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Corporate astroturfing campaign comes to UMass Boston

Readers may have noticed that with the most restrictive COVID-19 measures being lifted, our campus has been visited by quite a few interest groups. Whether they’re religious, political or simply employers looking for recruits, public universities must remain free and open, so we tend to see a wide variety of organizations like these. One such organization in particular caught our eye this semester—the so-called Young Americans for Liberty.

On Jan. 27, two members of this group wearing sweatshirts that read “Print guns, not money,” set up a table filled with glossy, promotional material along the wall of the McCormack building. Their nature was a bit confusing; it was not immediately obvious who they were and what they were about, and they didn’t overtly advertise any political affiliations. However, the floating-signifier style of their name made it pretty obvious that this was some sort of political action group.

So, we decided to do a deep dive into Young Americans for Liberty—and what we found is certainly eye-opening.

Ostensibly, according to their own website, YAL is a “pro-liberty youth organization advancing liberty on campus and in American electoral politics” based in Texas[18]. It was founded by Jeff Frazee, an ex-youth coordinator for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign[19]. Their official political stances, according to the page on their own “Hazlitt Coalition”—which they describe as “a growing network of 300 plus liberty legislators from nearly 40 states supported by full-time YAL staff”[20]—are pretty boiler-plate libertarian fare[21]. This unspoken but obvious libertarian flavor jives with the Ron Paul connection and with what we found out later through interviews and research.

The best way to frame our subsequent findings is probably with the on-the-ground workers. Tony Mesta, who works under Northeast Regional Director Angelo Veltri, painted co-author James Cerone a picture of the organization as all across the political board, from “traditional”—presumably conservative—to “anarcho-communist” and “leftist.” Mesta describes himself, somewhat reluctantly, as a libertarian with progressive social views and conservative economic sensibilities. He also described Angelo Veltri as “centrist.”

Tony described the organization as “non-partisan,” and if he was forced to pick, libertarian in nature. He started out the interview by describing his frustration at “being told I could not go out” during COVID-19, describing what he saw as a “rebellion against liberty.” He also highlighted efforts like unbanning pepper spray from campuses, supporting “school choice,” ending qualified immunity, abolishing the death penalty and legalizing marijuana. These are all things that we confirmed align with the purported ideals of YAL in general[21].

Mesta believes that YAL is leading the fight against university “bureaucrats” and believes students should have the same rights on college campuses as they do elsewhere. This apparently includes permitting weapons on campus, according to what they had been saying while tabling.

Here’s where the strangeness really begins. You see, Tony and his diverse colleagues all seem to be pretty low on the totem pole of employees. Tony himself told James that he believed the organization was “strongly grassroots” by nature of how much on-the-ground work they do—Tony started as a campaigner knocking on doors—and recruiting goes on. He even described their donors as “grassroots donors;” but he admitted he didn’t know much about them.

But the term “grassroots” does not exactly reflect what we found about YAL while looking deeper into their business.

Young Americans for Liberty is a non-profit organization. That means that they have to report quite a bit on their finances, which is a great way to discover an organization’s real motivations. When we looked into YAL’s finances, a picture quickly emerged of what we consider a corporate-interest, astroturfing campaign funded primarily by Charles Koch—of the well-known, libertarian, billionaire Koch Brothers—and his affiliates.

We discovered that seven out of nine reported major donors were either an organization directly linked to Charles Koch, or indirectly associated with the Koch brothers. The “Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation”—on the hook for donating $355,000 to YAL in 2019 alone—or the “Charles Koch Institute” are examples of the obvious ones[13]. The affiliated donors seem to all be funded largely by Charles Koch.

One organization, DonorsTrust—which donated $783,220 to YAL in 2020[13]—has repeatedly donated to groups that have been credibly described as “far-right” or “alt-right”, or have been accused of spreading lies and misinformation[1][2][3]. It is a major funder of VDARE—to the tune of millions of dollars—which promotes and lauds white supremacist activity and rhetoric[8]. DonorsTrust has been called “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement” and also has its hands in quite a lot of climate change denial organizations and campaigns[9][10]—which is unsurprising, as they are so tightly connected to the Koch Brothers, who have a long history of funding climate change denial[11].

