About three weeks back, the Valentine's Day exposure of key Heartland Institute internal documents made national and international news. This story was covered at length on Daily Kos and elsewhere. Particularly attention-grabbing was the information that Heartland was developing a denialist K-12 curriculum intended in part to "dissuade teachers from teaching science", and that this and much of Heartland's other activity was funded by a single deep-pocketed donor -- referred to only as the "Anonymous Donor".
Since that initial burst of February sunshine, we've learned the identity of the man who exposed this scheme, but not of the man behind it and much of the rest of Heartland's activity. Eyes initially turned, as they often do, to the Koch brothers, but the data didn't correspond well to their particular styles and interests, and they have not exactly been shy about their role in funding and controlling other "intellectual ammo shops".
Here, I will sum up the case developed over the previous 3.5 diaries, for the person whom I believe to be the strongest candidate for the Anonymous Donor: reclusive Chicago industrialist Barre Seid.
If you're one of the hardy souls who has read all of the previous diaries, you'll find a few repeated sections.
(Reposted from Sunday, when it didn't get much visibility.)
For the executive summary, go here.
Creatures of Pattern, Creatures of Habit
Now you see it,
now you don't.
We have to be cautious, therefore, of the human weakness for seeing patterns that are not really there. This tendency to hallucinate order amid chaos, though it has plausible evolutionary benefits, is a hazard for any enterprise of this kind. When inconvenient evidence comes along, it is all too easy to ignore it, or reinvent one's hypothesis to match it. No one is immune.
But just as human beings seek patterns everywhere, so do we create them everywhere. We are creatures of habit.
As we puzzle through the data, then, we at least need not worry that we are imbuing random events with human agency. We know there is an agent and we know that he is human. Being human, he will follow patterns of behavior as all humans do, and when found, his story will speak the fundamental language of all human stories. This doesn't tell us if we've found the right story, but we know there has to be a story behind the data.
And since he is not only human, but a member of that very small group of humans who have both the ability and the inclination to make regular seven-figure donations to obscure American right-wing political charities, we can be confident that the unique combination of habitual patterns in which Mr. Anonymous is enmeshed -- as every human being is -- will eventually betray him, as they betray us all.
Let's consider, then, the patterns that appear to connect Barre Seid to the Anonymous Donor.
What do we know about the Anonymous Donor?
As we know from the exposed documents, the Anonymous Donor is the source of a very large share of the funding for the Heartland Institute, and an even larger share of Heartland's funding for climate change denialism. Based directly on the information in the exposed documents, the Anonymous Donor:
- is male
- is referred to only as "the Anonymous Donor" (usually but not always capitalized)
- has donated more than half of the Heartland Institute budget in past years
- is in close and frequent contact with Heartland president Joe Bast
- donated at least $1 million per year from 2006 to 2009, and began donating (or at least donating anonymously on a significant level) around 2005
- donated slightly less than $1 million in 2010, a drop the Fundraising document attributes to circumstances "now past"
- pledged $1 million for 2012, with Bast anticipating an additional $250k
- has given major dedicated funds for global warming projects, and smaller amounts for school reform and (anti-)healthcare reform advocacy
In addition, it has been inferred that the Anonymous Donor:
- has made most of his donations via Donors Capital, the large-donor arm of Donors Trust. (As we'll see below, the dollar amounts from the grantee schedules in Donors Capital's grantee schedules largely match the dollar amounts given in the 2012 Fundraising Strategy.)
- has a particular interest in local Illinois and Wisconsin politics, and is therefore likely to be a resident of the Midwest and particularly the Chicago area.
With these patterns in mind, let's consider our principal suspect.
Who is Barre Seid?
known photos of Barre
Seid as an adult.
(Prior to the current diary series, Seid was featured here on the Great Orange Satan for his known roles in the attempted takeover of Chicago's resolutely independent Shimer College, and in funding the Clarion Fund's Islamophobic Obsession campaign.)
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.
Seid's wife, mezzo-soprano Barbara Landis Seid, is a much more public person than her husband. She is artistic director of the Chamber Opera Chicago, which her husband founded; she recently wrote, directed and starred in a musical theater adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion; she sits on the advisory board of Roosevelt University. (Yes, this is relevant.)
when he was a freshman at the University of Chicago.
I think this bit of background can tell us something about the motivations that underlie the different projects he has funded: like any good Great Books graduate, Seid has a well-honed appreciation for the Very Long Game. He understands that the best returns are to be found in focused investments that will pay off in conversational shifts over decades and generations.
