Dem Dark Money Kingpin Quietly Awards Grant to Liberal Group To Fight Dark Money in Politics

Hansjörg Wyss has a history of violating federal statutes against foreign donations

Hansjörg Wyss / Getty Images
April 20, 2023

A foreign billionaire who has emerged a major source of cash for the American left's biggest dark money groups is now using his network to fund Common Cause, a left-wing organization that says it will use the billionaire's money to reduce "the influence of money in politics," the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

Common Cause leads the progressive movement's push to rid American politics of dark money and foreign funding, aims that seem to put it at odds with its newest patron, Hansjörg Wyss, who has violated federal statutes against foreign donations. Wyss's money to Common Cause, given through his Berger Action Fund, was explicitly given to fund advocacy for the DISCLOSE Act, a proposal aimed at fighting dark money in politics. Common Cause also backs bills to curtail foreign funding of political activity.

But Wyss's political activity is the kind that Common Cause says it opposes. Wyss operates a network of nonprofit groups, including the Berger Action Fund, that fund the progressive movement's biggest dark money organizations. The billionaire contributed $72 million in 2021 alone to liberal groups, "cementing Wyss's status as a Democratic-aligned megadonor," the Associated Press reported.

"Common Cause has long exemplified left-wing hypocrisy, pretending to be nonpartisan and a champion of the little guy, while in fact being a tool of liberal megadonors," said Scott Walter, the president of Capital Research Center, a watchdog that tracks liberal groups. "But it reaches new lows to take 'dark money' from Wyss—a foreign national famous for violating campaign finance laws—to fund more gaslighting that supports those laws."

It is unclear how much the Berger Action Fund has contributed to Common Cause. The grant, which has not been previously reported, is referenced on the Berger Action Fund's website, but the website does not list an amount. Common Cause claims on its site that it provides copies of its donor list upon request, but a spokesman for the group declined to turn over the information, citing the recent death of the group's president.

"We will be releasing our annual report with donor data/contributor information. But due to the leadership transition pursuant to the policy, we have temporarily suspended our policy given our president's unexpected death," said Common Cause spokesman David Walls.

Walls did not respond to follow-up questions about the donation from the Berger Action Fund. Berger did not respond to a request for comment.

The Berger Action Fund, which Wyss launched in 2007, has donated $75,240,000 since 2017 to Fund for a Better Future, the organizer behind Climate Power, a major climate change group that has shaped President Joe Biden's climate change agenda. Berger has funneled $197,912,000 since 2017 to Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Democratic dark money behemoth that itself has contributed tens of millions of dollars to Democratic super PACs, including nearly $9 million to Future Forward, the PAC that supported Biden.

Wyss's central role in funding liberal political groups has landed him with referrals to the Federal Election Commission over allegations that, as a foreigner, he illegally meddles in American politics. FEC lawyers said last year Wyss likely violated laws against direct foreign donations when he gave $69,000 to political candidates in the 1990s and 2000s. His contributions through Berger Action provide a loophole of sorts for Wyss to influence Democratic policymakers without running afoul of those laws.

Like other Wyss beneficiaries, Common Cause supports Democratic causes while targeting Republican policymakers and conservative groups.

Common Cause led a campaign to pressure Republicans to vote to end the filibuster so that Congress could pass the Freedom to Vote Act, airing ads that said, "The first step to repairing our racist past is to stop perpetuating it." Common Cause in another ad praised then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) for making "our democracy's future the first priority for the House" by supporting the For the People Act, while it attacked Republicans for opposing the legislation.

The group recently claimed credit for former president Donald Trump's indictment over payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, citing a complaint it filed in 2018 with the FEC and Justice Department. Common Cause conducts opposition research on Republicans, including a 2017 report on "Putin, Trump, and Democracy's Slippery Slope Toward Oligarchy" and a guide to combat the gun rights movement, "How People Can Take on the NRA."

Common Cause has also led a campaign to rid politics of dark money, a term the group has defined as "spending to influence elections or other political outcomes where the source of money is not disclosed." According to lobbying disclosures, Common Cause lobbies Congress regarding campaign finance transparency bills, including the DISCLOSE Act and the Get Foreign Money Out of U.S. Elections Act, introduced by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D., Md.).

"Americans deserve to know who is trying to influence our voices and our votes, and foreign entities should have zero role in determining American elections," said Karen Hobert Flynn, the late president of Common Cause, in support of the bill.

Common Cause appears concerned only with Republican dark money spending, even as Democrats outspent Republicans in dark money spending in the 2020 election cycle, $514 million to $200 million. Common Cause has raised concerns about purported dark money spending for a legal advocacy group formed by former Trump Justice Department official Matthew Whitaker, and it alleged that dark money spending boosted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.).

Common Cause appears not to have raised concerns about dark money juggernauts such as Arabella Advisors, the New Venture Fund, and the Sixteen Thirty Fund.