As an aside, this is not the only connection to white-supremacy that YAL seems to have. We discovered that in 2018, a YAL chapter at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology invited Nick Fuentes—who is a well-known, far-right commentator who has frequently been accused of spreading strongly racist and anti-immigration rhetoric as well as promoting white-supremacy—to speak at an event they were hosting[22]. In 2019, a student who was listed as an “officer” at YAL was linked to an organization called “Identity Evropa”[23], a strongly white-supremacist organization[24].

Another donor—the Cato Institute—espouses its support of rather extreme measures all on its own. They believe that federal and state minimum-wage wages should be illegal, that the Americans with Disabilities Act and guaranteed family and medical leave should be repealed, and that the vast majority of food safety and environmental regulations should be removed[4].

There’s more. The Foundation for Economic Education is a donor funded largely by “Certell Inc.,” which describes itself as a non-partisan “digital learning organization”[12]. However, unsurprisingly, they are funded largely by right-wing donors, with DonorsTrust being the biggest visible donor[12].

There have also been quite a few of sexual harassment and serious sexual assault accusations across both YAL itself and its donors. Former YAL president Cliff Maloney Jr. and former “vice president of grassroots” Justin Greiss were placed on leave after allegations of sexual misconduct[5]. Maloney Jr. was later accused of a particularly disturbing incident of sexual assault in 2022 as well[6]. Ed Crane of the YAL donor Cato Institute and prominent libertarian, has also been accused of “years” of sexual harassment at Cato[7]. Ironically, YAL uses the idea of women using firearms to defend themselves against such assaults on their pamphlets to argue for second amendment protections.

The idea that YAL as a “grassroots” organization, therefore, is simply disingenuous. It strikes us as a blatantly corporate-interest extension of the Koch brothers thinly masquerading as an organization run by young college students in order to get young college students to unknowingly do groundwork for corporate interest. It’s no surprise that this organization is staunchly anti-regulation.

Contrary to Mesta’s portrayal of YAL as “across the political spectrum,” the visible donors of the organization are exclusively right-wing megadonors largely connected to the Koch brothers and DonorsTrust. Tony has even promoted content from “America’s Future” on Twitter[25], which has absorbed an institute founded as a part of DonorsTrust[17].

Tellingly, the range of political orientations he spoke of seems to be limited to the lowest rungs of the YAL totem pole. The founder, chair of the board and treasurer of YAL is an ex-Ron Paul campaign worker[13]; Cliff Maloney—who has since been removed from his position—was a Rand Paul campaign worker[13]; Lauren Daugherty, the current CEO, is staunchly connected to libertarianism[14]; the chief of staff Sean Themea studied at Charles Koch Institute[15]; the chief strategy officer Brendan Steinhauser is the author of a book appropriately titled “The Conservative Revolution: How to Win the Battle for College Campuses”[16], et cetera. Many more key staff members and leaders of these organizations have associations with Ron Paul or Rand Paul—prominent libertarian politicians.

To be perfectly clear, not a single public donor is left of center—or possibly even center—of the political spectrum, and the YAL leadership seems to closely match that paradigm at the highest rungs. It seems to us that the supposedly politically diverse group people doing the groundwork for Young Americans for Liberty may simply be unaware of the truth and real motivations behind the organization they are working for. Either that, or Tony Mesta is just lucky enough to work with an unusually diverse group of people.

Now that we have unearthed the web of connections and political motivations behind YAL, let’s take this moment to change track here for a bit and answer an important question: What were they doing on our campus, and why did we became so invested in this investigative project?

When co-authors Jonah Hammond and Alex Berkowitz approached Tony and Angelo at their table outside of McCormack, they were immediately struck by the fact that they were using pictures of Tyre Nichols lying in his hospital bed—near death and swollen nearly beyond recognition—to promote their political policies. Tony and Angelo, and YAL itself, are supportive of ending qualified immunity, civil asset forfeiture, no-knock raids and more, based on their rhetoric and organization materials.

Their specific objective was unclear. Our mask policy—which is something YAL is very against—has been lifted, although we still have vaccine mandates[29]. They did talk about vaccine mandates in general, but evidently not about UMass Boston in general. The impression Jonah and Alex got was that they were just trying to recruit members.

Angelo and Tony told Jonah and Alex that they were holding a meeting later that day, so they both went to check things out. They arrived at 6:30 p.m. to a stage, complete with a PA system, occupying the second floor of Campus Center. It doesn’t appear that the university specifically sanctioned or promoted this gathering[27]. Angelo was the one talking this time and seemed to be well practiced at doing so; however, during the time that they were there, Jonah and Alex were the only audience members, save one.

