WASHINGTON (AP) — The Berger Action Fund is a nondescript name for a group with a rather specific purpose: steering the wealth of Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire, into the world of American politics and policy.
As a foreign national, Wyss is prohibited from donating to candidates or political committees. But his influence is still broadly felt through millions of dollars routed through a network of nonprofit groups that invest heavily in the Democratic ecosystem. Such groups don’t have to disclose the source of their funding — or many details about how they spend it.
Newly available tax documents show that his giving through the Berger Action Fund, which describes itself as advocating for “solutions to some of our world’s biggest problems,” swelled in 2021 to $72 million, cementing Wyss’ status as a Democratic-aligned megadonor.
Representatives for Wyss insist they comply with laws governing the giving of foreign nationals and have put in place strict policies limiting the use of donations to “issue advocacy” — not partisan electoral activities. But the fact that the money cannot be publicly traced highlights the difficulty of putting such assertions to the test.
Those same groups have helped to bankroll efforts to lift President Joe Biden’s agenda and paid for TV ads promoting Democratic congressional candidates ahead of last year’s midterm elections.
One ad paid for by a group that Wyss had financed praised Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., for helping pass a Biden-championed bill with green energy provisions. “Some politicians just ignore this crisis,” narrators said. “Maggie Hassan just did something about it.”
After criticizing Republicans for using dark money, Democratic-aligned groups spent more of it in 2020.
“The whole system is currently structured on this premise that we can take these nonprofit group at their word. The reality is there is really no effective oversight to make sure money from a foreign national doesn’t wind up in electoral politics,” said Saurav Ghosh, a director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan watchdog group.
Wyss, who lives in Wyoming, was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1935. But he fell in love with the U.S. as a young man, drawn to the rugged beauty of the American West.
After graduating from Harvard Business School, Wyss worked in textiles and for automaker Chrysler. He later built a fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine last year to be worth $5 billion, after establishing the medical device maker Synthes USA, which was sold to Johnson & Johnson for about $20 billion in 2012.
Now, he is most aligned with environmental activism, establishing the Wyss Foundation in 1998 “to help ensure that the iconic Western landscapes that inspired him are protected for everyone.”
In 2007, he expanded his giving, creating the Berger Action Fund, which has donated $339 million to left-leaning nonprofits since 2016, records show.
Wyss’ sister, Heidi Wyss, described her brother’s pursuit of political influence in a 2014 biography that she authored, “Hansjörg Wyss: My Brother.”
“What was important for him was to find out that he could exert an influence through his foundation,” Heidi Wyss wrote.
“At a single meeting, the board of trustees quite often allocates several million dollars. Thus behind the scenes a Swiss plays an important part in American politics,” another passage states.
Of the $72.7 million donated in 2021 by Wyss’ Berger Action Fund, $62.7 million went to two groups that were focused on building public support for Biden’s agenda, according to tax documents and a statement from the group.
“The Berger Action Fund and the Wyss Foundation are committed to complying with all rules governing their activities and have established strict policies prohibiting their funds from being used for get-out-the-vote activities, voter registration, or supporting or opposing candidates or political parties,” the group said in a statement.
Between 1990 and 2006, he donated $119,000 directly to candidates and political committees, as previously reported by The New York Times. Wyss has not addressed the contributions. The statute of limitations to bring any charges has long since passed and the Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, declined to take action against him.
Since switching his focus to nonprofits, two closely related organizations that play a role in Democratic politics have been among the biggest recipients of Wyss’ money.
The Sixteen Thirty Fund and the New Venture Fund — two organizations that share the same founder, address and management firm — collectively received $245 million donated by Wyss’ groups since 2016, tax records show.
The organizations were established over a decade ago by Eric Kessler, a former Clinton administration official and heir to an automotive parts fortune.
“Nearly all of the donations we receive are intended for specific projects or purposes; many donations cannot be used for electoral activities; and every contribution is used in compliance with all guidelines, regulations, and laws,” Amy Kurtz, the president of Sixteen Thirty Fund, said in a statement.
The New Venture Fund is set up to focus on more traditional nonprofit work, while the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which has received $208 million from Wyss since 2016 is, oriented more explicitly toward the political arena. Molly McUsic, the president of Wyss’ Berger Action Fund, is a former director of the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Sixteen Thirty Fund gives directly to political committees, but it also donates to other nonprofit groups that give money to political committees or pay for TV ads that back specific candidates or causes, tax filings and campaign finance disclosures show.
Last summer, staff attorneys for the FEC said Sixteen Thirty Fund should be required to register as a political committee, a distinction which would force more disclosure.
The recommendations were spurred by a complaint filed by a conservative group against Wyss, his nonprofits, the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the New Venture Fund.
In a memorandum, five FEC attorneys noted that the groups denied donations from Wyss’ nonprofits were used for overt political activity, like paying for ads or electoral activity. But the groups also declined to offer specifics about what practices they have in place to ensure the money is not used that way, the memo states.
The commissioners ultimately rejected the complaint, though two of them pledged greater scrutiny of such groups.
Allegations included in two recent lawsuits filed against the New Venture Fund accuse the organization, which shares the same legal compliance firm as the Sixteen Thirty Fund, of misrepresenting information to donors, or failing to abide by the the strict controls it says it has adopted.
One former contractor, Sarah Walker, alleged in a 2022 federal lawsuit that a New Venture Fund project, where she served as executive director, repeatedly used “tax-deductible contributions” to subsidize the “overhead and pay compensation to numerous employees who performed most of their work” in the political arena. Walker, who is Black, also accuses the nonprofit of fostering a hostile work environment and of racially discriminatory conduct.
Walker declined to comment for this story.
In a statement, New Venture Fund President Lee Bodner said the allegations have “no merit.”
“Further, like any 501(c)(3) organization, we do not engage in any partisan electoral work,” Bodner said.
Wyss also has donated to another nonprofit, Fund For A Better Future, which has received $101 million since 2016. In 2021, a Fund for a Better Future project called Climate Power led a campaign that helped finance millions of dollars in ads backing Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, records show.
Climate Power also spent about $5.3 million on ads supporting about 30 House Democrats in the closing months of the 2022 midterms, campaign finance disclosures show.
“Fund for a Better Future carefully tracks and controls its revenues and expenses to ensure we comply with legal limits and with any restrictions placed on the funds we receive from donors,” spokesperson Niki Woodard said in a statement.