He’s a mega-rich member of the New York financial class who backs the Tea Party and rails against “elites.” He spends millions at a time funding extreme anti-government, anti-choice groups including the Susan B. Anthony List and Americans United for Life. He’s set up nonprofits that seem to act as pass-throughs for rivers of campaign cash.
And his last name is not Koch.
Since 2010, Sean Fieler, a New Jersey-based hedge fund manager and fervent Catholic, has personally contributed nearly $18 million to political candidates and causes that align with his anti-choice, anti-LGBT, and pro-theocracy views, quietly cementing himself as the ATM for the most extreme elements of the fundamentalist Christian and Catholic political machine, according to an analysis of tax filings and campaign finance records by Rewire.
Due to the opaque nature of federal and state disclosure laws, it’s impossible to know exactly how much any individual has given to political candidates, causes, and committees. Experts told Rewire, however, that $18 million places Fieler among the upper tier of political givers in the United States.
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“Whether he’s in the top ten or top 20, it’s impossible to say,” said Dale Eisman, spokesperson for Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group. “It’s enough money that folks ought to know who he has given to.”
Fieler did not respond to Rewire’s requests for an interview, but our analysis of his public statements and financial contributions paints a picture of a man with extremely deep convictions, and the pockets to match. He has sprinkled funds amongst at least 77 candidates throughout 19 states, has almost single-handedly created a pass-through entity for funding extreme Catholic and Christian groups, and has laid the foundation for a policy center that appears intended to influence the Republican Party to bring ultra-conservative views to the center of its policies.
“When it comes to what are euphemistically referred to as the ‘social issues,’ we promise not to talk about life and marriage, the literal future and irreplaceable foundation of our society,” Fieler told his audience at last year’s annual gala for one of the nonprofits that he funds, the American Principles Project. “To win, we need but make one change, to emphasize, rather than run away from our principles.”
So ubiquitous is Fieler’s money, and so extreme are his views, that even other conservatives are willing to speak out against him.
“Very few people actually support the positions advocated by the groups that he funds but their funding is so massive that they’re able to project more strength than they actually have,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, a conservative strategist and commentator who formerly headed GOProud, a now-defunct group that advocated for LGBTQI people within the Republican Party. “Fewer and fewer conservatives are supporting such extreme social positions. The only thing keeping that movement alive is the funding because there isn’t popular support for those points of view.”
However, given Fieler’s wealth and the fervor of his convictions, it’s likely that he will have a growing influence on conservative politics and national political debates.
Fieler is the manager and co-owner of a financial firm called Mason Hill Advisors, which was formed on Christmas Eve of 2004. At of the end of 2013, the firm had more than $2 billion under management, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The funds that Fieler manages through Mason Hill hold large amounts of stock in mining companies whose value depends largely on the value of silver and other metals.
Two such companies are MAG Corporation and Fortuna Silver Mines, both Canadian-based companies that operate in Mexico. (Fortuna also has sites in Peru.)
Like most hedge fund managers, Fieler and his partners take a percentage of their investors’ capital as fees, as well as a percentage of any profit they earn on those investments. While hedge funds are notoriously opaque, it’s clear that Fieler’s business has done well enough to enable him to shower dozens of candidates and a select few of his favored nonprofits with millions of dollars at a time.
The main beneficiary of Fieler’s generosity is the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that says it aims to “offer the saving grace of Jesus to all while defending everyone’s unalienable right to exercise the religion of their own choosing.”
Fieler appears to have given nearly $13 million to the foundation since 2006, with contributions ramping up in 2010. In fact, Fieler appears to be the only significant contributor to Chiaroscuro, with all other contributions totaling less than $90,000.
“Chiaroscuro” refers to the style of painting from the 17th Century—made most famous by Caravaggio and da Vinci—that emphasized contrasts between light and dark. One can’t help but think the name is a metaphor for how Fieler, who is chair of the foundation, and the group’s president, Greg Pfundstein, see the world: in stark terms, where their views represent the light, and other views belong in the shadows.
