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New College of Florida trustee saw an influx of cash to his foundation, according to a new report

Christopher Rufo spoke with New College of Florida faculty at a town hall event in January 2023. At the time, he had just been appointed By Gov. Ron DeSantis to the school's Board of Trustees.
Cathy Carter
/
WUSF Public Media
Christopher Rufo spoke with New College of Florida faculty at a town hall event in January 2023. At the time, he had just been appointed By Gov. Ron DeSantis to the school's Board of Trustees.

New reporting from the news organization The Intercept, follows money coming into the foundation of right wing education activist Christopher Rufo.

Rufo was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to serve on the New College of Florida Board of Trustees. He's also worked closely with the governor on education policy in Florida.

WUSF's Cathy Carter recently spoke with reporter Daniel Boguslaw about how the infusion of cash is helping stoke culture wars in Florida and the nation.

Rufo was once a documentary filmmaker and has a foundation to support his work. In your story, you say that foundation received a big influx of untraceable money. Can you tell us about what you found?

What I found was that the nonprofit documentary foundation was generating between $80,000 to $400,000 a year depending on the workflow that was coming in around documentaries. But in 2021, that number spiked to almost $2 million. And this tracks with the political activities that Rufo started engaging in. Some of that money came from conservative foundations but the other interesting element here was some of the money that came in was not easily traceable.

This was money that was donated to Rufo’s foundation through donor advised funds, which are charitable funds, tied to large financial management firms like Fidelity and Charles Schwab. And while you can see who's putting money into these groups, and where these groups are giving the money, figuring out the connection that ties the outbound donations from the inbound donations is not present.

And so, there was hundreds of thousands of dollars that was moved into Rufo’s nonprofit foundation after his political transformation that came in this dark money way. And when pressed for where these concealed donations came from, and who the donors behind them were, Rufo was not very forthcoming.

So, what is the takeaway from this story?

I think the takeaway should be that there is an evolving network of political financing going on. And a lot of that is happening in ways that make it really difficult to know who's throwing their money around.

The New York Times recently reported on Leonard Leo, the conservative activist behind a lot of the Supreme Court appointments, a conservative activist who has used his network and arranged the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars towards conservative causes, utilizing these same donor advised funds to conceal the backers that don't necessarily want to be directly implicated.

And so, I think as we're seeing a new evolution in the right, whether it's in Florida, whether it's in Texas legislatures, whether it's on the national stage, or the Supreme Court, I think paying really close attention and trying to uncover the networks of people who are funding these fights is really critical to showing people where the interests are behind these and that they are not always just pure ideological fights, but that there are also financial interests at stake as well.

What would some of those financial interests be?

Well, you know, another story I've reported on recently was about DeSantis, and his ties to the insurance industry in Florida, and the vast amount of legislation that DeSantis signs, sometimes looks like it comes out of nowhere.

But really, that legislation can be tied to all sorts of things that are not pure culture war issues. And a big piece of this is the curriculum transparency push that has become Rufo's new obsession and new series of talking points.

A lot of commentators have come out and talked about how this is a direct pathway towards widespread school privatization. In fact, the head of the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Randi Weingarten, came out and said, this rhetoric is completely designed to shift the conversation to a place where we can have widespread privatization of schools, charter schools, religious schools.

Again, this is not just about a war of ideas or a cultural battle between left and right, but it's also a matter of financial stakes and the people who stand to profit from them.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.
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