Unless you spent 2008 in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears, you probably remember the Islamophobic Obsession DVD that was included in millions of Sunday newspapers in September 2008. The DVD was distributed by a right-wing organization called the Clarion Fund. The DVD didn't elect the McCain/Palin ticket as Clarion hoped, but it did help to fuel the fear and hate that erupted this year in the "Ground Zero Mosque" nontroversy.
The Clarion Fund spent more than $17 million distributing Obsession. That was several times the fund's entire budget for the previous year. The cash infusion was traced back to Donors Capital Fund, an arm of Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund in Virginia. But until now, the real source of that money was unknown.
The Shimer College Story
Let me tell you a bit about my alma mater, Shimer College in Chicago. It's relevant, I promise.
Shimer is a very, very small, very rigorous Great Books college with a long tradition of a) participatory governance, b) classes based on discussion of original source texts, and c) poverty. We're very proud of the first two.
But Shimer doesn't like being poor. And when you're involuntarily poor and somebody shows up on your doorstep offering you the best part of a million bucks just to keep doing what you're doing ... you're probably not going to ask a lot of questions. Neither did Shimer, when the anonymous donations started rolling in. And when one friendly person after another showed up offering ten grand or more just for a chance to sit on the Board of Trustees, well, so much the better.
Sure, a lot of these new trustees were politically conservative; but then, Great Books education hasn't exactly been a cause célèbre among progressives lately. And by "lately" I mean "in living memory." Plus, some of the new people were just businessmen. There's nothing wrong with that, right?
But the businessmen weren't just businessmen, and the conservatives weren't just conservative. Almost to a person, they turned out to be hand-picked stooges of Barre Seid, Chicago millionaire and longtime supporter of far-right causes. The businessmen ran companies in which Seid had a large or controlling stake; many of the conservatives ran organizations that received massive sums from Seid. These relationships were finally brought to public attention in late 2009 through two articles in the Chicago Reader. But by then it was almost too late.
How did we get Seid's hooks out of Shimer? We did it, but it wasn't easy. In 2009-2010, Seid's wrecking crew maneuvered a marionette president into place against the wishes of the community, gained a near-majority on the ever-expanding Board, replaced the school's mission statement with half-baked neocon drivel, sought to nullify the authority of the Assembly (Shimer's internal democratic governing body), and threatened the faculty with termination if they didn't toe the line. In response, students and alums protested, alums mounted an unprecedented petition drive for the president's ouster, and the faculty, Alumni Association, and Assembly each voted by overwhelming margins to demand the removal of the Seid-backed president. Finally, on April 19, 2010, by the narrowest of margins, the Board of Trustees of Shimer College voted to relieve the Seid-backed president of his duties.
Since then, thankfully, the other members of Seid's crew have mostly left. Enrollment and real giving are finally on a steady upward track.
How did Seid and his lackeys get their hooks so deeply into Shimer? Fortunately, there are a lot of people around Shimer who have awesome research skills, so we've learned quite a bit about how it happened:
- Seid laundered virtually all of his contributions through Donors Trust; he had every reason to think he would remain anonymous, as he intended. It took a lot of digging through 990 forms, and some lucky breaks, for anyone to find out what was going on.
- Beginning in 2006, through Donors Trust, Seid made a series of large, anonymous contributions to Shimer.
- Seid also used Donors Trust, and other vehicles, to funnel large donations to the nonprofits managed by many of his handpicked trustees; these donations were then passed on to Shimer as if they had come from the trustees themselves.
- Seid's trustees then used the threat that the "anonymous donor" might be displeased with any other candidate to maneuver their preferred president into office.
- The new president then brought on some of "his" trustees, to gain what they thought was a majority on the Board. Fortunately for us, counting was not their strong suit... but that's another story for another time.
And that's how we almost, but not quite, lost our college. Since then, Shimer students and alums have been keeping an eye on Seid and company. Two eyes, when we can spare them.
Barre Seid's Obsession
What does this have to do with Obsession? Judging from a remarkable article by Justin Elliott in Salon.com, quite a lot:
Now, just as Clarion is gearing up to release a new film hyping the threat of Iran, the money mystery has deepened: According to a document submitted to the IRS by Clarion and obtained by Salon, a donor listed as Barry Seid gave Clarion nearly $17 million in 2008, which would have paid for virtually the entire "Obsession" DVD campaign.
The document was "inadvertently released" by Clarion; it was not supposed to have been part of the public IRS filing. But it's public now. There is a link to it from the Salon article; I'll refrain from linking directly, because you should really read the whole thing.
But anyway... Barry Seid, huh? Must be some other guy. Or not.
There's only one Barry Seid Salon could find who might fit the profile of a $17 million donor to Clarion. That would be businessman Barre Seid (note the different spelling) of Illinois .... But his representative flatly denied to Salon that he has ever given money to Clarion.
Furthermore, Clarion Fund spokesman Alex Traiman denied that the inadvertently released document is accurate.
"The sources of anonymous donations to the Clarion Fund in 2008 have been incorrectly identified," Traiman said in an e-mail to Salon. "As like many other not-for-profit organizations, we respect the right of private donors to remain anonymous."
There are only a few possible explanations here:
i. Barre Seid didn't fund Obsession. There is a super-rich guy out there named "Barry Seid", of whom nobody has ever heard, and who just happens to share Barre Seid's predilection for anonymously funneling money to right-wing plots through Donors Trust.
ii. Barre Seid didn't fund Obsession very much. Maybe somebody at the Clarion Fund got the amounts backwards: Seid donated something like fifty bucks, and somebody else gave $17 million.
.... Riiiiiiight. Because that's not the kind of mistake that would cause heads to roll. (Wouldn't you love to see the look on the face of the $17 million guy when he got a thank-you note for $50?)
iii. Seid and the Clarion Foundation, through their respective spokespeople, are lying. Or at least deceiving.
.... I'll take Occam's razor for 17 million, Alex.