affiliated with respected schools, the declaration provided the appearance of public health legitimacy to the economic agenda.
Tucker has long denied having any financial ties to Koch and has publicly criticized the billionaire for not going far enough to combat public health measures, even accusing him of being a supporter of ‘lockdown.’ Americans for Prosperity, Koch’s flagship political operation, vocally opposed stay-at-home orders, but the organizing of people on the ground against those measures early on in the pandemic was notably done by other groups like FreedomWorks, which broke away from Koch world years ago, and Tea Party Patriots.
“I was astounded in the early lockdowns days that the Koch empire had nothing to say against them or other mitigation,” Tucker tweeted in April, sharing an article critical of the billionaire. “Indeed funds went the other way. Now I see why and how.”
More recently, Tucker took aim at the decision by Americans for Prosperity, Koch’s flagship political operation, to endorse Nikki Haley for the GOP presidential nomination at the end of last month. Tucker called the decision “absolutely chilling.” The Brownstone founder had been promoting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and independent candidate Robert Kennedy Jr., both of whom have used COVID denialism and anti-vaccine sentiment to further their presidential bids.
“Just incredible, the Kochs endorsing warmonger Nikki Haley, who says she will have the government require authentic names and users on all social media,” he tweeted. In another tweet hours later, he returned to the issue, taking aim directly at the right-wing billionaire.
“The story of the Koch philanthropic empire is one of tragedy, waste, and betrayal,” he wrote. “Probably some good was achieved at some point in the past but now? Wow, when the empire falls, it really crashes hard.”
The rift highlights the fact that Brownstone, which Tucker initially billed as the “spiritual child” of the Great Barrington Declaration, has been more extreme than the big groups in Koch’s network. It has become a central hub for fringe opinions not just on the pandemic, but on issues like climate change as well. It has featured and promoted writing from anti-vaccine figures like Dr. Robert Malone as well as radicals like Dr. Paul Alexander, a former Trump administration adviser who began calling for public tribunals and hangings of public health officials after his stint in the White House. Tucker himself also winked at the idea of violent retribution against public health officials who supported restrictions on business in an article from December 2021 titled “Who Will Be Held Responsible for this Devastation?” that originally ran with the image of a guillotine.
Correction: This piece originally incorrectly claimed that Brownstone’s budget had grown by almost a third from 2021 to 2022. The actual increase, which is significantly higher, is now reflected in the story.