John Johnson: Pacific Cash

Liberal philanthropist and media mogul funds secretive leftwing money machine
John S. Johnson / eyebeam Flickr 2008

John S. Johnson / eyebeam Flickr 2008

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The shadowy liberal powerhouse Democracy Alliance has received a huge boost from one of America’s most prestigious business families.

John S. Johnson, whose great grandfather started the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical and personal care company Johnson & Johnson, has used his sizable inheritance to bankroll liberal causes through his Pacific Foundation.

The foundation draws from Johnson’s trust and sells company stock to donate to liberal behemoths, such as the Center for American Progress and Media Matters. It is also one of the few groups to publicly acknowledge its relationship with the Democracy Alliance, listing the group as a partner on its website.

The Alliance, an association of leftist mega-donors that pumps tens of millions of dollars into progressive causes, received a grant of $40,000 in 2010 from the Pacific Foundation. The foundation did not explain the purpose of its donations, listing the donations as “unrestricted” on its IRS filings.

Both the Alliance’s partner organizations and its individual members—who shell out at least $200,000 per year to attend its ritzy gatherings—remain anonymous through loopholes in campaign finance laws.

“They are just an intermediary that brings donors together and sets up presentations from groups,” said campaign finance expert John Samples.

The Alliance does not directly handle its member donations. Instead it helps to direct the big-money donations to a select group of “favored organizations” that includes Media Matters, the Center for American Progress, and the pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA.

Neither the Alliance nor the Pacific Foundation returned calls or emails seeking comment.

While the foundation is an admitted member of the group, Johnson has been less candid about whether he maintains personal ties to the group. He did not return requests for comment, though documents obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon show Johnson to be an active partner in the Alliance during the Obama administration.

Johnson may have also used the Pacific Foundation to help meet his DA contribution requirements. He personally donated more than $410,810 to Pacific in 2010. The group in turn wrote nearly $540,000 in grants to progressive groups, including $50,000 to Media Matters.

“The Alliance specializes in financing a shadow party,” said Jacob Laksin, author of The New Leviathan. “Media Matters is the chief engine of message control; their job is to bully the media to be less indulgent of conservative arguments and to lay out their progressive worldview.”

Johnson and his wife, Susan Short, have maintained a particular interest in using media to advance their liberal worldview. Both maintain columns on the Huffington Post, where they write about environmental and Internet issues such as net neutrality.

Johnson has also invested his sizable inheritance in media, founding the website Buzzfeed in 2006. Under his leadership, Buzzfeed has evolved from a one-stop shop for viral videos and memes to one of the fastest growing political news sites in the country with former Politico writer Ben Smith at the helm.

Buzzfeed spokeswoman Ashley McCollum said Johnson’s politics have never been an issue in the newsroom.

“The political views of our board members and investors span the spectrum and neither reflect nor affect our editorial operations,” she said.

Johnson posted his own political leanings to the site in 2008, four years before Buzzfeed launched its Politics section. That year, he donated $5,000 to Truthandhope.org, a group that launched local pro-Obama advertisements in swing states.

Johnson posted the group’s donation page on the Buzzfeed site with a brief description: “A group of award-winning filmmakers have created twelve ads featuring local voices—folks from battleground states who speak compellingly of their support for Obama—and now those ads are reaching their undecided neighbors in Missouri, Ohio and Nevada.”

Johnson has not posted to the site since that time, though he has remained active in providing Democrats with campaign cash. He has donated more than $100,000 to Democrats since 2008, including $5,000 to President Obama.