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Who is Funding the Brownstone Institute?
New tax filings provide some clarity about the funders of the prolific COVID-19 conspiracy outfit.
Last updated 9/6/23.
A shadowy dark money group that has been waging information warfare on public health efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic took big money from nonprofit foundations and funds in 2021, tax records reveal.
Since its establishment in May 2021, the Brownstone Institute has become a prolific and central hub of COVID-related misinformation and conspiracy thinking. Brownstone authors, who include prominent public health contrarians and conspiracy theorists, and COVID minimizers, downplay the seriousness of the virus while hyping up concerns about the supposed harms of mitigation measures. The group has also encouraged anti-vaccine sentiment, platforming prominent vaccine skeptics and misinformation spreaders like Dr. Robert Malone and Naomi Wolf.
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Brownstone has worked to give an academic veneer to its agenda, which is ultimately supported by business interests. For example, in May 2022, Brownstone organized the so-called Norfolk Group, a motley crew of contrarian doctors that released an outline for a congressional inquiry into the federal COVID response in early February. That outline echoed the “Roadmap for COVID-19 Congressional Oversight” report released weeks earlier by influential Washington D.C.-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, which receives funding from a number of right-wing billionaires.
Brownstone is the continuation of the work of one man: Jeffrey Tucker, an advocate for child labor and tobacco use. Tucker started the institute after helping to organize the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, a widely-rebuked but official-sounding open letter from October 2020 that called on governments and scientists to reject broad public health measures in favor of allowing mass infection to deliver herd immunity. The document was written and signed at a conference hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), the libertarian think tank at which Tucker worked. Brownstone initially purported to be the declaration’s “spiritual child.”
Important Context has reported extensively on Brownstone and its mysterious funding. In January, we revealed that 83 percent of the group’s $1.2 million total revenue for 2021—and 85 percent of its $1 million fundraising haul—had come from just nine large anonymous contributions ranging up to $600,000. At the time, however, we were unable to identify the donors.
Now, with more tax filings released, we are able to put organization names to nearly 330,000 of the nonprofit’s funding. That money represents four of the nine large contributions and one that the group did not publicly disclose on its 2021 IRS Form 990. The funders were identified with help from David Armiak of the Center for Media And Democracy, who helped with our previous report.
The donations to Brownstone we were able to identify came through donor-advised funds—passthrough organizations that manage charitable contributions for clients—and private foundations.
How donor-advised funds work: A client will open an account with the fund, depositing money and transferring legal control to the fund managers, who then dispense the cash to charitable causes with input from the client. There are several key benefits of using these funds, but the main draw for political donors is anonymity. Donations appear under the name of the fund itself rather than the client, enabling secretive giving.
The largest donation to the COVID misinformation dark money operation with a source we were able to identify was $100,000 from the Morgan Stanley Global Impact Funding Trust, a donor-advised fund affiliated with banking giant Morgan Stanley. Sometime between July 2021 and June 2022 Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund, another donor-advised fund, which is affiliated with Fidelity Investments, gave $64,000.
Brownstone also received $50,000 from the Bluebell Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit that has funded a number of charitable causes from universities to public broadcasting. In addition to Brownstone, the foundation funded another group with a particular focus on COVID: U.S. Right To Know, which describes itself as “a nonprofit investigative public health research and journalism group working globally to expose corporate wrongdoing and government failures that threaten our health, environment and food system.” The group’s website features a section “COVID-19 origins.” It is possible that the virus escaped from a laboratory. Two U.S. intelligence agencies lean in favor of that theory as do a majority of Americans. However, available evidence has consistently pointed to natural origins.
Another $50,000 came from the Crary Social Ecology Fund, a California-based 501(c)(3) charitable foundation that Cause IQ notes “primarily funds charitable activities.” The foundation is overseen by two trustees: John Crary, the president of the financial advisory and investment firm Juniper Capital LLC and director of Scheid Vineyards, and Barbara Crary.
Brownstone was just one of several groups that promote anti-vaccine misinformation to receive Crary money. For example, Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), a group that promotes quack COVID treatments like ivermectin and hypes up concerns about the safety of the mRNA vaccines, got $55,000. Last week, the group’s founder, critical care physician Dr. Pierre Kory, invited his Twitter followers to join him in celebrating “the millions of lives saved by ivermectin in Covid,” calling it “an uplifting story as well as a tragic one due to one of History’s most massive global Disinformation campaigns.” Kory, an ally of anti-vaccine activist and Democratic 2024 presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr., also retweeted notorious anti-vaccine entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, who asked his followers, “Is the CDC totally blind to all the adverse events from the COVID vaccines?”
“I think they are,” Kirsch wrote. “What do you think?
Kory has frequently amplified Kirsch’s anti-vaccine posts, including another tweet from July 7 in declaring, “We are throwing down the gauntlet on whether vaccines can trigger autism,” asking, “Will anyone qualified pick it up?”
Kirsch announced he was “assembling a panel of experts (some with h-index over 100 such as Peter McCullough and Paul Marik) who claim vaccines cause autism,” and “would like to know if there is any licensed doctor or academic…or scientist at CDC, FDA, or NIH in America who disagrees with this position would like to question the panel in a live public ‘grand rounds.’”
“This is important to get right,” Kirsch wrote. “Their side refuses to be questioned, but our side is open to respectful public challenges from our scientific peers.”
Crary money also went to Informed Consent Action Network ($100,000) and Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense ($50,000).
The last large Brownstone donor we were able to identify is the Woodshouse Foundation, which gave $50,000. Among the range of groups the foundation gave to are two Koch-backed libertarian groups. Woodshouse gave $75,000 to AIER, and $30,000 to the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason Magazine.
Important Context was able to put names to smaller donations as well. The Schwab Charitable Fund, for example, a donor-advised fund operated by financial titan Charles Schwab and Co., gave Brownstone roughly $6,000. Another $4,000 to the institute came from the Nebraska-based Creigh Family Foundation, which is overseen by corporate and securities attorney James C. Creigh. Creigh is a partner at the national law firm Kutak Rock LLP. According to his profile, he is “a nationally recognized lawyer with extensive experience in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and other transactional matters” and “has led more than 250 financing and acquisition transactions in both legal and business capacities.”
Another $3,500 came from the Quest Family Foundation, a well-funded nonprofit that gives to a number of right-wing groups including fundamentalist Christian organizations and hate groups. In 2021, Quest gave $6,000 to Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The foundation also gave $10,000 to the Family Research Council and $5,000 to the American Family Association, both of which are designated as anti-LGBTQIA+ hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Quest gave $16,000 to the influential Council for National Policy (CNP), a secretive group that provides networking for right-wing donors and operatives, and $2,500 to the Leadership Institute, a dark money group that trains young conservatives to get involved in politics. CNP co-founder Morton Blackwell is the institute’s president. Quest also gave $5,000 to Judicial Watch and $1,000 to Turning Point USA.
The donations we identified amount to roughly half of the nine donations that comprise most of Brownstone’s 2021 revenue. Much remains shrouded, including the largest donation to the group: $600,000.
As more tax records become available, it is possible questions surrounding Brownstone’s funding will be answered.