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Tax records reveal the lucrative world of COVID misinformation

Four major nonprofits that rose to prominence during the coronavirus pandemic by capitalizing on the spread of medical misinformation collectively gained more than $118 million between 2020 and 2022, enabling the organizations to deepen their influence in statehouses, courtrooms and communities across the country, a Washington Post analysis of tax records shows.

Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., received $23.5 million in contributions, grants and other revenue in 2022 alone – eight times what it collected the year before the pandemic began – allowing it to expand its state-based lobbying operations to cover half the country. Another influential anti-vaccine group, Informed Consent Action Network, nearly quadrupled its revenue during that time to about $13.4 million in 2022, giving it the resources to finance lawsuits seeking to roll back vaccine requirements as Americans’ faith in vaccines drops.

Two other groups, Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance and America’s Frontline Doctors, went from receiving $1 million combined when they formed in 2020 to collecting more than $21 million combined in 2022, according to the latest tax filings available for the groups.

The four groups routinely buck scientific consensus. Children’s Health Defense and Informed Consent Action Network raise doubts about the safety of vaccines despite assurances from federal regulators. “Vaccines have never been safer than they are today,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its webpage outlining vaccine safety.

Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance and America’s Frontline Doctors promote anti-parasitic or anti-malarial drugs as treatments for covid, long after regulators and clinical trials found the medications to be ineffective or potentially harmful. Leaders of these groups say they disagree with medical consensus and argue that their promotion of alternative treatments for covid and other conditions is safe.

Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, said that in his view, the four groups endanger lives with their spread of misinformation.

“These groups gave jet fuel to misinformation at a crucial time in the pandemic,” Caplan said. “The richer they get, the worse off the public is because, indisputably, they’re spouting dangerous nonsense that kills people.”

The influx of pandemic cash sent executive compensation soaring, boosted public outreach, and seeded the ability to wage legislative and legal battles to weaken vaccine requirements and defend physicians accused of spreading misinformation.

Some doctors following guidance by Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance or America’s Frontline Doctors have been disciplined or face the possibility of discipline from state medical boards alleging substandard medical care. In cases involving two doctors alleged to have followed Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance guidance, three patients died.

Public health experts, including Caplan, worry that the well-funded anti-science movement could lead to devastating long-term public health consequences if childhood diseases once vanquished by vaccines come roaring back.

Many of the contributors are not known because nonprofits are generally not required to publicly report their donors. But nonprofits are supposed to disclose groups to which they contribute more than $5,000. In addition to the tax forms filed by the four groups, The Post reviewed more than 330 filings by nonprofits that donated to the groups during the pandemic. Half of those gifts over $100,000 were made through a tax vehicle popular among the ultrawealthy known as “donor-advised funds,” which allow individuals to obscure their identities. The Post identified two funds dedicated to advancing biblical, libertarian or conservative values that each had given at least $1 million in total to at least three of the groups since 2020.

Pierre Kory, president and chief medical officer of Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, said the group gained prominence – and donors – during the pandemic as the public sought “medical information free from special interests.” The money has allowed the organization to expand its influence into other areas, he said.

“Our team continues to develop guidance and educational materials on other chronic conditions,” Kory said in a statement to The Post.

Jose Jimenez, a lawyer for America’s Frontline Doctors, said donors recognize that the group is “fighting for the freedom of choice and health care for individuals and fighting for physician independence.”

“There’s been a lot of support by donors to get that message out,” Jimenez said in an interview. “The level of revenue, the level of donations is a recognition that this is something that Americans are yearning for.”

Neither Informed Consent Action Network nor Children’s Health Defense responded to requests for comment.

Boosting executive compensation

As the groups’ coffers grew, so did the salaries of some top executives. Children’s Health Defense paid Kennedy, then chairman and chief legal counsel and now an independent candidate for president, more than $510,000 in 2022, double his 2019 salary, tax records show. Informed Consent Action Network paid Executive Director Del Bigtree $284,000 in 2022, a 22 percent increase from 2019. Bigtree now works as communications director for Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Some of the individuals behind the family foundations or trusts that fund the four groups also contributed the legal maximum in personal donations to Kennedy’s presidential bid, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks political donations.

Bigtree did not respond to requests for comment about his or Kennedy’s salary. Neither did the media team for Kennedy’s campaign.

