Washington Post columnist George Will Washington Post columnist George Will

In a Nov. 19 piece, Washington Post columnist George Will wrote some nice things about an outfit called the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a group that litigates in the areas of “property rights, the freedom to earn a living, voting rights, regulation, taxation, school choice, and religious freedom.” This nonprofit is fighting what Will terms a Justice Department attempt to destroy the school-choice program in Wisconsin.

“The Justice Department’s perverse but impeccably progressive theory can be called ‘osmotic transfer,'” writes Will. “It is called this by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which is defending Wisconsin children against Washington’s aggression. The department’s theory is: Contact between a private institution and government, however indirect or attenuated the contact, can permeate the private institution with public aspects, transferring to it, as if by osmosis, the attributes of a government appendage.”

Will is railing against the Justice Department’s directive that Wisconsin’s state education bureaucracy take “stronger steps to ensure children with disabilities are enrolled and served properly by private voucher schools,” according to a May 2013 story in the Journal Sentinel. The columnist writes, “The federal government is attempting to order the state to require the choice schools to choose between the impossible and the fatal — between offering services they cannot afford or leaving the voucher program.” WILL is pushing back, with arguments that Will endorses.

In George Will tradition, the column is tight and eloquently argued, but it features one omission: Will’s connection to WILL. Since 2008, Will has been a member of the board of directors at the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which dedicates itself to “preserving and defending the tradition of free representative government and private enterprise” in the United States. That mission entails issuing grants to organizations across the country that support the foundation’s objectives.

The foundation’s 2011 annual report includes a record of a $500,000 grant to WILL, to “support general operations.” WILL’s Form 990 for 2011, which appears to be its first year in operation, shows a contribution total of $505,000, meaning that the Bradley Foundation gave critical seed money to the outfit. Its 2012 and 2013 reports also detail grants of $500,000 to WILL.

As a member of the Bradley Foundation board of directors, how much influence does Will have over the foundation’s funding decisions? Plenty, at least according to the group’s annual report: “The programs and funding decisions of the Bradley Foundation are the responsibility of the Board of Directors,” according to a section on grantmaking policies.

This case highlights Will’s intersecting lines of influence. He’s a director of the Bradley Foundation, an entity with more than $800 million in assets and 2013 grants totaling nearly $34 million to organizations in Wisconsin and across the country, including big-time Beltway entities like the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society. His column is syndicated to about 450 newspapers. Keeping those two worlds separate is quite a job, as the Nov. 19 column demonstrates: Here, Will touted an outlet funded generously by a group he helps to lead. And thanks to the columnist’s kind words, WILL may have an easier time finding funders outside of the Bradley Foundation. All very cozy, synergistic and, as media critics might say, an out-and-out conflict of interest — an offense of which Will has been accused before.

Through his assistant, Will has passed along an extensive and thoughtful defense of the column, which we’re printing in full:

I am a conservative. The Bradley Foundation’s mission is to support conservative scholars and causes. As one of 12 directors, I vote approval of hundreds of applications for Bradley support, applications vetted and presented to the board by Bradley staff. WILL is one of the recent hundreds.

The column I wrote was not about WILL. It was about the legal arguments impinging upon the clients — schools in Wisconsin’s choice program — that WILL is serving. My “connection” with WILL is slight. In this case, WILL’s lawyers were sources of information and instruction. I have written about school choice and its opponents many times over the years, and would have written about the Milwaukee case even if WILL had not been involved.

Similarly, there is an exemplary program serving inner city Milwaukee children that I plan to write about. It, too, receives some of its funding from Bradley. And I see no reason — no service to readers — to disclose my several degrees of separation from the program: My tenuous connection has no bearing on what I think about what they do. There comes a point when disclosure of this and that becomes clutter, leaving readers to wonder what the disclosed information has to do with anything.

My wife is a political operative and from time to time I have disclosed that when writing about politics. Such a disclosure tells readers something they did not know that might condition how they judge what I write. I do not see how disclosure of my connection to Bradley, and Bradley’s connection to WILL, and WILL’s connection to the school choice program, would be important to readers.

Bold text added to facilitate rebuttal: Will’s connection to these organizations relates to his role in funding them. Money is never a “tenuous” connection.