Bernard and Lisa Selz (and Albert Dwoskin): Name and shame wealthy donors funding antivaxers

Thanks to a strange schedule and a houseguest (we’re watching my parents’ dog Doug), there was no new Insolence yesterday. This is something I regret and plan to make up for, because the day before there was a great story in The Washington Post by Lena Sun and Amy Brittain, Meet the New York couple donating millions to the anti-vax movement. I thought I knew all (or nearly all) of the main wealthy players in the antivaccine space using their wealth to spread antivaccine misinformation and disease. I was wrong. Here, I met fund manager and philanthropist Bernard Selz and his wife, Lisa, who, it turns out, donate lots of money to various antivaccine groups, including Del Bigtree’s Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN). Yes, the couple donates to a lot of worthy causes, but they also contribute to people and groups spreading antivaccine pseudoscience. Now, they are named and shamed. It apparently began seven years ago, when their private foundation embraced antivaccine causes:

How the Selzes came to support anti-vaccine ideas is unknown, but their financial impact has been enormous. Their money has gone to a handful of determined individuals who have played an outsize role in spreading doubt and misinformation about vaccines and the diseases they prevent. The groups’ false claims linking vaccines to autism and other ailments, while downplaying the risks of measles, have led growing numbers of parents to shun the shots. As a result, health officials have said, the potentially deadly disease has surged to at least 1,044 cases this year, the highest number in nearly three decades.

The Selz Foundation provides roughly three-fourths of the funding for the Informed Consent Action Network, a three-year-old charity that describes its mission as promoting drug and vaccine safety and parental choice in vaccine decisions.

Lisa Selz serves as the group’s president, but its public face and chief executive is Del Bigtree, a former daytime television show producer who draws big crowds to public events. Bigtree has no medical credentials but holds himself out as an expert on vaccine safety and promotes the idea that government officials have colluded with the pharmaceutical industry to cover up grievous harms from the drugs. In recent weeks, Bigtree has headlined forums in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, N.Y., both areas confronting large measles outbreaks.

I couldn’t believe it as I read this article. Here was a wealthy couple promoting quackery and harmful medical misinformation, and I had no idea. I had never heard of them before. Yet, here this report was, revealing that they were the single largest contributor to Del Bigtree’s organization dedicated to spreading antivaccine misinformation under the disguise of an organization advocating for informed consent. Of course, I must repeat here that any antivaccine organization or antivaxer invoking “informed consent” is in reality promoting what I like to refer to as “misinformed consent.”” Basically, misinformed consent is based on misinformation that portrays vaccines as unsafe and ineffective, such that, if a parent believes the misinformation, she’d be crazy not to refuse to vaccinate her children. That’s the point. Use fake appeals to “informed consent” to inoculate parents with antivaccine misinformation, and bring them into the fold. Throw in some deceptive Nazi analogies under the guise of the Nuremberg Code, principles to guide human experimentation first promulgated after the doctors’ trial at Nuremberg after World War II. It’s a tactic that antivaccine lawmakers sometimes exploit to pass antivaccine legislation under, for instance, disguised as “informed consent” about vaccine ingredients.

Interestingly, I never noticed that. Certainly it’s not easy to find on the ICAN website. If you look at the About Us page, you’ll see Del Bigtree’s smiling face, with him listed as the “founder” of the group. You’ll see COO Catharine Layton, ICAN’s public relations person James Scherrer, creative director Patrick Layton, and field correspondent Jeffery Jaxen. When I saw that, I immediately remembered that Jaxen has written for Sayer Ji’s repository of misinterpreting real scientific studies in the service of quackery, GreenMedInfo. For instance, he fully bought into a mouse study that had findings way more nuanced in order to claim that chemotherapy somehow “spreads” cancer. So he’s into more quackery than antivaccine pseudoscience.

In any event, a Google advanced search of the ICAN domain for “Selz” turned up zero mentions of Lisa Selz’s name or even of the Selz name. Even a search for “Lisa” failed to turn up any mention. One wonders why Lisa Selz isn’t listed as the president of ICAN on the organization’s website, one does. (At least I do.) I don’t think I recall ever having seen a legitimate nonprofit that doesn’t list the name of its board members on its website, including its President; this is highly unusual. In fact, the only nonprofits I’ve ever seen not listing their officers are antivaccine. For instance, Michigan for Vaccine Choice, a 501(c)(3) organization that “helps Michigan residents understand their vaccine rights and the current laws on vaccine exemptions and waivers” doesn’t list its officers on its website. The same is the case for Texans for Vaccine Choice. I remember thinking it very odd at the time that neither of these organizations listed their board of directors, or at least their presidents, but maybe this is a feature, not a bug, of antivaccine groups. They know that advocating for antivaccine causes is frowned upon (and rightly so, I might add) and therefore are ashamed to list the powers behind the organizations. Del Bigtree is a publicity hound who lives for the spotlight; so he had no trouble being the face of ICAN.

In any event, thanks to Bernard and Lisa Selz, Del Bigtree’s organization has rapidly grown to be the best funded of the top three antivaccine organizations out there:

Thanks largely to the Selzes’ donations, ICAN is now the best-funded among a trio of organizations that have amplified concerns about vaccines. ICAN brought in $1.4 million in revenue in 2017, with just over $1 million supplied by the Selz Foundation, according to tax filings.

That would be $1,050,000, to be precise, that the Selz Foundation donated to ICAN in 2017. So who are Bernard and Lisa Selz? Sun and Brittain introduce them:

Bernard Selz, 79, has more than 40 years experience in the securities industry and runs Selz Capital, a hedge fund that holds a portfolio valued at more than $500 million, according to recent filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Lisa Pagliaro Selz, 68, worked for Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Tiffany and Co. Since 1993, she has helped manage the Selz Foundation “with a focus on humanitarian, educational, geriatric, homeopathic, animal causes and the arts,” according to a news release issued by LaGuardia Community College Foundation, where she was a board member from 2011 to 2016.

Naturally, as is almost always the case with wealthy and influential people, no one wanted to talk or comment. The Selzes’ sons declined to comment, and the only person on the record in the story basically begged reporters not to push her to answer:

“This is a topic we don’t discuss,” said Marilyn Skony Stamm, a business executive and close friend of Lisa Selz. “We have differing opinions.” Stamm declined to elaborate, except to say that she values her friendship with the Selzes, whom she called “an incredibly philanthropic family.”

Well, of course not. The Selzes are rich and influential, and of course Stam wouldn’t want to jeopardize her relationship with them by criticizing them. So she fell back to the ever-popular “we just agree to disagree” cop-out. We also learn from the report that the Selzes in essence helped fund Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary VAXXED (or, as I now like to call it, quackumentary). In 2012, the couple made their first antivaccine donation, this time $200,000 donated to a legal fund for Andrew Wakefield. Specifically, this was the Wakefield Justice Fund, an effort to sue the journalists who had questioned Wakefield’s findings. One of the journalists sued? Brian Deer, who had first broken the story about Wakefield’s scientific fraud and how his “research” in the 1990s that led to his 1998 Lancet case series that ignited the latest iteration of the antivaccine movement. Not surprisingly, Wakefield’s suit against Deer was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. This lawsuit was later featured in a rather credulous documentary about Wakefield entitled The Pathological Optimist.

After Wakefield’s lawsuit against Brian Deer was dismissed in 2012:

Wakefield’s lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the Selz Foundation found other ways to support his work. After he launched two nonprofits in 2014, the Selz Foundation donated $1.6 million to the groups over the next several years, according to tax records. One, the AMC Foundation, was registered as a public charity to fund documentaries about public health issues. The other was a Texas nonprofit corporation.

