NEW YORK (Reuters) - George Soros isn’t a financial backer of the Wall Street protests, despite speculation by critics including radio host Rush Limbaugh that the billionaire investor has helped fuel the anti-capitalist movement.
Limbaugh summed up the chatter when he told his listeners last week, “George Soros money is behind this.”
Soros spokesman Michael Vachon said that Soros has not “funded the protests directly or indirectly.” He added: “Assertions to the contrary are an attempt by those who oppose the protesters to cast doubt on the authenticity of the movement.”
Soros has donated at least $3.5 million to an organization called the Tides Center in recent years, earmarking the funds for specific purposes. Tides has given grants to Adbusters, an anti-capitalist group in Canada whose inventive marketing campaign sparked the first demonstrations last month.
Vachon said Open Society specified what its donations could be used for. He said they were not general purpose funds to be used at the discretion of Tides -- for example for grants to Adbusters. “Our grants to Tides were for other purposes.”
Tides declined to comment.
According to IRS disclosure documents from 2007-2009, the latest data available, Soros’ Open Society gave grants of $3.5 million to Tides, a San Francisco-based group that acts almost like a clearing house for other donors, directing their contributions to liberal non-profit groups. Among others the Tides Center has partnered with are the Ford Foundation and the Gates Foundation.
IRS disclosure documents and reports from Tides also show that Tides gave Adbusters grants of $185,000 from 2001-2010, including nearly $26,000 between 2007-2009.
The Vancouver-based Adbusters publishes a magazine with a circulation of 120,000 and is known for its spoofs of popular advertisements. It says it wants to “change the way corporations wield power” and its goal is “to topple existing power structures.”
Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn said the group is 95 percent funded by subscribers paying for the magazine.
“George Soros’s ideas are quite good, many of them. I wish he would give Adbusters some money, we sorely need it,” he said. “He’s never given us a penny.”
Adbusters may have sparked Occupy Wall Street but it is by no means in control of the disparate movement, with the protests now in their fourth week and spreading to cities across America. President Barack Obama, BlackRock Chief Executive Laurence Fink and Soros himself are among those who have expressed sympathy for the protesters’ frustration with high unemployment.
“I can understand their sentiment,” Soros told reporters last week at the United Nations about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, which are expected to spur solidarity marches globally on Saturday. He declined to comment further.
Soros, 81, is No. 7 on the Forbes 400 list with a fortune of $22 billion, which has ballooned in recent years as he deftly responded to financial market turmoil. He has pledged to give away all his wealth, half of it while he earns it and the rest when he dies.
Like the protesters, Soros is no fan of the 2008 bank bailouts and subsequent government purchase of the toxic sub-prime mortgage assets they amassed in the property bubble.
The protesters say the Wall Street bank bailouts in 2008 left banks enjoying huge profits while average Americans suffered under high unemployment and job insecurity with little help from Washington. They contend that the richest 1 percent of Americans have amassed vast fortunes while being taxed at a lower rate than most people.
Soros in 2009 wrote in an editorial that the purchase of toxic bank assets would, “provide artificial life support for the banks at considerable expense to the taxpayer.”
He urged the Obama administration to take bolder action, either by recapitalizing or nationalizing the banks and forcing them to lend at attractive rates. His advice went unheeded.
The Hungarian-American was an early supporter of the 2008 election campaign of Barack Obama, who will seek a second term as president in the November, 2012, election. He has long backed liberal causes - the Open Society Institute, the foreign policy think tank Council on Foreign Relations and Human Rights Watch.
Adbusters, which publishes a magazine and runs such campaigns as “Digital Detox Week” and “Buy Nothing Day,” came up with the Occupy Wall Street idea after Arab Spring protests toppled governments in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, said Lasn, the 69-year-old co-founder of the group.
“It came out of these brainstorming sessions we have at Adbusters,” Lasn told Reuters, adding they began promoting it online on July 13. “We were inspired by what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and we had this feeling that America was ripe for a Tahrir moment.”
“We felt there was a real rage building up in America, and we thought that we would like to create a spark which would give expression for this rage.”
Other support for Occupy Wall Street has come from online funding website Kickstarter, where more than $75,000 has been pledged, deliveries of food and from cash dropped in a bucket at the park. Liberal film maker Michael Moore has also pledged to donate money.
The protests began in earnest on September 17, triggered by an Adbusters campaign featuring a provocative poster showing a ballerina dancing atop the famous bronze bull in New York’s financial district as a crowd of protesters wearing gas masks approach behind her.
Dressed in anarchist black, the battle-ready mob is shrouded in a fog suggestive of tear gas or fires burning. Some are wearing gas masks, others wielding sticks. The poster’s message seems to be a heady combination of sexuality, violence, excitement and adventure.
Former carpenter Robert Daros, 23, saw that poster in a cafe in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Having lost his work as a carpenter after Florida’s speculative construction boom collapsed in a heap of sub-prime mortgage foreclosures, he quit his job as a bartender and traveled to New York City with just a sleeping bag and the hope of joining the protest movement.
Daros was one of the first people to arrive on Wall Street for the so-called occupation on September 17, when protesters marched and tried to camp on Wall Street only to be driven off by police to Zuccotti Park - two acres of concrete without a blade of grass near the rising One World Trade Center.
“When I was a carpenter, I lost my job because the financier of my project was arrested for corporate fraud,” said Daros, who was wearing a red arm band to show he was helping out in the medic section of the Occupy Wall Street camp.
Since its obscure beginnings, the campaign has drawn global media attention in places as far-flung as Iran and China. The Times of London, however, was not alone when it called the protests “Passionate but Pointless.”
Adbusters’ co-founder Lasn dismisses that, reeling off specific demands: a tax on the richest 1 percent, a tax on currency trades and a tax on all financial transactions.
“Down the road, there will be crystal clear demands coming out of this movement,” he said. “But this first phase of the movement is messy and leaderless and demandless.”
“I think it was perfect the way it happened.”
(Recasts with comment from Soros aide, adds new details to clarify. The original version can be found here)
Additional reporting by Cezary Podkul in New York and Cameron French in Toronto, writing by Mark Egan, editing by Claudia Parsons