This brief mention in the memoir of former Roosevelt University president Theodore Gross, The Rise of Roosevelt University, sheds some light on Seid's philanthropic and political style (p. 121):
Barre Seid had acquired a fortune distributing electrical equipment and always wore short-sleeve yellow shirts without a tie. We often negotiated over pastrami sandwiches at Manny's on Roosevelt and Halsted. He was one of those effervescent political conservatives who was forceful and blunt, as certain of his views as I was of my liberalism, and he loved to argue with my CCNY politics. He had been donating twenty-five thousand dollars annually simply because Roosevelt served the public reasonably well. After one spirited session about open admissions and academic standards, he raised his gift to fifty thousand dollars, and a year later was so carried away by our intense political debate, he reached for his large black checkbook, as if he had stepped directly out of the pages of a Dickens novel, and said, "I'm going to present you with the gift I usually make to Wharton and add it to the one I would have made to Roosevelt." When I walked outside and saw that the check was for one hundred thousand dollars, I was indeed impressed with myself. You are a fund-raiser after all, I congratulated myself, as if I had finally passed my oral examinations for the PhD.Although this is only one man's account, this paints a credible portrait of Barre Seid as a thoughtful, intense man whose conservative beliefs and generosity are equally genuine.
How does Seid see himself? On that matter, there is very little to go on, but these excerpts from a 1987 article on Chamber Opera Chicago, by Sheila Malkin in the Chicago Tribune (paywalled), shed some light:
[Barre Seid] is also CEO of a lighting company. He explains his dual role in sociological terms:
"I'm a successful adult male who gets pleasure out of seeing nice things happen. I'm not a musician, but I have a talent for running things."
Says Seid: "We decided on a small and intimate company rather than a grand one, with a six-piece orchestra and a libretto in English."
Seid again: "For economic reasons we reduce the musical scores for all the operas, though there is full staging with stylized and yet simple sets and full costumes. We pare it down. We feel we can well-execute an opera on a full scale, but not a grand one. If an opera requires a chorus of 30, we may use 10 people.A knack (and preference) for running things, and a preference for working on the "small and intimate" scale rather than the grandiose, are among the patterns we'll consider below.
"If an opera like 'Aida' calls for four elephants, we don't do 'Aida.' "
What is Donors Capital?
Donor-advised funds can be used to preserve anonymity, but they are more commonly used to reduce the paperwork hassle involved in making lots of small donations.
Donors Capital is one of two donor-advised funds run out of the same offices; the other is Donors Trust. Donors Capital is distinguished from Donors Trust by the $1 million minimum opening balance.
In a piece from last year, Karoli of Crooks and Liars described Donors Trust as "an anonymous tax-deductible policy slush fund". For another critical view, see John Mashey's recent "Fake science, fakexperts, funny finances, free of tax" (PDF).
Most individual grants made via Donors Capital are quite small. Not only are single payouts of more than $1 million rare, but even in terms of dollar amount, these large payouts only account for a small minority of the total advised giving via Donors Capital in most years. Even in the case of a politically-charged fund like Donors Capital, therefore, it appears that most users are using it for the routine purpose of simplifying paperwork for small routine donations, rather than keeping their large donations secret.
Pattern 1: The Angelic Barre Seid
A preference for being the big fish in a small pond is evident in much of Barre Seid's work, whether in business, philanthropy, or politics. In setting up the Chamber Opera Chicago, as he said, "we decided on a small and intimate company rather than a grand one."
This preference also fits logically with the role of "angel" investor that he has assumed in contexts both musical and political, and very probably in business as well. Clearly, Seid likes to see his money make a difference, not just one pile of cash among many, but enough money to completely change the situation.
We see this with his investments in organizations from FJC to the Illinois Taxpayer Education Fund. Illinois' United Republican Fund learned the effects of Seid's approach to its sorrow in the 1990s, when Seid's abrupt withdrawal of funding left it with only a fraction of its previous revenue.
This preference for being a big fish in a small pond is far from unique to Mr. Seid. But it does fit neatly into place.