Again, they opened by discussing what happened to Tyre Nichols—only this time, they pivoted quite quickly to talking about cryptocurrency and “corporate socialism,” saying that the U.S. should either readopt the gold standard or switch to cryptocurrency. This struck Jonah and Alex as an exceedingly strange juxtaposition, and a clear attempt to use the death of Tyre Nichols to rope in socially conscious Beacons who may have not otherwise paid any attention to the rest of what they were saying.

In fact, Tony Mesta told James during their interview that one of the strategies he and Angelo use is to “tailor” their message “around the demographic” of whatever campus they were on. He claims they “used” the Tyre Nichols tragedy to “get college kids attention,” since college students are notoriously difficult to reach. We do not know exactly how they have framed and tailored their message at other institutions.

Let’s focus on Angelo for a minute. Since he appears to be in charge of operations in New England, we wanted to look into who he was exactly. His Twitter was the main thing that caught our attention.

“@LibertyAngelo” certainly has an interesting feed. Some of his posts are a more typical brand of controversial—promoting the abolition of Social Security and sharing a tweet that simply says “F— [in all caps] Ukraine” are a couple examples. But some of it is more concerning as well.

Here are some examples of the tweets: sharing posts lauding the murder of pedophiles; talk about abolishing the FDA or to “ignore the FDA;” spreading misinformation about vaccine effectiveness and advocating for Dr. Anthony Fauci’s imprisonment; climate misinformation; accusations of child sexualization towards “these people,” which parallels similar rhetoric about LGBTQ people; references to “rebellion” in association with images of weapons.

He even seems to be decidedly reckless and particularly angry at those who punish him. “I’ll never go back to your crime-riddled, s— infested city again” he once wrote in an Instagram post, in response to three police citations form New York—pictured in the post—each showing that he was going way over the speed limit in a school zone[31].

He also has a YouTube channel[28] and hosts a podcast called “Liberty Hour”[30], where he talks a lot about deregulation, rails against “wokeness,” promotes gun rights and claims that it’s not worth appealing to democrats, since they are the “enemy”[30]. Given all of this, Tony Mesta’s depiction of his boss as “centrist” seems to be a stretch.

We reached out to Angelo for an interview, but never heard back from him.

So, here’s the bottom line. Young Americans for Liberty itself may seem reasonable, removed from socio-political extremism and fairly innocuous on its face. But under the hood, YAL is a partisan, corporate-interest astroturfing campaign—that is, masquerading as “grassroots”—bankrolled by the Koch brothers and connected to some pretty horrible institutions and morally corrupt characters.

It seems to us that anyone interested in joining must seriously consider the reality of this organization. There is of course nothing wrong with subscribing to libertarian policies and wanting to get politically involved. In fact, becoming politically involved is one of the best things one can do to support their democracy and make their country a better place.

Yet organizations such as Young Americans for Liberty appear to be little more than attempts by corporate leaders to undermine and manipulate young people into serving corporate interest. It’s unfortunate, but it is often the reality.

After all of this complexity, the moral of the story is surprisingly simple. Whenever you are considering doing some volunteer work—or accepting a job—for a political interest organization, make sure to do your homework. Look into their finances; do some research into the leadership of it and its donors; analyze their tactics. If something doesn’t seem right, look into it. No organization is perfect of course, but this simple step will ensure that you don’t become a pawn for a system you don’t support.

There are still some questions that remain, though. How deep does this organization go? How influential are they really? Tony’s example of a “success” was essentially a failure of YAL to unban pepper spray at Binghamton University in New York, but it is unclear to us how often they are truly successful at doing what they set out to do.

It also remains unclear how much media presence they have; Angelo has a YouTube channel[28] and a podcast[30], and the founder Jeff Frazee has at least done interviews before[19]. Young Americans for Liberty itself is a bit harder to find in the media.

To make a long story short, YAL represents a potentially dangerous precedent for corporate-interest astroturfing, and college students should be wary of all organizations that make an appearance on campus. While we are ecstatic that we can bring this kind of investigative reporting to our readers, we unfortunately can’t do it for everybody that comes to our campus. So, keep your head about you, and don’t go into anything blindly.

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor