Pritzker Becomes Major 527 Donor

Posted March 19, 2004 at 5:12pm

By all indications, Sustainable World Corp. and Linda Pritzker, a hermitic Tibetan Buddhist from one of the country’s wealthiest families, are one and the same. Perhaps.

Pritzker — she of the Hyatt hotels fortune and the architecture prize — suddenly appeared on the political radar in December, when she made a $900,000 contribution to Joint Victory Campaign 2004, one among a constellation of so-called 527 political organizations working to defeat President Bush in November.

The committee coordinates and funds the activities of the Media Fund and America Coming Together, two groups on the front line of those efforts.

The contribution raised eyebrows. One of the least politically attuned of the Pritzker clan, Linda’s sole public distinction, to that point, had been her stated desire to pour her vast inheritance into the construction of a Buddhist temple.

But that was just the beginning. Even as Pritzker was giving generously to Joint Victory, Sustainable World was coming together, also with Pritzker’s aid, according to a report whose source was Harold Ickes, the prime mover behind JVC 2004.

One week after it incorporated, SWC funneled another $3.1 million to Joint Victory.

Now Linda Pritzker, who had contributed only intermittently to candidates in previous election cycles, was suddenly the second-biggest benefactor in politics.

Only George Soros, the financier and dedicated Bush opponent, had given more, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, which has tracked the contributions.

Yet a significant question remained: If Linda Pritzker had already given nearly a million dollars to the 527 group, why did she need a corporation to give the rest?

Corporation Without a Corpus

While corporations are permitted to make unlimited contributions to non-party political committees, Sustainable World has appeared to present a scenario that had never been actively considered.

Election law requires 527 groups to publicly disclose their contributors, but business law almost never requires corporations to reveal theirs — the owners, shareholders, partners or others involved in the enterprise.

In fact, Pritzker has never publicly corroborated Ickes’ account of SWC’s origins. (The account was given in response to an inquiry from the Washington Post editorial board.)

Efforts to reach her in Montana, where she runs a Tibetan Buddhist study group, were unsuccessful.

Pritzker is currently on a “retreat” that runs until the end of April.

In an e-mail, Asante Penny, Pritzker’s office manager in Montana, said the heiress “has no comment.”

But newly uncovered incorporation documents in Texas would seem to back up Ickes’ claim.

The SWC is registered to Lewis M. Linn, a Houston accountant, but headquartered at a post office box. Linn’s office address, meanwhile, is identical to the one Pritzker, who lives in Montana, provided when she made her separate $900,000 contribution to JVC 2004.

A November 2003 article in Forbes Global magazine identifies Linn as the accountant who helped set up special trusts for the Pritzker family when its business empire was restructured in 2001.

SWC’s mission is unclear. The incorporation papers filed in Texas indicate only that the company’s purpose is to “transact any or all lawful business for which corporations may be organized” under Texas law.

And they indicate that the corporation’s board currently has only one member, who is identified for the time being as Linn.

When contacted, neither Linn nor Houston lawyer Warren Fisher, who is identified as SWC’s incorporator, would reveal any information about the company or the purpose it is intended to serve.

“My professional responsibility precludes me from saying anything about it right now,” Linn said in a brief interview.

Said Fisher: “It’s our policy not to comment on client matters without the client’s permission.”

The End of Disclosure?

From the outside, it is impossible to tell whether a privately held company such as SWC has one shareholder or 100; or who any of the shareholders are; or where they come from.

Presented with details of SWC’s incorporation, campaign finance experts struggled to reach any conclusion other than that the company was created in order to shield the identity of a contributor — or multiple contributors — to the 527 group.

“It seems to me like a very clumsy way to avoid disclosure or to make a contribution in the name of another,” said Craig Engle, a Republican election lawyer.

Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group, suggested the SWC’s arrangement represented a “real problem” for the campaign finance system.

“It sort of defeats the purpose of disclosure if somebody can hide their identity just by incorporating,” Noble said. “If that is allowed, why wouldn’t anybody who wants to hide the source of a contribution give it to somebody else and say ‘You do it’?”