Wakefield used the money to help fund a documentary film called “Vaxxed,” which details his allegations about a government coverup of vaccine dangers. After filming, he and other producers traveled the country in a black “Vaxxed” bus that stopped at churches, libraries and chiropractors’ offices to record interviews with parents who believe their children had been injured by vaccines.

“Virtually every dollar in this film to date has been donated by a handful of brave parents and philanthropists,” the “Vaxxed” website says. In the credits, the film lists the Selz Foundation first among 16 donors who financed the production.

I must admit that when I first watched this Bigtree/Wakefield conspiracy spectacular, I didn’t pay much, if any, attention to the donors who had helped fund the making of the film. I should have. I should have wondered more where Bigtree and Wakefield had gotten the money to fly all over the country interviewing people and to go a year or more without income while doing it.

These days, ICAN is paying Bigtree a salary $146,000. Bigtree claims that this is his only income, but I highly doubt that this is all the income Bigtree garners from his antivaccine grift. ICAN also has claimed travel expenses exceeding $148,000 in 2017, which is a hell of a lot but not unexpected given Bigtree’s showing up everywhere there are vaccine fights and legislators trying to pass legislation to increase vaccine uptake over the last three years.

Worse, a major tenet of fundraising is that big donors tend to attract other donors. That’s development and philanthropy 101. If you can get a big donor to contribute, other donations will follow. They might not be as big, but they’ll be big enough. This principle appears to be working with ICAN:

Bigtree also produces a weekly online talk show broadcast through Facebook and other social media that has brought in new supporters. Among them are New York City real estate executive Stephen Benjamin and his wife, Elizabeth.

The couple donated $20,000 to ICAN in 2017 through their Will B Strong Foundation, which is named in honor of their son, a leukemia survivor. In an interview, Benjamin said he felt called to support ICAN’s efforts to raise questions about vaccine safety after watching Bigtree’s appearances online.

Smaller money follows big money, but it nonetheless adds up.

Sun and Brittain also note that ICAN is not the only organization promoting antivaccine pseudoscience, and indeed it is not:

The Selzes and the groups they support are hardly the only purveyors of anti-vaccine ideas. Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a nephew of the late president, runs the Children’s Health Defense, a charity that promotes a similar agenda; it brought in $727,000 in 2017, according to tax filings. Barbara Loe Fisher, who says her son was injured by vaccines, runs a Virginia-based nonprofit that fights legislative efforts to tighten vaccine requirements. Her group, the National Vaccine Information Center, brings in about $1 million a year, according to its 2018 tax documents.

Though they are separately organized, the three groups reinforce one another’s efforts. Kennedy and Bigtree often appear together at public events, while ICAN’s website includes a link to Fisher’s group. Bigtree’s weekly live stream broadcast, which ICAN promotes, frequently features Kennedy.

This is a very important point. These groups, although different in what they emphasize and in personality, are mutually reinforcing and feed on each other’s activities. While they each emphasize different aspects of antivaccine pseudoscience, they share many commonalities, including co-opting “freedom,” “vaccine choice,” “health freedom,” and “parental rights” as appealing slogans under which to rally parents and recruit them to antivaccine views.

They’re not the only groups, either. There are two other kinds of antivaccine groups. The first include groups like Michigan for Vaccine Choice and Texans for Vaccine Choice, as noted above. These groups generally have two arms, a nonprofit “information” arm and a political action committee that raises funds to support candidates for office who are sympathetic to antivaccine views and will support antivaccine policies (or at least oppose efforts to tighten school vaccine mandates and to improve transparency by listing in more detail school vaccine exemption rates). I myself saw the results of such groups last summer during the 2018 Republican primary season when I attended an antivaccine crankfest disguised as a roundtable discussion to garner support for a candidate for the Republican nomination for my US Congressional district and other local Republican candidates. Unfortunately, disguising antivaccine views as “freedom” and “parental rights” is a message to which conservative candidates are receptive. Unfortunately, these groups are popping up in virtually every state.

