Caitlin Sutherland Testifies on Foreign Dark Money Before the U.S. Committee on House Administration

On Thursday, May 16, Americans for Public Trust Executive Director Caitlin Sutherland testified at a hearing on foreign interference in U.S. elections held by the U.S. Committee on House Administration. Sutherland’s testimony focused on the foreign influence loophole that currently allows foreign nationals to influence American politics by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars through a web of dark money organizations.

Click here to read the written testimony.

Read excerpts from Sutherland’s testimony below:

On Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss’ political goals… “Multiple press outlets have confirmed Mr. Wyss is a foreign national. But don’t just take their word for it. Listen to what Mr. Wyss has said about the matter. In 2011, Mr. Wyss told a Swiss newspaper that he ‘never felt the need to become an American.’ He claimed he found the process too ‘complicated,’ and instead, preferred to call himself ‘a spiritual dual citizen.’ Despite Mr. Wyss’ disinterest in becoming an American citizen, he made it a personal goal to influence American politics. According to a biography written by his own sister, Mr. Wyss’ goal is to ‘(re)interpret the American Constitution in the light of progressive politics.’”

On Wyss’ web of foreign-funded dark money groups… “Mr. Wyss uses his two nonprofits – the Wyss Foundation, a 501(c)(3), and the Berger Action Fund (formerly called the Wyss Action Fund), a 501(c)(4) – to fund liberal groups across the nation. He has used these two nonprofits to pump almost half a billion dollars into the U.S. political system…If this sounds like a staggering amount of money from a reclusive foreign billionaire and organizations that are far from being household names, that’s because it’s all by design. Again, while speaking to foreign media, Mr. Wyss admitted that he was fighting laws in Arizona that ‘give police too many rights,’ working to nominate progressive federal judges, and funding abortion clinics. But the catch? He also bragged that his ‘name never appears’ linked to his efforts.”

On the Sixteen Thirty Fund…According to the New York Times, Mr. Wyss’ ‘political activism is channeled through a daisy chain of opaque organizations that mask the ultimate recipients of his money.’ The most opaque of those organizations is a little-known group called the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which according to Bloomberg serves as ‘a [clearinghouse] for the left,’ and has also received $243 million from Mr. Wyss…[T]he same group that has received around a quarter of a billion dollars from a foreign national, turns around and spends it on GOTV, voter registration, Super PACs, and ballot issues.”

On the impact of foreign funds in U.S. elections…

Chairman Bryan Steil: “Today under federal law, can foreign nationals pay for activities like voter registration, ballot harvesting, and get-out-the-vote activities?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “Yes.”

Chairman Bryan Steil, “That’s really concerning…Congress needs to close that loophole. Doesn’t federal law generally prohibit foreign nationals from directly or indirectly spending money in U.S. elections?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “That is correct.”

Chairman Bryan Steil: “But as your organization documents, foreign nationals are using nonprofits as a pass through often to give to Democrat Super PACs.”

Caitlin Sutherland: “That is correct.”

Chairman Bryan Steil: “Can you explain that problem briefly?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “Absolutely, so foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing to Super PACs directly. But there is nothing prohibiting a foreign national from contributing to a 501(c)4 that turns around and gives to a Super PAC. In fact, in 2020 we saw that the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which received tens of millions of dollars from a foreign national, turned around and contributed $60 million to pro-Biden Super PACs.”

Chairman Steil: “Exactly the problem. When we had the FEC Commissioners in here, Democrats and Republicans alike, they all agreed that we should close that loophole. I’ve introduced legislation to do just that: Prevent Foreign Interference in American Elections Act. I would love to see a full vote in favor by all twelve members of this committee. I think it is essential as we are looking at foreign interference in our elections that we come together and close that loophole that you just identified that every FEC commissioner that testified before us said that should also be closed. That should be a no brainer and I hope to have that done by November’s election.”

On Sixteen ThirtyFund’s foreign-backed cash flowing into state ballot issue campaigns…

Congressman Mike Carey: “Can you talk a little about your organization’s recent report that the Sixteen Thirty Fund poured…roughly $15 million in eight months in Ohio for different ballot initiatives. Can you discuss what that money was for and where it came from…

Caitlin Sutherland: “So the group in question, the Sixteen Thirty Fund is the same group who counts Hansjorg Wyss as one of their top donors. They have been the beneficiary of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in foreign cash. Sixteen Thirty Fund turns around and spends it on a lot of things.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “What is the Sixteen Thirty Fund?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a DC-based 501(c)4.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “Where are their top funders? Are they coming from Ohio?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “One of them is coming from Switzerland, a foreign national.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “They are from Switzerland? And they are targeting Ohio? With $1[5] million dollars? How is that?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “They are taking advantage of this foreign influence loophole where foreign nationals can give to ballot issues directly and indirectly. And what we have seen is Sixteen Thirty Fund using their foreign-backed cash to target Ohio.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “Isn’t that wrong?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “Absolutely.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “Has the Ohio legislature had any success in bringing any legislation forward that prohibits this conduct by foreign nationals?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “I had the opportunity just a couple months ago to testify in support of legislation in Ohio that would close this foreign influence loophole to prohibit foreign nationals from contributing to state ballot issues. It actually passed the state Senate. It was recently taken up again in the House. Ohio paired this legislation with getting Biden on the ballot. Unfortunately, every single Democrat in Ohio voted to keep Joe Biden off the ballot in favor of keeping the foreign dark money flowing in Ohio.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “We’ve got two ballot initiatives one is a redistricting ballot initiative and one is a minimum wage ballot initiative, so they can destroy the restaurants like they did here in DC, tell me, do you think that is going to have a big influence in terms of the amount of money that will go into the state on these ballot initiatives?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “Absolutely. What we also see on these state ballot issues is that they are weaponized, and they turn out the vote, to shore up the vote, to support these liberal leaning ballot issues, and that helps the top of the ticket as well.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “So if Congress or the Ohio legislature does not act to prohibit these [foreign] nationals’ involvement in our state and in these local ballot initiatives, between now and November, this conduct will continue. Am I correct?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “Absolutely.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “What are we seeing in other states?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “Right now we see that the Sixteen Thirty Fund is actively spending in other states. They are actively spending in Ohio, they are actively spending in Missouri, Nevada, and Montana.”

Congressman Mike Carey: “Is there any reason they would be picking these states to spend some money in? Why do you think that is?”

Caitlin Sutherland: “If you take a look at the states that the Sixteen Thirty Fund has targeted for these ballot issues, you can tell that they are key presidential states and often has a competitive U.S. Senate race, concurrent with the ballot issue they are trying to advance.”