By Eric Rosso
Pennsylvania has a Jeffrey Yass problem.
While right-wing billionaires such as the Kochs, the DeVos family, and the Mercers have tended to dominate discussion of the corrupting influence of big money in politics, Pennsylvania has become a playground for Jeffrey Yass and his untold billions.
Yass is the co-founder and managing director of Montgomery County-based Susquehanna International Group. But he’s more ubiquitously known as a sugar daddy and sole funder for many elected officials and political front groups throughout Pennsylvania.
His political handouts have recently come under intense scrutiny for their role in funding the coup attempt by extremists that left five dead, including a police officer, in the wake of the most violent attempt to overthrow our democracy since the 1800s.
And rightfully so. Yass showed no remorse for the death and destruction the world witnessed that day, only offering a comment through former stock broker Laura Goldman, where he had the audacity to play the victim, saying he was “deceived” by the elected officials he had funded, who included Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, of Missouri.
Goldman, now a freelance journalist, claims herself to be an acquaintance of Yass and has written favorably about his money trafficking and influence peddling in the past. She noted that he is “a very hands on donor.”
While Yass tends to be a very secretive individual, this “hands on” description tracks with what we know about his funding operations in Pennsylvania from lesser-disciplined recipients of his largesse.
Last August, Matt Brouillette, former CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation and current treasurer of the Commonwealth Leaders Fund and Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund, let the truth slip in an interview when he detailed an agreement with Yass on how he could spend the money as he saw fit.
Ostensibly, those two funds for which Brouillette serves as treasurer are set up to promote the public education’s privatization. However, in reality, they have become a slush fund for politicians willing to carry the water of Yass, including state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, who attended the Jan.6 rally that preceded an attack on the U.S. Capitol by extremist supporters of former President Donald Trump.
WHYY-FM in Philadelphia reported that Mastriano’s campaign spent thousands of dollars on charter buses to bring people to that rally. Mastriano said he took no part in a mob that sacked the Capitol Hill, and he has disavowed the violence, the station reported.
There is a direct line from the constellation of organizations surrounding Yass, Brouillette, and the Commonwealth Foundation, which shares office space with Brouillette’s group, Commonwealth Partners, to the type of extremism on display at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
One need look no further than the tumultuous last year in Pennsylvania politics to see this corrupting influence on display. Yass runs his millions through Students First PAC, which essentially serves as a pass-through entity to Commonwealth Partners and the politicians it supports.
The Commonwealth Foundation and the Brouillette-run Commonwealth Partners, were caught serving as a staging location for the ReOpen rallies in April that served as an intellectual precursor for the Stop The Steal rallies drawing like-minded individuals. Participating in those rallies and the Facebook groups that spawned them were many Trump apologists, white supremacists, and armed militia. The extremism was on full display at those early rallies.
Many of the same recipients of funds from the Commonwealth Leadership and Children’s Choice Funds were lead sponsors of legislation that would have forced unsafe re-openings.
The timelines for the disbursements of funds was conspicuously close to the legislative calendar. This was a similar feature in 2019 when these two funds’ political giving nearly matched the legislative calendar for House Bills 1800 and 800, two privatization schemes for voucher programs in Pennsylvania. It’s not hard to see why.
Elected officials receiving money from Yass and Brouillette include many influential leaders on committees and some of the most outspoken individuals promoting conspiracy theories on both the election and the coronavirus. They even cross partisan lines on occasion, including one eye-popping sum of $600,000 from Yass given to the Democratic Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, who was quoted as saying, “Damn right, I’ll take the money.”
As corporations have begun to stand up and pull donations from Pennsylvania politicians who pushed conspiracy theories about the election, it’s time to do the same for the tainted contributions from Yass, Brouillette, and their ilk. Pennsylvania politicians should immediately cease their abusive relationship with Yass’ billions.
There will be plenty of opportunities to do so this year, since just days after the election, Yass moved $9 million to Students First PAC, which promptly moved nearly all of that to Brouillette and the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund.
We’ll be watching.
Eric Rosso is the executive director of Pennsylvania Spotlight, a progressive advocacy organization based in Pittsburgh.