December 9, 2022

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (L) greets fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui before introducing him at a press conference in New York on November 20, 2018.

Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images

The secret of a nonprofit group linked to wealthy Chinese exile Guo Wengui, who is reportedly the key figure in a network accused of spreading disinformation about Covid vaccines and elections, has grown over the past year.

Steve Bannon, a Chinese hawk who once served as a top advisor to Donald Trump, is no longer on the board of directors of the Rule of Law Society, a 501 (c) (4) nonprofit organization. A separate but related 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization, the Rule of Law Foundation, has meanwhile refused to disclose financial documents that it promised to publish. Such nonprofits are required by the Internal Revenue Service to publish these types of documents.

Both the Rule of Law Society and the Rule of Law Foundation apply as organizations that “protect those who speak out against corruption and illegal activities in China”.

Bannon, one of the most ardent proponents of Trump’s “America First” ideology, left the group last summer, according to people familiar with the matter. A person close to Bannon said he left the board as his schedule filled with other priorities, including his live show “War Room Pandemic”.

Bannon’s departure also came around the time federal prosecutors accused him of allegedly defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors through his “We Build the Wall” fundraiser, one person added. He was arrested on Guo’s yacht and pleaded not guilty in August 2020. Then-President Trump later pardoned Bannon.

It is unclear whether he left the group’s board of directors before or after his arrest. The people who explained Bannon’s situation declined to be named to speak freely about a private matter.

Control of Guo-affiliated nonprofits has increased as the rivalry between the United States and China has intensified amid trade wars and the spread of Covid-19, which originated in China. Under Trump, who was advised by Bannon in the 2016 election campaign and in its early days, the US started a trade war with China. The US continued its tough stance on China during the Biden administration.

Bannon has known Guo Wengui, aka Miles Kwok, for years. The two have worked on several projects aimed at undermining and counteracting the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Rule of Law Foundation and Rule of Law Society websites have disclaimers stating that they are not affiliated with Guo. But the pages also contain pictures of the exiled businessman, and the Rule of Law Society page indicates that he is the group’s founder, partner, and spokesman.

Guo and Bannon started the company in late 2018. The Chinese businessman told the New York Times at the time that he intended to invest $ 100 million in the effort. Guo told the Times that he and Bannon were “partners”. Bannon was listed as the chairman of the Rule of Law Society in documents filed with the New York Attorney General.

The New York Times Magazine previously reported that Guo fled China in 2014 on allegations of corruption. After he broke China’s leadership, arrest warrants were reportedly issued against him for corruption and bribery.

Forbes reported in 2015 that Guo had a net worth of over $ 1 billion. The Wall Street Journal reported that fundraising for a media company affiliated with Guo and Bannon was being investigated by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Bannon previously had a contract for at least $ 1 million with Guo Media, according to Axios.

Bannon did not respond to requests for comment. Guo could not be reached for comment.

Other departures

Besides Bannon, other key figures are no longer involved in the nonprofits.

Kyle Bass, a hedge fund manager and vocal China hawk, told CNBC that he stepped down from his position as chairman of the Rule of Law Foundation over a year ago to take on other board duties.

“I love the mission of bringing the concept of the rule of law to China and helping the good Chinese diaspora use the law to their advantage,” Bass said in a text message. “With most of the board members in NYC, I was a world away in Texas,” he added.

Jennifer Mercurio, who was once general counsel, secretary and director of the foundation according to the group’s 2019 tax return 990, told CNBC in an email that she stopped working for the foundation in February 2020. Mercurio didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking why she stopped working there.

Ross Heinemyer, who previously owned the foundation’s “books and records,” no longer works there, he told CNBC in a LinkedIn message. When asked why he was no longer employed there, he did not respond, but no longer had access to the foundation’s documents.

Documents not visible

The Rule of Law Foundation’s 990 disclosure from 2019, the latest year available, doesn’t give much information about who funds it or how it spends its money.

The group raised over $ 4 million in 2019. The records say they spent just under $ 50,000 on salaries and around $ 340,000 on other expenses. It ended the year with a fortune of just over $ 3.8 million. The submission does not list who contributed this year or how many donations it received. It remains unclear where the remaining foundation assets went in 2020 and beyond.

Upon reviewing the Foundation’s 990 disclosure to the IRS, CNBC found a line that states that “all relevant documents, conflict of interest policies, financial statements and tax documents of the organization are available for public inspection at the organization’s office.”

A CNBC reporter visited the office on the east side of Manhattan on Friday to request copies of the documents, which the foundation says are available to the public.

The New York office address given on the tax document matches the address officially called “The Himalaya Embassy”. The Daily Beast visited the office earlier this year and reported that the building was bespoke by Argentine billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian in 2015. It also notes that Guo converted the building’s residential floors into office space for its affiliated media and nonprofit groups.

Both the Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society share the same main address, NY disclosure reports show. The organizations are both listed in a Graphika report that highlights what it means to be a “network” [that] Acts as a prolific producer and amplifier of misinformation and disinformation, including allegations of election fraud in the US, false information about Covid-19 and QAnon narratives.

Exterior view of the Himalayan Embassy in New York.

Brian Schwartz | CNBC

When a CNBC reporter approached the front door of The Himalaya Embassy, ​​a man apparently accidentally opened the door and let the reporter go into the lobby.

A security guard then stopped the reporter and asked why he was there. The reporter said he wanted to see the documents that are supposed to be available to the public. He then showed the security guard a screenshot of the 990’s management stating the documents could be viewed in the group’s New York offices.

The security guard then asked if he could take the reporter’s phone to show the foundation’s directors, who were apparently in the office at the time. The reporter declined and instead sent the security guard a screenshot of the 990 form. The security officer then asked the reporter to leave the building so that the security guard could pass the request on to the foundation directors.

The guard later stepped out of the building claiming that those he spoke to were “shocked” that the 990 reveal said the documents were available for public inspection.

“It was shocking to you. You should have seen your reaction when you read it. You were shocked,” said the guard. The security guard also said that everyone he spoke to said that CNBC needed to email the organization to schedule an appointment.

Exterior view of the Himalayan Embassy in New York.

Brian Schwartz | CNBC

The reporter then handed the guard his business card and asked if the group could provide their email address. The security guard re-entered the building to check the email address. The reporter then spotted an unidentified man through a window, apparently wearing Apple AirPods, sitting in the building.

The guard later came back outside and said CNBC needed to contact the foundation using the email addresses listed on their website and make an appointment. The guard then said the foundation would not accept the business card because they were concerned about Covid infection.

Both foundations did not respond to repeated requests for comments.

CNBC also reached out to Janover LLC, an accounting firm that the filing says has prepared the disclosure for filing with the IRS. They refused to help.

“I don’t even know the name of the client you are referring to, we have over 8,000 clients. Regardless of being a journalist, you know we cannot legally provide documents without a subpoena,” said Mark Goodman, a managing director Shareholder of the company, said CNBC in an email. “In addition, we are not responsible for ensuring that documents are published. On the contrary, we have a fiduciary duty to our customers to maintain confidentiality.”

An unidentifiable man is seen at the Himalayan Embassy in New York.

Brian Schwartz | Reuters