Emails and interviews reveal privacy-obsessed electronics magnate Barre Seid’s long history of backing efforts to attack climate science, fight Medicaid expansion, and remake the higher education system in a conservative mold.
In the mid-2000s, Barre Seid had begun thinking about how to leave a legacy. Riding the personal computer boom, the Chicago-based electronics magnate was on his way to becoming a billionaire. Seid, who considers himself a libertarian, now had the means to pursue a bold project: “attack philanthropy.”
To Seid, that meant looking for ways to place financial bets that had the potential to make epochal change. With little public notice, Seid became one of the most important donors to conservative causes during an era that saw American politics and society shift sharply to the right.
New reporting by ProPublica and The Lever, based on emails and interviews with people who know Seid, sheds light on one of the country’s least-known megadonors, revealing how an intensely private billionaire has secretly used his wealth to try to influence the lives of millions.
Seid has funded climate denialism as well as a national network of state-level think tanks that promote business deregulation and fight Medicaid expansion.
He’s also supported efforts to remake the higher education system in a conservative mold, including to turn one of the nation’s most politically influential law schools into a training ground for future generations of right-wing judges and justices.
Last month, The Lever
and ProPublica as well as The New York Times
detailed how Seid secretly handed a $1.6 billion fortune to a key architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority that recently eliminated federal protections for abortion rights.
Steven Baer, a longtime friend and former adviser to Seid, said the businessman has long been “the major patron” for the Heartland Institute, a small Chicago-area think tank which for decades has attacked mainstream climate science. A top executive at Seid’s former company, Tripp Lite, served as the chairman of the group. Among the recent claims
on the institute’s website: “US Temperature Readings Are Junk, Negating Climate Science” and “96% of U.S. Climate Data Is Corrupted.”
“Barre did not need the quick win,” explained Baer in a recent interview. “He believes that if you take the long-odds shot and it pays off, it’s huge.” Baer said that Seid summed up his approach as “attack philanthropy.”
Seid, who turned 90 in April, is exceedingly secretive. In one email obtained by ProPublica and The Lever, he described himself as prone to “anonymity paranoia
Seid was so insistent on remaining in the shadows that he sometimes went by a pseudonym, variously given as Ebert or Elbert Howell. He and his staff at Tripp Lite would give the Howell name as the CEO of the company to outside salesmen and in business information registries, according to testimony
Seid gave in a federal lawsuit.
“I get harassed a lot by telephone calls from security salesmen and the like and the source of it is mailing lists,” Seid said in the testimony, adding: “It’s a way of deflecting salesmen.” Seid did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
It’s impossible to know the full extent and details of Seid’s giving over the years because the law allows many nonprofits to keep their sponsors secret. But tax records
previously obtained by ProPublica show that between 1996 and 2018, he made at least $775 million in donations to nonprofit groups. Almost all of that money was given anonymously.
As Seid got older, he knew that he needed a plan for what to do with his vast wealth, according to Baer. Seid, who has no children, knew that donating his billion-plus fortune could have a generational impact if put in the right hands.
“The question was,” Baer said, “how does he try to steer history?” …