How the Aspen Institute Helps Deep-Pocketed Donors Influence Congress

The 'Mountain Retreat for the Liberal Elite' brings lawmakers and corporate donors together on lavish junkets

May 14, 2024

Last month, the Aspen Institute flew 20 members of Congress and their spouses to Bellagio, Italy, for a series of "off-the-record" conversations on artificial intelligence featuring representatives from seven corporations working in the AI space. Five of the companies—including Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective—have donated at least $485,000 to the Aspen Institute since 2021.

Aspen shelled out around $13,000 per person for the retreat, which took place at a corporate resort on the shores of Lake Como. The trip featured six House members who serve on the newly formed House AI Task Force, including co-chairman Ted Lieu (D., Calif.).

That’s one of three such off-the-record junkets the liberal think tank has hosted since September, a Washington Free Beacon review found. The trips, on which Aspen has spent at least $1 million, bring together the Aspen Institute’s deep-pocketed corporate donors—Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, and the Emerson Collective, among others—and lawmakers with influence over the donors’ pet issues.

The retreats could raise concerns that the Aspen Institute, which one magazine dubbed "the mountain retreat for the liberal elite," is violating its own conflict of interest policy, which it implemented in 2015. The think tank says it has "the final say" over "who speaks at any of our convenings." And it says its Congressional Program, which organizes the foreign trips, "does not accept funding from … corporations or special interests."

Miranda Perry Fleischer, a finance professor at San Diego University who studies nonprofits, said the arrangement "tarnishes the halo" that Aspen Institute provides for its corporate donors at the congressional junkets by raising "questions about why Aspen is bringing in certain speakers."

"The better practice for them would also be to disclose that speakers represent companies that are donors," said Fleischer, while noting that the corporate donors to the Italy retreat provide a small fraction of Aspen’s $190 million annual budget.

Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, attended the Italy conference with his wife. Weeks prior to the conference, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the "Promise and Pitfalls" of artificial intelligence in the healthcare industry.

That very topic was discussed at the Italy conference by Microsoft executive David Rhew, who spoke on the topic: "New Frontiers: AI and Healthcare." Microsoft has contributed between $200,000 and $1 million to the Aspen Institute since 2021.

Executives from AutoDesk, PepsiCo, IBM, and Emerson Collective also spoke to lawmakers about developments in the AI industry. Those firms, which invest heavily in AI, have given at least $285,000 in all to Aspen Institute since 2021.

"Participants at Congressional Program events are invited for their expertise and interest in engaging with the issues discussed, and funders were not consulted on invitations or the content of the agenda at any stage," Aspen Institute spokesman Jon Purves told the Free Beacon.

Purves also says the junkets are funded exclusively through foundations and nonprofits, "not private sector companies."

But some of those nonprofits are closely linked to private sector companies.

Aspen’s September 2023 climate-themed junket in Norway was funded by the Breakthrough Energy Foundation, the charity arm of Bill Gates’s green energy venture capital firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Breakthrough Energy, which has invested $2 billion in 100 green energy startups, gave at least $500,000 to Aspen Institute in 2022. Gates himself has given upwards of $2 million to Aspen Institute since 2021.

Nineteen congressmen and two senators attended the Norway trip, where Breakthrough Energy’s senior director of policy touted the government’s "unprecedented investments in clean energy" as part of a discussion on "what it will take for the United States to maintain and expand on its status as a world leader in clean energy innovation." The Breakthrough Energy executive was joined in that seminar by the CEO of ClearPath Foundation, a right-of-center group that pushes clean energy initiatives. ClearPath has given $150,000 to Aspen Institute since 2021.

Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, each gave at least $1 million to Aspen Institute in 2022. The company’s cloud computing "skills center" in Cape Town was the focal point of Aspen’s February conference in South Africa, where 4 senators and 14 House members learned how the center helps Africans "bring their visions to life."

Aspen shelled out between $20,000 and $30,000 for each lawmaker to attend the conference, which focused on the United States "partnering with Africa" on national security and "economic interests."

This isn’t the first time the Aspen Institute has faced conflict of interest concerns. In September 2020, the think tank organized a strategy session with social media companies and journalists that aimed at downplaying negative stories about Hunter Biden, the Free Beacon reported. The organizers urged reporters to treat the release of any emails attributed to the embattled first son with "skepticism." The following month, the New York Post published emails from Biden’s laptop that revealed damning details about his foreign business dealings.

Some of President Biden’s biggest donors fund Aspen Digital, the Aspen Institute offshoot that ran the simulation. Google cofounder Eric Schmidt, who contributed $2.5 million to pro-Biden groups in 2020, is an Aspen Digital donor, as is Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. He gave $100,000 to the Biden campaign in 2020.

Twitter, which took part in the exercise, censored links to the Post articles about Biden’s laptop. The Washington Post, which had a reporter take part in the Aspen project, published a series of stories that cast doubt on the provenance of Biden’s laptop, which he abandoned at a computer repair shop in April 2019 while in the midst of a drug bender.