October 26, 2016

Emails involving Governor Charlie Baker’s top outside political advisers recently revealed by the Boston Globe may help identify the true donors behind dark money Families for Excellent School, which funds Great Schools Massachusetts. The emails show Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, arranging with Governor Baker’s advisers and scheduler for two “(event(s)” on the governor’s calendar with ‘jj, and klarman.” jj and klarman are quite likely Joanna Jacobson, Managing Director of Strategic Grant Partners and billionaire Seth Klarman, also a donor to Strategic Grant Partners and the largest giver to conservative and Republican causes in New England. Circumstantial evidence points to Ms. Jacobson and Mr. Klarman as two of the funders behind Families for Excellent Schools.

The emails were a few of a parcel of 236 emails released to the Boston Globe in response to its Public Records Law request and that formed the basis for the October 25, 2016 story by Andrew Ryan and Mark Arsenault, Baker consultant wields influence on commuter rail, charter schools.

Let’s focus on a May 26, 2016 email from Jim Conroy to Brianna Wehrs and Jeremiah Kittredge. Here is the email:

Mr. Conroy was Governor Baker’s 2014 campaign manager and served briefly in the governor’s office before departing for private consulting work. He is also a consultant to Great Schools Massachusetts. Ms. Wehrs is the Governor’s Executive Assistant and Scheduling Director. Mr. Kittredge is the CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, the dark money front that has poured over $13,125,000.00 into the coffers of Great Schools Massachusetts. On May 26 Mr. Conroy forwarded an email from Mr. Kittredge to Mr. Conroy, Will Keyser, Eileen O’Connor, Shiyin Wang, and Caroline Alcock. Mr. Keyser is a principal of Keyser Public Strategies, a key strategist for Gov. Baker’s 2014 campaign, a lobbyist for Families for Excellent Schools and consultant to the Great Schools Massachusetts campaign. Ms. O’Connor is also a principal of Keyser Public Strategies, communications professional, and spokesperson for Great Schools Massachusetts. Shiyin Wang works for Families for Excellent Schools. Ms. Alcock’s LinkedIn page identifies her as President of Alcock & Associates, a professional fundraising and political consulting firm. She has served as a finance director or deputy finance director in several Republican campaigns and for the state Republican Party.

jj and klarman are not positively identified but it is not unreasonable to infer that they are Joanna Jacobson and Seth Klarman. Ms. Jacobson is the Managing Partner of Boston based non-profit Strategic Grant Partners and with her husband Jonathon Jacobson, founder of Highfields Capital Management, a generous benefactor to Strategic Grant Partners. Mr. Klarman is head of the hedge fund Baupost LLC and through his family charitable foundation also a robust contributor to Strategic Grant Partners. Mr. Klarman would have some experience in how dark money operates. The Nation named him among those 9 Billionaires Are About to Remake New York’s Public Schools, in a privatization battle fought with dark money funneled through Families for Excellent Schools. SGP’s publicly available IRS tax returns show that from the period of July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2015, it made three separate grants totaling $2,150,000.00 to Families for Excellent Schools “to help support launch of Massachusetts site.” More recent tax returns are not yet publicly available.

A search of the opensecrets.org web site shows that Mr. Klarman is a major giver to Republican, free market, and conservative causes. He and his wife are listed in 2016 as the forty-seventh largest individual contributors in all federal contributions. Federal Elections Commission records show that Ms. Jacobson has also been a frequent campaign contributor, mostly to Republicans.

The predecessor to the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee was called Public Charter Schools for Massachusetts and it filed an end of year report with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance for 2015. On September 17, 2015 Ms. Jacobson contributed $40,000.00. On September 21, 2015 Mr. Klarman contributed $40,000.00. Four other partners of SGP contributed another $120,000.00.

And then 2016 dawned, a year dominated by dark money, and each of those contributors disappeared from public records identifying contributors to the pro-charter cause; unless the jj and klarman referenced in the May 26, 2016 emails are Joanna Jacobson and Seth Klarman.

It is also curious that the email from Mr. Conroy references “the rescheduling of the charter event(s).” Why event(s) and not meeting(s)?

There are other charter related emails, many of them from Ms. O’Connor regarding scheduling. Here is a typical heading:

It’s a much larger email list and refers to a weekly strategy call not an event. There are others that refer to meetings.

I raise the other emails because none of them mention jj and klarman nor are they as limited in the “To” line, and they involve strategy and do not include Ms. Alcock, the finance expert. They all involve Mr. Kittredge, who as the man writing the $13,125,000.00 checks to Great Schools Massachusetts would logically be involved in both money and strategy meetings (or events). But it’s not his money; he’s an agent for the givers.

Things we know: Mr. Klarman and Ms. Jacobson are contributors to Strategic Grant Partners, which provided over $2 million dollars to Families for Excellent Schools to launch operations in Massachusetts. Mr. Klarman and Ms. Jacobson and four other contributors to SGP provided startup funds to Great Schools Massachusetts in 2015 but have not appeared in OCPF reports since. Families for Excellent Schools has contributed at least $13,125,000.00 in untraceable dark money to Great Schools Massachusetts in 2016. Some sort of event(s) involving a limited number of high level individuals in the charter effort including Governor Baker, Mr. Kittredge and the principals of Keyser Public strategies and a fundraiser were being scheduled with jj and klarman.

We also know that either Mr. Klarman or Ms. Jacobson has the wealth to fund Families for Excellent Schools by themselves. We do not know that they have been doing that, or even that as individuals they have donated any money at all to Families for Excellent Schools in 2016. But we know that they could. And we know that they are part of a network of wealthy individuals that could supplement any donations they might make.

Things we don’t know but are subject to reasonable inference: jj and klarman are Joanna Jacobson and Seth Klarman.

Things we don’t know for sure: who is providing the millions behind Families for Excellent Schools? We also can’t say that the “event(s)” actually came off, or that any one of the individuals named in the emails attended, or who, if anyone else, attended.

Massachusetts citizens have every right to know who is spending millions of dollars – maybe tens of millions of dollars before this is over – to influence their votes. It’s time for Great Schools Massachusetts and Families for Excellent Schools to come clean.

I’m under no illusion that this blog post reaches a large audience; it can safely be ignored by hedge fund billionaires. The Boston Globe has done exactly one comprehensive story on dark money in this campaign, Donors behind charter push keep to the shadows, back on August 20. That’s before any of the 2016 OCPF reporting periods. So if you think that as citizens you have the right to know who is spending millions to influence your decision, don’t click on the heart on Twitter or send me an ‘attaboy.’ Instead call the editors of the Boston Globe and let them know that you want Boston’s paper of record to inform the citizenry of who is behind all this, before Election Day.

Louis D. Brandeis: "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, and not charter schools. I've never written about charter schools, nor taken a position on them. I have taken a position against plutocracy and in favor of democracy, and thus against dark money.]

Great Schools Massachusettts, Charlie Baker, Families for Excellent Schools

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