Pattern 2: A local focus
Seid is of course Chicago-based himself, so that much of the pattern fits immediately. More significantly, Seid clearly prefers the operations he invests in to be relatively close to hand. We can see this in his companies, one of which is in Chicago and both of which are within the Chicago metro area; in his philanthropy, beginning with the Chamber Opera Chicago itself; and even in the attempted takeover of Shimer College, which is located mere blocks from the headquarters of Trippe Manufacturing. This is not an absolute pattern; Seid is clearly attentive to national politics, and he invests in non-local organizations (FJC, Clarion) when the situation requires. But if he is investing in a local organization with a national focus (such as Heartland), we might expect his investment to combine national and global issues (like climate change) with local issues (like the Cook County Debt Project) -- which is, indeed, exactly what we see.
Barre Seid is, of course, far from the only rich right-wing Chicagoan who might be characterized by this pattern. But this is one more pattern that fits neatly.
Pattern 3: Donations to Heartland
This tells us that being a major donor to the Heartland Institute is a rather unusual quality -- and it's an unusual quality that Barre Seid has in spades. Before its donations abruptly ended in 2004, the Seid Foundation had given more than $1 million to Heartland, in regular annual dollops, vastly more than any other foundation tracked in the Media Matters database.
If the Anonymous Donor is Barre Seid, these pieces fit neatly together. If not, we have to account for two simultaneous and improbable events: Seid stopping his donations for no known reason after many years of regular giving, and the Anonymous Donor materializing out of nowhere to rescue the hapless Bast.
Pattern 4: Running things
Beginning in 2008, we have the opportunity to view the itemized grants from the Anonymous Donor to Heartland:
Clearly we're dealing with a fairly hands-on donor here, which puts some meat on the bones of the 2012 Fundraising document's statement that "keeping [the Anonymous Donor] informed and engaged is a major responsibility of the President." Just as the amounts that are in play here are abnormally large, the number of individual donations is also.
Although there are some exceptions, generally when large donations are made via Donors Capital they are in one or two large dollops. A prominent exception, however, is Barre Seid; his $17.7 million to Clarion Fund, for example, came in 9 variably-sized installments:
As with other patterns considered so far, a hands-on investment style is far from unique to Barre Seid. But it does fit with the portrait of a man who feels that he has "a talent for running things".
Pattern 5: "The Anonymous Donor"
This is a data point that fits Seid's known patterns to a T. When he was donating to Shimer College, Seid's 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. In addition, we know that Seid was behind at least one other large and publicly anonymous donation (to the Foundation for Jewish Camp), although we don't know if the "Anonymous Donor" styling was used in that case.
We also know that Joe Bast was still referring to Barre Seid as "the anonymous donor," and in the characteristically obsequious fashion of a man currying favor, as recently as February 2011: "as always, the anonymous donor was at turns thoughtful and entertaining" (well after the Shimer events had run their course and Seid's role had been exposed).
This doesn't necessarily make Seid a more likely Anonymous Donor, since it doesn't make other candidates any less likely; any donor might choose to be anonymous, and might insist on his name being kept confidential even from trusted staff members. But it is another pattern that fits uncannily well; and the coincidence of Bast referring to Seid this way in 2011 is, at the very least, quite striking.
Pattern 6: Donations via Donors Capital
The numbers from Heartland's 2012 Fundraising Plan (PDF) line up closely with the numbers in the Donors Capital 990s -- almost perfectly in the case of 2008, and closely enough in other years that we can be sure that the Anonymous Donor is using Donors Capital to convey most of his Anonymous Donations.
It was the Donors Capital connection that caused Barre Seid's involvement to be suspected almost immediately after the Denialgate story broke. Seid had already been pubicly outed as an anonymous major donor hiding behind Donors Capital on two occasions: first in the attempted Shimer College takeover, and second in the curious case of the Clarion Fund's 2008 Obsession DVD. To the best of my knowledge he is the only major donor to have been conclusively outed in this fashion even once.
Chicago classical music station WFMT via
Seid Foundation and Donors Capital, 2003-2005
Switching from the Seid Foundation to Donors Capital, as must have occurred if Seid is the Anonymous Donor, is thus demonstrably consistent with Seid's known patterns of behavior.
How unusual is the use of Donors Capital? Not terribly unusual, by itself -- although the specific ways Barre Seid has used it (which we'll consider below) are quite distinctive. It is simply one more pattern that lines up very neatly between Mr. Anonymous and Mr. Seid.