The other kind of group is the fake medical foundation dedicated to funding antivaccine research, such as the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), funded by Albert and Claire Dwoskin, wealthy Democratic donors. This fake medical charity funded incredibly incompetent and awful research by antivaccine stalwarts like Christopher Exley, Christopher Shaw, and Anthony Mawson.

This brings me to another point: Naming and shaming is an excellent response to wealthy cranks who try to fund antivaccine propaganda on the down low, as the Selzes have been doing. For instance look what I just learned yesterday from a story by Jackie Kucinich in The Daily Beast:

Real estate developer Albert Dwoskin said that he cut funding from the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute long before the current measles outbreak heightened interest in vaccination policy. The group closed at the end of 2018 after he and his wife, Claire, began divorce proceedings.

CMSRI had been known for circulating anti-vaxx misinformation including debunked connections between autism and vaccines. The organization, which was founded by Claire Dwoskin, was largely funded by the family’s foundation which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting its mission of conducting “research on a range of issues from the toxic potential of various vaccine ingredients to the expression of human diseases.”

But that, Albert Dwoskin said, has come to an end.

“After seeing a great deal of evidence, I have concluded that concerns about the safety of vaccination are unfounded,” he said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “The best way to protect children is to make sure they have all their vaccinations as recommended by scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals.”

“The CMSRI, founded by my estranged wife, has been closed. I regret my participation in the CMSRI’s work and disagree with her views on the dangers of vaccination,” he added. “My foundation no longer supports work on this issue.”

One can wonder whether Albert Dwoskin is sincere or not in his changing his mind regarding vaccines. His ex-wife, of course, tells a different tale, that of him being “supportive” and how CMSRI was a “joint passion and interest.” What’s the real story? Who knows? For now, I’ll take Albert Dwoskin at his word as long as he’s shuttered CMSRI.

It could well be that naming and shaming them worked, because The Daily Beast also published a story today by Jackie Kucinich about how the DNC Pockets $50,000 from Anti-Vaxx Activists. The story discusses the tight ties between Albert Dwoskin, the Democratic National Committee, and various Democratic politicians. It’s a topic I’ve written about before, when Tipper Gore was a special guest at a Democratic fundraiser hosted by Al and Claire Dwoskin in 2017. Obviously, the Dwoskins must have known that this story was coming out, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the companion story about how Albert Dwoskin no longer supports antivaccine causes and is really, really sorry for ever having done so came about because Dwoskin feared losing his influence in the Democratic Party, as Democratic officeholders and politicians would likely have fled in droves after this story.

This brings up an interesting question, though. Why didn’t Democrats abandon Dwoskin two years ago and why wasn’t he (apparently) fearful of the press covering his antivaccine activities in 2017, the last time it was reported in a mainstream press outlet that the Dwoskins were supporting antivaccine causes? My guess is that it’s because we weren’t experiencing massive measles outbreaks linked to vaccine hesitancy two years ago. I don’t know that this is the case, but I bet that naming and shaming worked. Dwoskin disbanded CMSRI late last year when the couple decided to divorce, but at the time the measles outbreaks had begun. I bet he could see the writing on the wall, and with his wife gone the calculation shifted to one in which there was no longer a strong incentive to continue supporting antivaccine causes when it was clear that the country was beginning to turn on antivaxers even more than usual and that shift could endanger Dwoskin’s influence in the Democratic Party.

As for the Selzes, will naming and shaming work? I don’t know, but I like the way Thomas Levenson, writer and professor of Science Writing at MIT, thinks. In this Twitter thread, he notes that the Bernard Selz serves on a lot of prestigious boards: World Monuments Fund, The Frick Collection, The American Friends of the Victoria and Albert Museum, The American Friends of Les Arts Florissants and the International Committee of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs.

He then concludes:

Just a thought, indeed. This is the perfect response. But will wealthy philanthropists who serve on the same boards as the Selzes step up and make Bernard and Lisa Selz pay a price for their antivaccine activities where it hurts, in their reputations and connections? Time will tell.