In all, Chiaroscuro disbursed some $19.2 million to conservative, and mostly religious, organizations between 2011 and 2013, according to an analysis of the foundation’s own numbers, as well as publicly available documents. (Because Chiaroscuro did not reply to our request for comment, we cannot account for the discrepancies between what they have reported on their site, versus on their tax filings.)
Recipients of Chiaroscuro’s largesse include:
- Nearly $1.2 million to EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, a type of anti-choice center known for bait-and-switch tactics that mislead pregnant women into believing they offer abortion, when in fact they exist to peddle anti-choice propaganda such as debunked claims about the health risks of the procedure.
- $650,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nonprofit law firm that, along with the Alliance Defending Freedom, has played a central role in the scores of lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act.
- $295,000 to the extreme anti-choice group Americans United for Life.
- $275,000 for the Susan B. Anthony List, a key anti-choice group that funds misleading attack ads against pro-choice candidates, while also backing anti-choice candidates.
- $100,000 to Live Action, the group run by Lila Rose, a young darling of the anti-choice movement, whose so-called “sting” operations on Planned Parenthood clinics and other progressive groups have veered between over-hyped and clownish.
- $20,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, a leading group that opposes equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
(See complete lists of Fieler’s giving, both directly and through the multiple nonprofits he funds, here.)
But that is far from the full extent of Fieler’s giving. He has an entirely separate collection of entities known as the American Principles Project, with its affiliated groups, the American Principles Fund and American Principles in Action. According to public records analyzed by Rewire, Fieler appears to have given just shy of $1 million to American Principles in 2013 and 2014 alone.
American Principles paid nearly $800,000 in 2013 to 2014 for political advertisements attacking candidates for their stances on same-sex marriage and abortion. Key targets included Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is now a U.S. senator, as well as Elizabeth Cheney in her bid to win the Republican primaries to become a U.S. senator for Wyoming.
Why Fieler’s group would oppose Elizabeth Cheney—whose anti-gay rights views led to a bitter public conflict with her sister, Mary, who is a lesbian—is unclear.
The third target of American Principles’ attack ads was Monica Wehby, a Republican challenger for a U.S. Senate seat from Oregon.
And then there’s Fieler’s personal giving, which he does directly in addition to the millions of dollars in contributions he makes to nonprofits and pass-through entities.
Since 2008, Fieler has contributed $2.5 million directly to 77 candidates in 19 states, including both state and federal races.
His largest contributions included denizens of the ultra-conservative movement. Ken Cuccinelli, the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, received $72,000. Cuccinelli supports so-called personhood laws, an anti-choice legal Trojan horse that would criminalize abortion and many forms of contraception under the guise of giving fetuses the full rights of legal “persons.”
Other ultra-conservative stalwarts—Mike Pence, Scott Walker, and Carl Paladino—each received $20,000 or more.
Fieler also gave $2,500 to Richard Mourdock, the GOP candidate for a U.S. Senate seat for Indiana who torpedoed his 2012 campaign when he said that pregnancies resulting from rape are a “gift from God.”
And Fernando Cabrera, a New York City Council member and pastor who is running for New York state senate, received $6,500 from Fieler. Though a Democrat, Cabrera has recently made comments broadly understood to be praising the extreme anti-LGBTQI laws in Uganda. Cabrera, a former Republican, has also attended events held by the Family Research Council, a fundamentalist Christian organization that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
If that isn’t wingnuttish enough, Fieler also gave $3,500 to Edward Ray Moore, an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in South Carolina, who believed children should be pulled out of “godless” and “pagan” public schools, which he characterized as “the enemy.” He spoke at a 9.12 Project rally (a Tea Party-aligned movement run by Glenn Beck) and was behind a documentary called IndoctriNation, which warned Christians about the evils of public education.
But of all the states, Fieler paid special attention to Utah, giving more than $70,000 to candidates there.
Why would a New York-based hedge fund manager feel so passionate about politics in Utah?
The answer appears to be linked to legislation recently passed in Utah, relating to one of Fieler’s pet causes.
Fieler is a fervent advocate of returning to the use of silver and gold coins as currency in the United States, believing that “honest money” will rein in what he sees as a rogue U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. These views put him in the company of cranks like Glenn Beck, who has been shilling gold to his audiences for years, even while the firm he promotes, Goldline, had to repay millions of dollars to clients in order to settle a 19-count criminal charge in a California court in early 2012.
