What I’m Thinking… About Bezos’s Secret Company and Biden’s $875k-a-Ticket Fundraiser

Jeff Bezos Speaks At Economic Club Of Washington
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
June 22, 2021

One of the most rewarding parts of writing for this community is the feedback that I receive from readers. I’ve been inundated with great questions over the past week, and I’ll be engaging with some of them here—in addition to a few observations of my own.

You wrote last summer about a secretive new company that Jeff Bezos had started in part to manage his philanthropy. What happened to that?

Two summers ago, in the wake of his ex-wife’s very public signing of the Giving Pledge, Jeff Bezos quietly formed a company called Fellowship Ventures, perhaps with the intention of facilitating some head-turning philanthropy of his own. The LLC, registered in Delaware by his personal lawyer, Paul Dauber, emerged from obscurity last August when I reported that it applied for the trademark to the Bezos Earth Fund, the new $10 billion climate-change philanthropy that Bezos created last year, then disappeared back under the radar.

Bezos aides still won’t answer questions about it. But here’s what I can tell you: The new Bezos company is staying busy, making me think there is more news to come. This past spring, Fellowship Ventures filed paperwork to do business in five more states: California, Texas, New York, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. Notably, Bezos owns property in each of those (except Hawaii, as far as we know).

That raises the tantalizing possibility that, in addition to managing his philanthropy, Fellowship Ventures has a less beneficent purpose, too. It’s not unusual for billionaires like Bezos to create many LLCs to handle their personal affairs, such as managing contractors or executing real-estate deals. Donald Trump is famous for obscuring his business dealings with dozens of Delaware-based LLCs, which don’t have to publish any financial statements or disclose their owners.

But here’s a secret of the family office world: The wealthy take great pains to keep their personal financial vehicles inconspicuous, and they tend to give their family office LLCs very boring names when they want to evade detection. And so I’m struck that Bezos and Dauber registered something gaudy like Fellowship Ventures. That makes me think this is probably a public-facing vehicle. Or that Fellowship Ventures might at least do something more interesting than manage his yacht’s yacht.

Is that DNC fundraiser for Joe Biden you mentioned still happening at the end of the month?

Yes: I can reveal that the president’s first big national fundraiser will take place next Monday, June 28, per an invite from LinkedIn founder and Democratic mega-donor Reid Hoffman, who is one of several hosts. “Please join me for the opportunity to talk candidly with our Democratic President about the issues facing American business,” Hoffman wrote to his network last week in a note I saw. “Unfortunately, the great threat to American business today is the Republican Party.”

Some eye-popping ticket prices on this first Biden finance event: Tickets run from $100,000 (“Advocate”) to $875,000 (“Host”).

I read that Eric Schmidt is trying to put together a commission to investigate the U.S. Covid response. I’m not sure whether I want billionaire philanthropists organizing their own investigations into the government?

The debate over shock-and-awe philanthropy tends to boil down to who Americans trust more to solve their most intractable problems: an undemocratic but nimble billionaire class or a popularly-elected, but sclerotic federal government.

That’s why this story caught my eye, too. Schmidt is pushing for a federal commission to study the coronavirus pandemic, but is essentially positioning his family philanthropy, Schmidt Futures, and his grantee as the back-up option if Congress can’t get its act together. (The project is also backed with money from the libertarian Charles Koch and eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll.) In many ways, Schmidt’s strategy reveals how the two “sides” of this debate end up talking past each other in the real world. Oftentimes there’s no real “choice” between private philanthropy and public action. The choice is private philanthropy or no action at all.

And while there would be clear upsides to Congress taking the lead—Eric Schmidt can’t subpoena anyone, after all—if you were going to choose any non-public official to organize a clinical evaluation of mismanagement, I’d probably trust a technocrat like Schmidt for a fact-finding mission that, in theory, shouldn’t be political. Though as professional Schmidt antagonist Luther Lowe of Yelp points out, Schmidt does have a possible conflict of interest: He helped steer New York’s post-Covid recovery as an adviser to Andrew Cuomo.

I’m no longer hearing any more brutal stories about Bill Gates and his marital indiscretions. Do you expect more leaks from Melinda’s camp, or is the worst of this over for Bill?

The worst of this? Probably. Out of the barrel? Hell no.

Since the Gates couple announced their divorce six weeks ago, Bill has been besieged by negative headlines: more secret meetings with Jeffrey Epstein; an investigation by Microsoft’s board into Bill’s affair with a young woman; new details regarding how he looked the other way while his money manager, Michael Larson, allegedly mistreated staff.

Yes, it’s been a quiet few days. But there are at least two more news cycles here: One will arrive whenever the Gates Foundation announces any governance changes that it has said it is considering. The second is when a divorce settlement is finalized between the two legal teams, a financial accord that will be one for the ages. (Melinda has reportedly been meeting with divorce lawyers since 2019.)

I’ll be writing more about the Gates melodrama in the weeks to come. But for now, let me add this: the media won’t be satisfied until there is a mea culpa, or at least some exhaustion of their questions. As any savvy PR professional will tell you, until you jump on the grenade and do the Chris Christie-apologizes-for-Bridgegate struggle session, the story will linger and haunt you. Bill could try to brazen out the scandal, like his pal Cuomo, but it’s not really his style after two decades of meticulous PR.

As far as I know, neither Bill nor Melinda—who you couldn’t keep away from a camera while the Gates Foundation was in the news for helping steer America’s response to the pandemic—has given an interview to a journalist since their split. When either of them finally does so, they will be confronted with a battery of follow-up questions about what they knew and when, which will give this story considerably longer legs. But I have a feeling it will be necessary if they want to move on.

Have a question you’d like answered in the next edition? Email me at teddy@puck.news.