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Mary Bottari: Weaponized philanthropy: Document trove details Bradley Foundation's efforts to build nationwide right-wing 'infrastructure'

Mary Bottari: Weaponized philanthropy: Document trove details Bradley Foundation's efforts to build nationwide right-wing 'infrastructure'

Bradley Files

Documents examined by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) expose a national effort funded by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation to assess and expand right-wing “infrastructure” to influence policies and politicians in statehouses nationwide.

The documents were made public in October 2016 on two Twitter accounts that cybersecurity analysts have linked to one of the Russian hackers alleged to have breached the Democratic National Committee. The Bradley Foundation confirmed in a statement that the hack had taken place and was reported to the FBI. More information about how the Bradley files became public is available here.

The documents open a window to the behind-the-scenes workings of one of America’s largest right-wing foundations. With $835 million in assets as of June 2016, the Bradley Foundation is as large as the three Koch family foundations combined, yet receives much less attention as a significant funder of the right.

CMD has examined thousands of these documents, including Bradley board documents between 2013-2016. The documents indicate that Bradley has a new stream of funding to build this “conservative infrastructure” and is using a metric to assess the strength and depth of that infrastructure in individual states — including “receptive” politicians, right-wing “think tanks,” symbiotic “grass-roots” groups, friendly media, litigation centers, and opposition research — to guide Bradley’s strategic funding initiatives.

Bradley ranks states into four “tiers” of investment opportunities and prioritizes funding the top tier states. A re-creation of Bradley’s master chart listing all U.S. states and scoring their infrastructure needs can be found here.

The documents also reveal that Bradley is bankrolling groups across the nation that are working to defund and dismantle unions. The political nature of this attack is underscored by Bradley grantees who boast in major newspapers and in Bradley-funded publications like the Daily Signal that the evisceration of public- and private-sector unions in states like Wisconsin and Michigan was successful in turning blue states red in the last presidential election cycle.

Bradley describes its goal as advancing “conservatism,” but the files link “receptivity to conservative policy reform” to “unified control” of governorships, legislatures, and state Supreme Courts by the Republican Party (The Barder Fund, Aug. 18, 2015). A Bradley video geared toward enticing other funders to join the cause puts it more bluntly: “Together we can help keep our Great Lakes blue and our states red.”

The Bradley Foundation, organized as a tax-exempt “charitable” foundation under 501(c)(3) of the tax code, appears to be pursuing a highly partisan game plan: funding an “infrastructure” on the right that benefits the Republican Party, while at the same time attempting to crush supporters of the Democratic Party. “The trial attorneys and Big Labor” are the “two principal funding pillars of the left,” the Bradley documents claim on multiple occasions (Center for America, Grant Proposal Record, 8/19/214) (NRWLDF, Grant Proposal Record, 11/12/2013).

Regarding the Bradley Foundation’s efforts to defund and dismantle unions, Marcus Owen, who served as director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service for 10 years, told the Center for Media and Democracy, “There is no basis for the proposition that defunding labor unions is a charitable purpose within the Internal Revenue Code.”

The documents reveal that a key Bradley partner in this effort is the discredited Berman and Co. public relations firm and the many front groups it has spawned. Berman and Co. is run by Richard Berman, an aggressive propagator of industry spin and disinformation, profiled by “60 Minutes” as a “hired gun” for corporate America. Berman is best known for propping up propagandistic websites and launching public relations and social media campaigns to smear nonprofit environmental, worker rights, consumer, and animal welfare organizations. The Center for Media and Democracy has specifically been targeted by Berman over the years.

Representing clients in the restaurant industry, Berman has long campaigned against any rise in the minimum wage or tipped minimum wage, which has stood at $2.13 for 30 years. He has battled efforts at the state and federal level that make joining a union easier, has attacked organized workers and their leaders, and has been a primary opponent of labor-backed campaigns to raise the minimum wage.

The documents reveal that Bradley is funding a new Berman project called the “Interstate Policy Alliance” to target its strategic infrastructure investments, as a “discrete channel” for cookie-cutter reports for member groups to publish to “maximize credibility,” and to train Bradley-funded groups in “crisis communication” and opposition research. Bradley cites the case of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was “caught flatfooted,” the documents say, after the Center for Media and Democracy published ALEC’s secret library of “model bills” — voted on behind closed doors with corporate lobbyists — and launched in 2011.

The documents show that Bradley has funded ALEC to aid with “proactive reputation management,” and the “larger plan” includes “aggressive opposition research.” Bradley wants Berman to develop an “off-the-shelf public-relations strategy” for “conservative outfits caught in the media crosshairs.” The key to success, the documents say, is “well sourced opposition research already prepared and ready to deploy” against opponents (Center for Consumer Freedom, Grant Proposal Record, 8/21/12).

Berman engages in aggressive PR campaigns attacking teachers unions, a significant opponent of Bradley’s long-term agenda to advance taxpayer vouchers for private and religious schools, while other Bradley-funded institutions are funded to “defund teachers unions and achieve real education reform” (Barder Fund, 8/18/15). Bradley is so anxious to silence the organized voice of public school teachers it has pumped $1.77 million into a substitute, the Association of American Educators Foundation. “The NEA and AFT have already been substantially weakened by Wisconsin Act 10. AAE thinks it is well-positioned to help further weaken the unions and their political goals,” say the documents (AAEF, Grant Proposal Record, 8/19/2014).

“While I have not yet seen all of the documents, this appears to be more evidence that a few powerful private foundations are weaponizing philanthropy for their own private political purposes. The government gives charitable foundations tax breaks in exchange for furthering the public good. Instead, it sounds as if the Bradley Foundation has been furthering the good of its own political agenda. It really begs some serious legal questions,” said author Jane Mayer.

CMD  is now rolling out a series of articles based on its analysis of the Bradley documents, including articles focused on Bradley’s ties to Richard Berman, Bradley’s efforts to “defund the Left” and dismantle labor unions, Bradley’s funding of the State Policy Network of “think tanks,” and Bradley’s aggressive litigation strategy. You can find the series at

Mary Bottari is deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy.

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