NGOs and Foundation Funding: Who watches the “watchdogs”?

by | Jul 7, 2011 | Videos | 0 comments


Welcome. This is James Corbett of The Corbett Report with your Eyeopener report from for this 6th day of July, 2011.

Last month, the Eyeopener investigated the “transparency award” that was bestowed on Obama this past March by a bevvy of government watchdog NGOs who are ostensibly advocating for more government openness. As we saw in that report, dozens of high profile government whistleblowers and organizations have launched a petition at calling on these NGOs to rescind the award in light of the Obama Administration’s abysmal record of government secrecy and unprecedented levels of whistleblower prosecution.

In response to the petition, one of the NGOs named in our report posted a reply defending its decision to honour Obama on the transparency issue and questioning the motives of those opposing that decision. In the rebuttal, Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight wrote:

“It is undeniable that the Obama administration has achieved more openness than any other recent president,” adding that “Public debate and disclosure is often healthy. But there is so much to be done to safeguard our rights and expand openness – our community just doesn’t have the luxury to waste time on distractions.”

Exactly how drawing attention to draconian government secrecy practices and opening a debate about whether the President deserves to be honoured for failing to live up to his campaign promises is a distraction from the task of “safeguarding rights” and “expanding openness” is not clear, but a new investigation into the funding sources of the very NGOs who are supposed to be holding the government’s feet to the fire reveals some alternative explanations for why these organizations are so reluctant to call out the Obama administration for its egregious expansion of government secrecy.

In 2010 alone, the Project on Government Oversight received $400,000 in funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, $450,000 from the Ford Foundation, and $700,000 from George Soros’ Open Society Institute (co-funded with the Transparency and Integrity Fund in 2009). Other major contributors to POGO in recent years have included the Ploughshares Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, and ironically enough for an organization devoted to transparency and openness, three anonymous donors.

While it is of course impossible to speculate on the conflicts of interest that those anonymous contributions to POGO may be obscuring, the linkages between their on-the-record funders and the very government officials they are supposed to be watching over are readily documentable.

The current chairman of the Carnegie Corporation is Thomas Kean, the co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. Carnegie President Vartan Gregorian is an Obama appointee on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. Ford Foundation President Luis Ubinas was nominated by Obama to serve on the U.S. Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation. Rockefeller Foundation Managing Director Ariel Pablos-Mendez was nominated in March of this year by President Obama to be the Assistant Administrator for Global Health of USAID. Individual POGO donor Alida Rockefeller Messinger is the sister of Senator Jay Rockefeller, who learned of Bush’s illegal warantless wiretapping program in 2003 and yet did not tell the public about it until four days after the New York Times published an article revealing the program’s existence.

The question of whether these board members, directors, trustees and presidents with direct ties to the Obama administration would be interested in funding an organization that was willing to engage in a thoroughgoing critique of the President, or whether people like the sister of Senator Jay Rockefeller have a vested interest in shielding people like Senator Rockefeller from the scrutiny of organizations like the Project on Government Oversight, is not an idle one. It goes directly to the question of how financing drives or even sets the agenda of an organization like POGO, which has gone from receiving under $350,000 to fund its operations in 1998 to over $3.5 million in fiscal 2009, a ten-fold increase in funds.

Earlier this week, I had the chance to talk to Julia Davis, a Customs and Border Protection whistleblower who has been investigating the links between government watchdog organizations like POGO and the foundations that are funding them.

The suggestion that the major foundations are in fact using their grants for political influence and not for altruistic philanthropy is a charge that has been confirmed by various congressional committees.

At the turn of the twentieth century, various nineteenth-century American robber barons including John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were beginning to endow charitable foundations as tax shelters for their incalculable fortunes and to use that wealth to influence the political climate by covert means. In 1912, the Congressional Commission on Industrial Relations, better known as the Walsh Commission after its chairman, Frank P. Walsh, heard testimony from such witnesses as future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis that these foundations were inconsistent with democracy and represented a new and possibly uncontrollable form of political power. The commission recommended that the foundations be regulated and chartered by Congress.

In 1953, Congress commissioned the Reece Committee to look into the political influence of the tax-exempt foundations. The committee was granted unprecedented access to the entirety of the meeting minutes for the Board of Directors of the Carnegie Corporation since its inception. What was found in those records stunned the committee’s researchers, including the head researcher, Norman Dodd.

Last week, Andrew Gavin Marshall, a research associate at the Centre for Research on Globalization, appeared on The Corbett Report to discuss the history of the political influence of the tax-exempt foundations.

Given this documented history of political, academic, economic and societal subversion by the directors of these corporate foundations, how can one not look skeptically on supposed government watchdog groups that are funded by these vary same organizations? What better way would there be to make sure that favoured political appointees, including ones that have been supported financially and otherwise by these foundations, avoid proper scrutiny than by funding the groups that are meant to be scrutinizing them? Surely it is not beyond the pale to ask about the connection between an organization’s purse strings and its actions, especially when that organization is devoted to openness and transparency.

What influence do corporate foundation donors have over the organizations they are propping up?

When confronted on the issue of POGO’s recent surge in funding and whether that surge in funds was related to the Obama transparency award, POGO blog editor Bryan Rahija responded by stating:

“POGO’s funders don’t set our agenda – they didn’t with the recent White House meeting, nor have they ever,” before adding that these well-connected foundations “fund us BECAUSE of our agenda.”


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