The salaries of Kory and Paul Marik, chairman and chief scientific officer of Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, also rose significantly. In 2022, Kory earned $368,815 from the FLCCC – nearly 60 percent more than his 2021 salary – and Marik earned $400,000, eight times his 2021 earnings, according to tax records. (The FLCCC reported that it did not pay the men in 2020.)

When asked about the increase, Kory told The Post that he and Marik had left their jobs as “full-time practicing physicians and medical educators” to “dedicate their full attention to the FLCCC.”

The credentials and certification committee of the American Board of Internal Medicine has urged that Kory’s and Marik’s certifications be taken away for spreading misinformation, a recommendation that both men are appealing, according to a statement released by the FLCCC in August. The board would not comment on the details of the case. Marik’s medical license in Virginia expired in 2022, according to the state’s Department of Health Professions.

America’s Frontline Doctors paid the group’s founder, Simone Gold, $581,000 in 2022, more than 17 times what she was paid by the group in 2020, according to tax filings. Gold’s lawyer, Jimenez, said she was released after serving 48 days of an original 60-day prison sentence in 2022 for trespassing in the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by supporters of Donald Trump.

In a November 2022 lawsuit, America’s Frontline Doctors accused Gold of using nonprofit money to fund her lifestyle. It alleged that Gold purchased a $3.6 million home in Naples,Fla., anda fleet of luxury cars, and hired a housekeeper and security officer. The lawsuit also alleged that she used the organization’s employees to work at her for-profit wellness company, GoldCare.

Jimenez said that the board had approved the Naples house purchase as the group’s headquarters but that he could not speak to the individual expenses. Gold has previously denied any improper spending.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, citing a lack of jurisdiction, in December 2022. U.S. District Judge Sheri Polster Chappell noted Gold’s previous comments that the group’s “most significant business operation is the creation of social media content” and said the location of the group’s headquarters was in dispute. “These vague descriptions of AFLDS’ purpose leaves the Court short of being able to define its ‘nerve center,'” the judge wrote.

Financing social and political influence

The groups contributed to a media ecosystem that spread misinformation during the pandemic. Children’s Health Defense started an internet TV channel with daily programming casting doubt on vaccine safety, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California College of the Law at San Francisco who tracks the influence of these organizations. Informed Consent Action Network spent nearly $6 million on online “educational programs” in 2022 that the group says reached more than 6 million viewers in 209 countries, according to tax filings.

Caplan said that in his view, the four groups “were able to take advantage of fear and panic and anger at a crucial time in the pandemic and raise considerably more money to tell people what some of them wanted to hear.”

Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance took in more than $8 million in contributions, grants and other revenue in 2022 – nearly 23 times as much as in 2020 – as it continued to tout the anti-parasitic ivermectin, which it also began promoting to prevent and treat flu and RSV. The CDC has said there is no clinical data to support the use of ivermectin for flu and RSV. Kory, the group’s president, said he and Marik frequently appear on shows run by Children’s Health Defense and Informed Consent Action Network. The latter group gave the FLCCC $210,000 in 2022, according to its tax filing.

Kory also used Twitter to encourage his hundreds of thousands of followers to visit his telehealth practice, which charges up to $2,350 for three video appointments.

Kory and Marik have testified in statehouses across the country espousing their views of ivermectin as a treatment for covid or against legislation promoting vaccines. Kory said Marik’s testimony in Tennessee helped lead to the passage of a bill that expanded access to ivermectin.Merck, a pharmaceutical company that manufactures ivermectin, has said there is “no scientific basis” and “no meaningful evidence” to prescribe the drug for covid. (When asked about the promotion of ivermectin for the flu and RSV, the company told The Post last year that use of the drug is not supported beyond what federal regulations have approved it for.)

“When the pharma company that sells it tells you it’s not intended to treat a viral disease because it acts on parasites, that’s saying something,” Caplan said.

Children’s Health Defense, which in 2020 had just two state chapters, in California and New York, has expanded to 19 states, as well as chapters focused on New England and the military. These chapters enable the organization to “spread misinformation” about vaccines in a more sophisticated way, with potential legislative consequences, said Becky Christensen, founder of the Safe Communities Coalition & Action Fund, which advocates for vaccines.

