An influential climate-denial think tank bankrolled by President Donald Trump’s far-right billionaire donors has laid off nearly a dozen staffers amid financial troubles, according to three former employees.
The Illinois-based Heartland Institute ― which captured headlines last month for promoting a German teenager with ties to neo-Nazis as the climate denier’s alternative to acclaimed youth activist Greta Thunberg ― pink-slipped at least 10 staffers Friday, shedding what one former employee described as “more than half” the organization’s staff.
“Heartland is broke,” Nikki Comerford, the nonprofit’s events coordinator on staff for nearly 21 years, told a former colleague in a text message, a screenshot of which HuffPost reviewed.
Comerford blamed Frank Lasée, the former Wisconsin Republican state lawmaker who took over as Heartland’s president last July, for squandering the organization’s budget during his nascent tenure and leaving the group in dire financial straits. Another former employee accused Lasée of mismanaging the budget, and private Facebook posts from other current staffers expressed dismay over the state of the organization, but HuffPost could not independently verify the state of Heartland’s finances because the nonprofit’s tax filings for 2019 are not yet due.
“Frank Lasee spent all of our money in six months including the savings,” she wrote in a text. “They had to lay off more than half the staff today and more coming. What an asshole.”
Lasée did not respond to an email requesting comment on Friday night, but HuffPost confirmed the details with two former employees who left Heartland between 2016 and 2017 but maintained ties to the organization.
On Sunday, Heartland confirmed the layoffs in a press release, saying it was part of a “reorganization” to put a new focus on “educating the public and public officials about climate alarmism” and “the significant threat alarmism poses to our economy.”
“This reduction in personnel and reorganization will make Heartland more efficient and focused,” Jim Lakely, a spokesman for the group, wrote in the press release. “Working with supporters and contributors, we are confident Heartland’s mission-oriented work will continue, uninterrupted, for many years to come.”
The nonprofit long suffered from “a lack of long-term financial planning,” another former staffer told HuffPost.
“When I was employed at Heartland, that organization was always barely making payroll,” the ex-staffer, who requested anonymity for fear of alienating former co-workers, said by phone Friday evening.
The Heartland Institute once towered as one of the most active nodes in the climate misinformation network that oil, gas and coal interests built to obscure the threat greenhouse gas emissions posed to life on Earth.
By the late 2000s, pressure grew on companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Heartland’s benefactor since 1998, to cut ties. In 2006, the oil behemoth did so as it sought to distance itself from outright denialism in the face of mounting evidence that climate change was not only real but occurring faster than scientists initially predicted.
Billionaire ideologues stepped in to fill the void. In 2008, hedge funder Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, started donating to Heartland through their family foundation, which has also funded the right-wing website Breitbart News and other fringe organizations.
In 2016, as the Mercers pumped money into Trump’s presidential campaign, the secretive conservative megadonors increased grants to the Heartland Institute, giving $800,000, up from $100,000 the previous year. In 2017, the Mercer Family Foundation’s tax filings show, the family gave Heartland another $800,000.
Heartland received $5.8 million in 2018, according to its latest tax filing, and at least $3 million of that came from the Donors Trust, the nonprofit once described as “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.” Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Heartland’s budget is now directed at climate misinformation programs, James Taylor, the head of Heartland’s climate efforts, said to undercover reporters from the German news site Correctiv last December.
But 2017 marked what appeared to be a zenith for Heartland. Fundraising that year nearly hit $6 million. After more than a decade on the fringes of power, cultivating influence with Republican lawmakers and aggressively promoting its contrarian and easily debunked takes on climate science, the group saw its influence in Washington blossom as Trump appointed pro-fossil fuel hardliners to his administration.
When, in late 2017, then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt began planning a sort of mock trial on climate science, pitting credible researchers against industry-backed rogues, Heartland submitted a list of 145 names of contrarian scientists to consider.
A HuffPost investigation found that the list included a child sex offender: Oliver Manuel, a nuclear chemist whose crank theories about the sun alienated even the most ardent climate deniers, and who was convicted of attempted sodomy of an 11-year-old girl. In a response to the exposé, EPA distanced itself from Heartland. Five days after the story was published, Heartland, which is known to attempt to publicly discredit journalists and critics, disputed the nature of the list in a statement calling HuffPost “shameful and even disgusting.”
Heartland’s woes continued to mount. Months later, HuffPost published another investigation detailing how a top fundraiser in the group’s leadership circle stepped in to defend the organization’s former marketing director, Eugene Koprowski, against criminal charges stemming from his alleged stalking and harassment of a female underling half his age. Heartland again responded by accusing HuffPost of attempting to “smear” the organization. Legal proceedings appear to still be ongoing, and Koprowski split with his lawyer, Heartland fundraiser Joseph Morris, earlier this year, according to a court document HuffPost obtained.
Since then, Heartland saw its influence wane, particularly after Pruitt resigned from the EPA over a mountain of corruption accusations and his replacement, Andrew Wheeler, attempted a less provocative approach to the administration’s deregulatory agenda.
Last month, Heartland made a bid for a comeback. The group announced that it hired Naomi Seibt, a 19-year-old German who makes YouTube videos railing against what she calls the “alarmism” of millions of youth climate activists. Heartland cast Seibt as the climate-skeptic right’s answer to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 17-year-old whose demands for radical action to halt planet-heating emissions captured the world’s attention and won her the title of 2019’s Time Person of the Year.
“The events surrounding Koprowski put a real damper on Heartland’s momentum in 2017,” a second former employee said by phone. “Naomi Seibt was meant to be a way for Heartland to reappear on the map.”
But Seibt, too, became a lightning rod for controversy. Her mother, Karoline Seibt, is an attorney who works with Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s far-right nationalist party with ties to neo-Nazis. In 2018, the mother was pictured partying with Milo Yiannopoulos, the far-right former star columnist at Breitbart who, according to BuzzFeed News, pushed white nationalist ideology into mainstream U.S. politics.
Following a terrorist attack on a synagogue in Germany last year, Naomi Seibt said in a YouTube discussion that Jews were considered “at the top” of groups perceived as oppressed, while “ordinary Germans” were “at the bottom,” The Guardian reported. Muslims, she said, landed somewhere in between. Making her American debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland last week, Seibt declared herself “a fan, absolutely” of white nationalist YouTuber Stefan Molyneux and defended his past remarks pining for an all-white country.
That Heartland has struggled to raise money is a “predictable dilemma” at a time when the Trump administration continues gutting environmental safeguards, said Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, a nonprofit watchdog group that tracks denialist organizations.
“It’s not surprising that they’ve had a hard time raising money and anxiously trying to find relevance in this era when their side is already winning more out of Trump,” Davies said. “The world can do without the Heartland Institute, for sure.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the German investigative group. The group is called “Correctiv,” not “Collectiv.”