“[I] had really seen enough of Congress in Washington to know that I didn’t want to go back there and was really intrigued,” Ossoff said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I admired the company. I believed in the mission. . . . So that is when I said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ ”
Nonetheless, Ossoff, 33, has spent much of his time and energy over the past three years trying to get back to Washington, saying he was motivated to return by his dismay about the election of Donald Trump. He ran unsuccessfully for the House in a 2017 special election, and now is one of two Democrats running in Georgia’s unusual dual Senate runoffs against Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
The simultaneous races, culminating on Jan. 5, have taken on enormous national importance, as they will determine which party controls the Senate for at least the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Ossoff, derided by Republicans as a “trust fund socialist” and serial exaggerator of his achievements, has portrayed his business experience as a qualification for the job. He has made his films a centerpiece of his campaign, seeking to draw a parallel between his work with investigative reporting and what he said would be a similar effort to uncover such abuses in the United States, if he is elected to the Senate. “Fighting corruption is my job,” he says in an ad showing images from the movies.
Perdue, 71, a one-term Republican and former corporate executive, has also sought to make the films a central campaign issue, questioning their financing. “I’d like him to explain where his money comes from, really, in his business,” Perdue said in a debate with Ossoff.
Ossoff has declined to say how much he inherited from his grandfather, who was co-owner of a Massachusetts leather factory, and he said many of the financial details of his business, Insight: The World Investigates, would remain confidential. His company has done business with a number of international networks, including the BBC, Al Jazeera’s English channel, and outlets throughout Africa, Latin America, the United States and Hong Kong.
“I openly acknowledge that the opportunity I’ve had is a function of my parents’ hard work . . . the opportunity to get a great education without debt, the opportunity to do what I love and pursue my passion, which is confronting and exposing injustice and the abuse of power,” he said.
Much of the attention in the brief campaign has focused on the other Democrat, Raphael Warnock, a prominent Black pastor who, in his bid to unseat Loeffler, has sought to energize Georgia’s large African American electorate to turn out for both runoffs amid a sustained fusillade of attacks from Republicans seeking to paint him as “radical.”
Democrats and their allies, meanwhile, have filled the Georgia airwaves with ads highlighting questions about the business dealings of Loeffler, the wealthiest member of Congress, according to financial disclosure reports, and Perdue, a former corporate executive who has done more stock trades than any other senator, according to the website Senate Stock Watcher.
A fateful meeting
Ossoff’s rise to CEO of Insight TWI has its roots in his first meeting with the company’s founder, Ron McCullagh, when Ossoff was 16 years old. Ossoff was on vacation with his family in France when they were invited to a dinner party that included McCullagh, who said he was impressed with Ossoff’s knowledge of world affairs and remained in touch with him.
Shortly afterward, Ossoff, an Atlanta native, said he read the autobiography of Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon. Ossoff wrote a letter to Lewis, who gave Ossoff, then 17, an internship in his Washington office and remained friends until his death earlier this year.
Ossoff then went to Georgetown University, simultaneously working for Rep. Hank Johnson, another Democrat from Georgia, and eventually became a foreign policy aide. It was in that role that Ossoff said he began thinking about the field of investigative journalism. As Ossoff prepared to take a January 2012 trip to Ghana with Johnson, McCullagh arranged for him to meet with one of Africa’s most famous investigative reporters, Anas Aremeyaw Anas.
The reporter, whose face is not shown in his reports to protect him, had for years exposed corruption throughout Africa under the motto: “Name, Shame, and Jail.” Anas’s work had been hailed widely, including a 2009 tribute from President Barack Obama to the “courageous journalist . . . who risked his life to report the truth.”
It was soon after that trip that McCullagh asked Ossoff, who had interned at the company, if he would become CEO. Asked why he thought such a young person with no background in journalism was qualified to take over the company, McCullagh responded that he felt confidence in Ossoff due to their decade-long friendship and his experience as a congressional aide and his education, which included a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.
“I knew he could” do it, McCullagh said. “I'd been running it for 22 years and I wanted to find new blood to take over.”
Ossoff accepted the position but wanted the company to have a stronger financial footing so it could expand. Although he was only 26 and had mainly worked as a congressional aide, Ossoff had an inheritance to tap.
Ossoff has declined to say how much he inherited, and he has not released his tax returns. His personal financial disclosure form, which he filed this year as a Senate candidate, says his net worth is between $2.3 million and $8.8 million, including the value of his company, which he put at between $1 million and $5 million.
Ossoff and McCullagh agreed that they would capitalize the company with each contributing $250,000. (Ossoff’s additional, unspecified investment came later.) That was soon supplemented with a $350,000 grant from a foundation run by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who around the same time funded the investigative journalism website the Intercept.