Noble suggested the matter may ultimately be one for the Internal Revenue Service to consider in its oversight of independent 527 groups. If it could be shown that a corporation exists solely to provide money to campaigns while hiding the actual sources, Noble said, “I would think it would then become a question of false reporting” by the 527 group that accepts the money.

The arrangement has aroused the interest of GOP strategists, who have voiced suspicions about possible foreign sources of money for Democratic groups this election cycle. To date, no one in the Republican Party has offered any proof that this kind of activity is occurring.

Neither Ickes nor his partner, Janice Enright, who together run Joint Victory Campaign, responded to multiple phone messages.

‘Old Fears and Lifelong Premonitions’

If Pritzker is in fact the lone stake-holder in Sustainable World Corp., she is almost certainly good for the money.

Although she never came into the family business, her father, Robert, runs the Marmon Group, the family-held multinational conglomerate that oversees the Pritzkers’ far-flung business empire.

In a prenuptial agreement inked in 1989, Linda Pritzker, who lived in Boulder, Colo., at the time, disclosed more than $100 million in assets.

In subsequent divorce proceedings, in 1992, her estranged husband challenged the agreement, suggesting that the heiress was in fact worth quite a bit more.

In 1994, the Colorado Court of Appeals sided with Pritzker, saying that the description she gave of her assets was adequate.

Over the years Pritzker has occasionally — but never extravagantly — tapped this fortune in providing contributions to various liberal causes and candidates.

She maxed out in her giving to Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000, and more recently gave $1,000 to the Democratic presidential bid of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

She has also emerged as a major supporter of the Rudolph Steiner Foundation, which provides grants to what are considered socially conscious businesses and other projects, such as an International Buddhist Foundation in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Other Pritzkers have typically been far more politically active, particularly in Chicago, where the Hyatt empire began.

Interviews with nearly a dozen party officials turned up only the most limited recollection of Linda Pritzker.

More often, she was mistaken for her half-sister, Liesl Matthews, a young Hollywood actress who sued their father last year, claiming he had squandered her inheritance. She lost.

One cousin, J.B. Pritzker, even sought the Democratic nomination in 1998 to replace the late Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), who represented Chicago’s “Gold Coast” for decades. He lost to Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D).

Still, in recent years Linda Pritzker has appeared to struggle with the intersection of her personal fortune and the relatively ascetic life she has chosen as a devout Tibetan Buddhist.

In a report written for a Buddhist organization following a recent trip to Tibet, Pritzker concluded with a solicitation for contributions to her religious school, Ewam, and indicated that she was the person who was collecting for the school.

The Ewam Web site, on which Pritzker provides some personal reflection on her spiritual development, offers what may be the only (albeit vague) clues to her sudden political epiphany:

“My introduction to Vajrayana Buddhism last winter seems fortuitous, coming at a time of great personal psychic stress related to recent events and their revival in me of old fears and lifelong premonitions,” Pritzker writes on the site. “Clearly my mind and thoughts needed serious calming and clearing.”

She adds, “The powerful Vajrayana emphasis on compassion helped redirect my moment-to-moment awareness away from my own self-conceived and perpetuated ‘problems’ to the truly immense needs and suffering of others.”

Around this same time, on Dec. 11, JVC 2004 recorded Pritzker’s $900,000 gift — a day after Sustainable World was incorporated in Houston. Joint Victory Campaign received SWC’s $3.1 million donation a week later, on Dec. 17.

The visit to Tibet, which occurred during this period, also appeared to have a powerful effect on her. She wrote about the trip for the Northwest Dharma Association, a group devoted to spreading Buddhist teachings, in January.

“Then and there we all wove a vision together, which we have invested our hearts in fully carrying out,” Pritzker wrote, reflecting on the conclusion of the trip. The vision appeared to be one of helping Tibetans modernize “without destroying the beauty and the meaning of it.”

“They will then be an example of immeasurable importance to all of us, providing wisdom on many levels, throughout the world.”