In January, the Tennessee chapter director of Children’s Health Defense appeared at a routine legislative committee meeting that sets the procedural rules for the year, Christensen said.

“They’re a part of every step of the legislative process now,” she said.

Children’s Health Defense says its legal team works closely with state attorneys general to protect off-label use of ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to prevent or treat covid; attorneys general in six states have done so.

The group donated $50,000 in 2021 to the Republican Attorneys General Association; IRS rules bar charities from making political contributions. Children’s Health Defense told Popular Information, which first reported the contribution, that the group made the donation to “educate attorneys general on health policy issues” and “we regret our mistake.” The Republican Attorneys General Association returned the funds, tax records show.

War chest for court battles

Three of the groups are also deploying their war chests to try to rack up legal wins.

Tax records from 2022 show that Children’s Health Defense spent at least $3 million in legal fees. The group has filed lawsuits, written amicus briefs or engaged in appeals in more than two dozen cases since the start of 2020, including an ongoing antitrust lawsuit against The Post and other media companies alleging suppression of what it claims is “wholly accurate and legitimate reporting” that “self-appointed ‘truth police'” deemed “misinformation.” The Post and its co-defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, which is pending.

The organization says it helped defeat coronavirus vaccine requirements for New York health-care workers. In January, it joined forces with Kory, president of Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, in suing to stop California’s medical board from punishing doctors who spread what the board determined was misinformation.

Children’s Health Defense said it also helped fund Maine physician Meryl Nass’s legal defense against the state medical board’s allegations that she improperly prescribed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Her license has been suspended by the state medical board until April 2025. Nass did not respond to requests for comment.

America’s Frontline Doctors spent nearly $1.5 million on legal fees in 2021 and again in 2022, tax records show, funding work including its opposition to coronavirus vaccine mandates. In 2023, the group had to defend itself in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that its promotion of hydroxychloroquine led to the death of a Nevada man who had been prescribed the anti-malarial drug by a doctor affiliated with the organization. Jimenez disputes the allegations.

Informed Consent Action Network has used its pandemic fundraising to file more than 40 lawsuits since 2020, including suing federal agencies for records on vaccine safety data to drive vaccine skepticism, said Reiss, the law professor. The group spent more than a third of its 2022 contributions and grants on legal fees, tax filings show.

The group says it supported a 2022 lawsuit that created religious vaccine exemptions for schools in Mississippi – which has one of the highest childhood vaccination rates in the country – and is raising money to “free the five” other states that still bar exemptions for people who say their religious beliefs prevent them from being vaccinated.

Nationally, the proportion of kindergartners with a vaccine exemption reached a new high of 3 percent in the 2022-2023 school year, according to the CDC. Public health experts, including Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, predict this trend will result in more outbreaks of preventable disease, such as the spate of measles among people who remain unvaccinated.

“We’ll find ourselves back a half-century, when the U.S. was ravaged by infectious diseases,” Gostin said.

Inside the donor groups

While many donors are shielded by tax vehicles for the wealthy, The Post used ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer – a database of charitable organizations’ IRS filings – to identify two of the donor-advised funds that contributed the most money to the groups during the pandemic.

The National Christian Foundation gave more than $1.8 million in total to the four groups from 2020 through 2022. The organization describes itself on its website as working with donors to be a “good steward of all God has entrusted to you.”

The foundation told The Post all grants are initiated on the recommendation of its more than 25,000 donors.

DonorsTrust, which contributed $1 million in total to Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance, America’s Frontline Doctors and Informed Consent Action Network in 2021 and 2022, calls itself on its website a “principled philanthropic partner for conservative and libertarian donors.”

“People of good faith hold a variety of different beliefs on issues related to health-and-human services and a healthy skepticism of those in authority,” Lawson Bader, president and chief executive of DonorsTrust, said in a statement to The Post. He added that “perhaps our givers’ critics should sue the CDC instead of smearing legitimate nonprofit organizations in good standing with the IRS.”

DonorsTrust noted that donations to the same three groups fell to less than $10,000 combined in 2023.

Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said he thinks the funding of misinformation by conservative donors is particularly disheartening because their communities faced higher rates of coronavirus vaccine refusal – and death – during the pandemic.

In his view, he said, “we should be as a society really concerned that people are spending this amount of money to distort the truth.”


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