The cash infusions helped Ossoff launch a number of ambitious investigative projects in Africa, Iraq and Latin America. After several years, he stepped back from that role to begin his political campaign in Georgia. A special election was held in 2017 for a U.S. House seat in a heavily Republican district. Ossoff won the Democratic nomination and posited the race as the first chance to repudiate President Trump. Both parties poured so much money into the race that it became the most expensive House contest in history at the time.
Much of the focus on Ossoff in the contest was on whether the then-30-year-old had the experience to be a congressman. Ossoff campaigned in that race on the basis that “I’ve got five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress. I held top-secret security clearance.”
In fact, according to a report at the time by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, two of those years were part-time work while he was a college student, and he held the clearance for only five months. The Fact Checker said his claims about his experience were “misleading enough” to merit one “Pinocchio” (on a scale with four being the worst) and that he had engaged in a “bit too much résumé puffery.”
Ossoff lost the race by three percentage points and refocused on his CEO role.
He had united with Anas, the African undercover journalist, to produce a number of films that exposed corruption. A film about judges who took bribes was commissioned by Al Jazeera English, which promoted it as “Africa’s biggest undercover sting.” Ghana suspended seven of 12 High Court judges and 22 lower-court judges implicated in the film, according to the BBC, which said the documentary “shocked the nation and has been shown to packed houses at cinemas” in Accra, Ghana’s capital.
That was followed by a film exposing corruption in soccer, titled “Number 12.” It became a sensation with its undercover filming of bribes of referees, 61 of whom were suspended or banned, according to ESPN. In addition, a member of the General Council of FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, who was filmed taking a $65,000 payment, was banned by the organization as a result of the film, according to Reuters.
One of the reporters who worked on the soccer film was Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela, who had met with Ossoff to discuss how they would proceed on the investigation. After the film was completed, a Ghanaian politician publicized a picture of Divela and urged that the reporter be attacked, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Seven months later, Divela was shot and killed while driving. The killing, Ossoff said, was “without question” the darkest moment of his life. No arrest has been made.
“I felt physically rocked by the loss of a colleague and devastated for Ahmed’s family and full of grief and full of anger that somebody had decided to retaliate against a journalist who had been courageously telling the world the truth about crimes against the people,” Ossoff said.
Anas, in a telephone interview with The Post, said that Ossoff had done everything possible to protect the reporters, and he praised Ossoff for continuing to support his work.
“Those who criticize Jon just don’t know him,” Anas said. He recalled that Ossoff called him after the killing and said, “You cannot break down. You have to stand firm. This is not the time to cry, but this is the exact time that the enemies are looking out for all of them, so keep the team together.”
Ossoff, after serving as executive producer on two films about Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and other projects, announced in September 2019 that he would run for the Senate.
Seven weeks later, Ossoff’s firm filed a financial report in London that provides the most significant look inside the business. It said the company had a negative net worth of $283,343 at the end of 2018, which the campaign said was partly the result of the debt due to Ossoff.
The report said the company “elected not to include a copy of the profit and loss account.” The campaign said in a statement that the company in that year had an operating loss of $25,000 but declined to make that documentation public or provide information about other years.
Ossoff declined The Post’s request to release further financial information. He said that “in some years we’ve been profitable, for some years we’ve taken losses. But the particulars of our annual finances are confidential.” He said that heading a media company “is not the most lucrative thing I could be doing, but it is a going concern.” He said the films have “high impact around the world and are consistent with the kind of change I want to make in the world.”
Ossoff won his primary and faced Perdue in November. When neither candidate cleared a 50 percent threshold, a runoff was required. That made it one of two such Georgia contests that will be held Jan. 5 that will determine which party controls the Senate.
Perdue has alleged that Ossoff has received funding from “a communist Chinese news agency that’s owned by the communist Chinese government.” Ossoff said his company produced two films on Islamic State terrorists commissioned by the BBC; the films were then distributed around the world by an agency and aired on a Hong Kong network that paid about $1,000 for the right to air them. Although Ossoff said on his financial disclosure form that he received more than $5,000 over two years from the Hong Kong company, campaign spokeswoman Miryam Lipper said the actual amount was $1,000.
Perdue also has said Ossoff worked for the “mouthpiece of terrorism,” citing work with Al Jazeera, a network funded by the government of Qatar, a U.S. ally.
Al Jazeera has acknowledged on its website that its decision in 2010 to air tapes of Osama bin Laden speaking “set off a debate, both inside and outside the network on whether it should be broadcast.”
Ossoff stressed in the interview that his films were sold to the network’s English channel, not the Arabic one. He said that he directly negotiated with Al Jazeera English, which he called a “completely respected news organization.” He said he brought it a list of a proposed projects, and that Al Jazeera English commissioned numerous films, including one on Ebola in Africa.
Ossoff said he hasn’t decided what he will do with his executive role and company ownership if he is elected senator.
“I doubt that it will be viable to function as a hands-on CEO of the firm and serve in the Senate,” Ossoff said. “So we’ll have to figure something out.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.