Pattern 7: Switching political donations to Donors Capital around 2005
It turns out that 2005 is an important transitional year for Seid's giving as well. The Seid Foundation gave openly to a large number political charities until 2005, but from 2006 on, almost all potentially controversial donations disappeared. The Heartland Institute donations stopped a year early, in 2004 (except for one last small blip in 2007), and a few other political causes straggled into 2006, so this is not a perfectly sharp line, but 2005 is the last year of major unconcealed political giving.
There is, it turns out, an obvious reason for all this shuffling. We can see from the Seid Foundation 990 filings that 2005 was the year that the name of the foundation changed from the "Barre Seid Foundation" to the "Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation". (Specifically, according to the Illinois Secretary of State, the change occurred on November 8, 2005.) As a far more public person than her husband, and one who mingles at the highest levels of Chicago society, Mrs. Seid obviously stands to lose more than her husband from having her name associated with donations to politically-charged outfits like Heartland. This doesn't explain why the Seid Foundation's Heartland donations stop a year earlier than most others -- or why there is a last little dribble of cash in 2007 -- but it does explain the general pattern. And we might expect a transition of this nature to take some time, as the details were sorted out.
Once again, if Seid is the Anonymous Donor, the pieces fit together neatly. And if he is not, we must once again assume two simultaneous and improbable events: Seid switches his other political giving from the Seid Foundation to Donors Capital but decides to cut Heartland off for no known reason, and the Anonymous Donor materializes in the same year and decides to use the same relatively obscure channel that Seid has just started using for his political-charity donations for the Anonymous Donor's own donations to Heartland.
Pattern 8: Abnormally large donations via Donors Capital
The five largest donations made by Donors Capital to any single organization in a single year, for the period for which 990s are available (2002-2010), are traceable to Barre Seid to a very high degree of confidence: Clarion Fund, FJC, FJC, FJC, and Bar-Ilan University. The next largest are both from 2008, and both to Chicago-based organizations with known Seid connections: Heartland and the Sam Adams Alliance. (I have made the case for the Sam Adams donation being from Barre Seid here; in any case, given the similarities in timing, location, recipient and style, it seems very likely that both this and the Heartland donation are from the same donor whether that donor is Seid or not.)
The use of Donors Capital to send more than $3 million to a single organization in a single year, although not completely unique to Mr. Seid, is highly distinctive. Combining this unusual behavior with the other patterns in timing, style, and location considered above, a coincidence seems quite unlikely -- if Seid is not the donor, then it would be a curious accident indeed that the largest donation via Donors Capital by a non-Seid grantor is by someone whose donation matches Seid's profile and interests so uncannily well.
Pattern 9: The 2008 spike
2008 was also the year of Barre Seid's largest known single-year donation to anything ever: the $17.7 million he gave to the Clarion Fund for the Obsession DVD project. Obsession was transparently aimed at influencing the 2008 presidential election by whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria in battleground states where many believed Obama was a "secret Muslim".
Seid's long-game outlook notwithstanding, it seems likely that he was increasingly upset, if not spooked, by the events of 2008 -- and commensurately easier to separate from his millions. This might be the case even if, as in the case of Heartland's global warming projects, the projects funded did not have quite such an obvious and direct link to the presidential race as Obsession did. (Other 2008 funding spikes for which a Seid role seems likely include those of the Sam Adams Alliance and Greater Educational Opportunities Fund.)
To be sure, Seid is far from the only one who ramps up his giving in 2008. Donors Capital's grantmaking jumps from $45 million in 2007 to $70 million in 2008, and even if I'm right about everything that I've tentatively attributed to Seid, there is little reason to suspect he is responsible for more than about three-quarters of that increase. So this is not as strong an indicator as some of the other patterns. But the 2008 spike is, once again, a pattern that would fit neatly into place if Seid is the Anonymous Donor.
Pattern 10: The 2011 dip
If the Anonymous Donor is Barre Seid, one doesn't have to look very far at all to find a likely candidate for such "developments". 2011 was the first calendar year following the collapse of the Shimer takeover scheme, in which Heartland president Joe Bast had taken a leading role. The failed takeover was also the first (but not last) occasion on which Seid was publicly outed as an "Anonymous Donor" (thanks to Shimer alum Dan Merchán).
After that double comeuppance, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if donor Seid became comparatively cold and ungenerous toward Heartland president Bast; nor would it be very surprising if subsequent efforts to patch things over involved a party at which the parties congratulated one another on their wisdom and fortitude and, let's say, gave each other awards and vowed to fight another day. Which is exactly what happened in December 2010 -- although curiously Bast didn't post about it for more than two months after that, for which a variety of explanations suggest themselves.
Assuming that most of Mr. Anonymous' donations were planned at the start of the year (which is certainly the case for 2012), and assuming that the party didn't instantly resolve things, then -- if the Anonymous Donor is Seid -- 2011 would be the year that reflected the frosty aftermath of the failed takeover, and 2012 would be the first calendar year in which Seid's increased giving would reflect the newly healed relationship. Thus, once again, if Seid is the Anonymous Donor, the pattern in the data is exactly what we would expect to see; if he is not, we need an alternative explanation for both Bast's obsequiousness and the dip in donations in 2011.
Bonus coincidence: The Chuck Lang connection
(As it happens, he was
on his way to a meeting with
Joe Bast when this was taken.)
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. If Seid is the anonymous donor, and Lang is there to see that Seid's investment goes smoothly, it fits perfectly -- particularly given the evident issues in the relationship between Bast and his Anonymous Donor in the previous year or two, issues that as we've seen above are readily explicable if the Anonymous Donor is Barre Seid.
Seid's beliefs, as far as anyone can say from this distance, appear to be sincerely held. I'm not aware of any reason to think that any of his political investments have been motivated by self-interest, or that he is personally corrupt. (And really, if you want to be corrupt in Illinois, there are easier ways.) A man who believed that the election of a moderate Christian Democrat with a funny-sounding name represented an existential threat to the state of Israel -- as Seid's unprecedentedly massive support for the Clarion Fund's desperate Obsession ploy strongly suggests -- would be a man who could easily come to believe that climate science is a plot to advance the liberal agenda, and that it was his obligation to fight it.
But sincerity, too, can be a trap. True believers on the left can point to some scars of our own in that respect. Sincere belief can lead us to put our trust in unworthy characters such as, in Seid's case, astoundingly incompetent hacks like Heartland's Joe Bast -- a man who not only wouldn't know "sound science" if it bit him on the ass, but who can't even maintain the most basic operational security in his own office.
No wonder Bast has so much trouble raising money from people who aren't named Barre Seid.
It took some of the Shimer community's very brightest minds to identify these connections, and they did it under terrifying pressure ... but after all, reading difficult texts closely and carefully, and then interpreting them persuasively to others, is a skill that Shimerians spend four years honing. I'm not at liberty to acknowledge all those who deserve acknowledgment, although alumnus Dan Merchán is certainly prominent among them, as is steadfast friend of the college Erik Graff, and at least one student who prefers to remain anonymous.
So if you believe, as many do, that a Great Books education has no place in today's world, you might want to consider what it took to be able to put these pieces together for the first time.
The Case of the Anonymous Pie
Somebody has been sneaking up to the cottage's kitchen window every morning and leaving a huge, delicious, freshly-baked apple pie on the windowsill. This has been going on for quite a while now. Joe (who lives in the cottage) doesn't seem bothered in the least by these mysterious pies, and happily gobbles up even the largest of them. The rest of us, however, are getting awfully curious.
Very few people live near enough to Joe's cottage to have been making these deliveries. Only one of them has ever given Joe a full pie before: a generous fellow named Barry, who mostly keeps to himself, but gets along with Joe famously. (A few of the other neighbors have occasionally been persuaded to let Joe have a slice or two, but never a whole pie.)
In fact, Barry is a prodigious pie-baker, and he is the only one anywhere in the Forest of Wealth who has ever actually baked an apple pie as big as the ones on Joe's windowsill. Furthermore, he was giving Joe a pie every day up until the day before the mystery pies began to appear.
The footprints of the mysterious pie-leaver lead toward Barry's cabin, and have the same size and shape and tread as Barry's boots.
We cannot entirely rule out the possibility that unbeknownst to us, there is a crazed pie-baking hermit hiding in a cave somewhere in the Forest of Wealth, who has stolen an old pair of Barry's boots and has been carefully leaving a deceptive trail so that all the clues will point to Barry. But if we discovered that the pies had contained a slow-acting poison all along, we wouldn't have many reservations about convicting Barry for causing poor Joe's untimely demise -- at least, not unless evidence came to light confirming this hermit's existence and strange pie-related behavior.
I contend that the case of the Anonymous Donor, stripped to its essentials, is no different from the case of this anonymous pie, and that therefore, unless extraordinary new evidence comes to light, we must assume that the Anonymous Donor is Barre Seid.
Anyway, that's what I think. What do you think?