Indeed, surprising as it may seem, of all the issues supported by Fieler, he has perhaps been most vocal on “honest money.”
American Principles in Action cites promoting “a return to the gold standard and sound money” as its first priority, and Fieler has spoken about silver and gold money at gala events, as well as during interviews with people such as the head of the Gold Money Foundation.
The group has been lobbying lawmakers throughout the states to introduce legislation to allow silver and gold to be used as currency, Fieler said in a June 2011 interview, and trying to figure out how to “mainstream” the idea.
An employee of American Principles, Steven Lonegan, last month wrote a column in which he called the “fight” to return to the gold standard, a “moral issue.”
(Lonegan is a former Koch operative, having worked for Americans for Prosperity. Fieler contributed $10,400 to Lonegan’s unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat last year, before Lonegan joined American Principles, according to news reports.)
In 2012, Fieler gave $10,000 to Larry Hilton, an insurance executive and lawyer based in Provo who was running for state office in Utah, according to his LinkedIn account.
At around the same time, Utah’s governor signed a bill that legalized gold and silver coins as legal currency in Utah, making it the first such law in the nation.
Who drafted that bill? None other than Larry Hilton.
An editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune called the law “outlandish,” and reported that Hilton claimed in 2011 that gold and silver currency were necessary because “one dollar will be worth one penny in five years,” due to inflation.
On his declaration of candidacy for that race, Hilton said he was on the advisory board of American Principles in Action (though the nonprofit’s most recent available tax filings don’t list Hilton as a board member).
It looked as if Arizona was set to follow, with the legislature passing a similar bill in April 2013. However, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, citing practical concerns but no philosophical objection to returning to metal money.
Another ten states are considering similar laws, and a federal version was introduced in 2011 by then Sen. Jim DeMint, who later left Congress to lead the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) reintroduced the bill last year (there was also a House version), but it died in committee.
In all of the public speeches and editorials that Fieler has written calling for the use of silver and gold as currency, Rewire did not find a single instance where he disclosed that he invests in companies that profit from digging up the metal.
There is nothing illegal about Fieler backing silver as currency while also profiting from investing in companies that dig up the mineral, or even any obligation to disclose those interests in the course of his advocacy and lobbying work, according to Eisman, of Common Cause. Eisman says, however, that he would prefer if Fieler chose to make those disclosures.
“It would be nice if he did [disclose],” Eisman said. “It would be reassuring about his commitment to public service if he did.”
In addition to showing candidates and causes with cash, Fieler appears to be trying to establish his groups as thought leaders in the conservative movement.
In October 2013, American Principles released a white paper called “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012.”
Unsurprisingly, the report concluded that Republicans should be more aggressive on “social” issues, such as abortion and marriage.
But it also contained some nuances that explain why Fieler could be such an interesting complement to the Koch brothers.
The report—also known as the “autopsy” of the 2012 Republican defeat—urges immigration reform because, it argues, Hispanics are natural conservatives who are currently alienated by the GOP’s stance on immigration.
If the party shifted on immigration, the report argues, it could “use values issues to attract Hispanics.”
“The GOP is the party of life, marriage and religious liberty,” the report says. “Conservatives adopted these issues because they believe in them. Republicans need to push them, and govern with them, not run from them, in order to attract Latino voters.”
Fieler himself occasionally claims that his “project is nonpartisan,” as he did at the American Principles Gala in 2013.
“If only, there will a little room in the Democratic Party for the unborn, we would willingly engage with them,” he told the room. But then he made known his true contempt for people who disagree with his own religious views. “Regrettably, the Left’s spontaneous chant against life is not an aberration. It is part of a larger tension with human dignity that underlies their whole project,” he said.
Apparently, Fieler’s view of human dignity includes denying reproductive rights to women, denying family rights to anyone other than married heterosexuals, allowing employers to impose their religious views on workers, and imposing fundamentalist Catholic orthodoxies on society writ large.
And given his growing influence in the conservative movement, it’s possible that his views will grow in dominance at both state and federal levels.
Brie Shea contributed research to this report.