ProPublica Donors Absent From Bombshell Report on Billionaire Tax Dodgers

Nonprofit pub has thousands of private tax docs on nation's wealthiest

Laurene Powell Jobs and former Washington mayor Adrian Fenty
Laurene Powell Jobs and former Washington mayor Adrian Fenty / Getty Images
June 21, 2021

ProPublica made waves after it obtained thousands of private tax documents for the country's wealthiest citizens and published a scathing investigation centered on the tax rates of Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, and Michael Bloomberg, among others. Absent from the report: any of the publication's largest donors, including Laurene Powell Jobs, David Filo, and Pierre Omidyar.

The nonprofit news organization's June 8 story boasted about a "trove of never-before-seen records [that] reveal how the wealthiest avoid income tax." ProPublica documented the staggering wealth of business and finance titans, while emphasizing that they paid taxes to the federal government at a lower rate than many middle-class Americans. Conspicuously missing from the report, however, were details on whether the billionaires who fund ProPublica engage in similar tax avoidance schemes. ProPublica declined to say whether it had obtained tax returns for any of its donors or whether it planned on publishing them.

The organization initially stayed mum when asked by the Washington Free Beacon how they chose which tax returns to divulge out of the "thousands" they obtained. In a follow-up email, ProPublica president Richard Tofel said he is "not commenting on what we have until and unless we publish it."

"I note that your list of questions seems to involve individuals who have contributed to ProPublica, directly or through entities they have created," Tofel said. "I would note that our first story contained information about George Soros, who is similarly situated, but about whom you didn't ask."

Although ProPublica did make a passing reference to Soros—alleging that he "paid no federal income tax three years in a row" and printing a statement from his spokesman—the Hungarian-born billionaire is not a major funder of ProPublica.

In 2019, the Soros-backed Open Society Foundations gave $353,000 to the organization, the 20th-largest donor. In contrast, the Yellow Chair Foundation, helmed by billionaire and Yahoo cofounder Filo, donated $1.8 million. Jobs’s Emerson Collective gave $4.6 million in 2018, the third-largest gift ProPublica received between 2017 and 2019. Democracy Fund, founded by eBay cofounder Omidyar, gave $3 million in 2017. Over three years, ProPublica accepted donations totaling in the tens of millions from individual billionaires, the family charities of billionaires, or multibillion-dollar corporations.

"It’s clear, though, from aggregate IRS data, tax research, and what little trickles into the public arena about estate planning of the wealthy that they can readily escape turning over almost half of the value of their estates," ProPublica wrote in its story. "Many of the richest create foundations for philanthropic giving, which provide large charitable tax deductions during their lifetimes and bypass the estate tax when they die."

Ironically, ProPublica is likely one of the beneficiaries of the tax-avoidance strategy it derides. In 2017, the Ford Foundation gave a $7.5 million gift to ProPublica. Established in 1936 by then-Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford, the Ford Foundation became the largest charity in the world after Edsel and Henry Ford left much of their fortune to the organization. It now oversees an estimated $12.4 billion endowment.

Other family foundations, such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Katie Mcgrath & J.J. Abrams Family Foundation, and the Sandler Foundation have given ProPublica millions of dollars over the years.

The IRS is now investigating how the private tax information ended up in ProPublica's hands. Tofel denied that the information came from within the IRS, saying the source was anonymous.

"We did not solicit any of the information we received, and have no intention of soliciting particular return information in the future," he said in an email.