Revealed: Bayer AG discussed plans to give not-for-profit funding for influence

by Carey Gillam

Emails between two senior executives and a journalist show discussions aimed at giving Bayer a voice in press foundation initiatives.

Bayer AG discussed plans to give the German drugs giant influence within prestigious American not-for-profit dedicated to media freedoms that would protect and promote the company’s business interests in exchange for generous funding, records obtained by the Guardian show.

Multiple email communications from 2018 and 2019 detail the entwinement of two senior executives at Bayer’s US operations with a Greek journalist and “communications strategist” named Thanos Dimadis who served briefly as executive director for the 101-year-old New York-based Foreign Press Association (FPA), and the related Foreign Press Foundation (FPF).

The association is a membership organization and the foundation supports the work of the members with scholarship awards and other activities. Dimadis worked on behalf of both the FPA and the FPF from November 2017 to April 2019 to help with fundraising and organizing events.

The emails show a series of discussions between Dimadis and Bayer’s senior vice-president, Ray Kerins, and vice-president, Chris Loder, aimed at giving Bayer a voice in several press foundation initiatives with a goal of “adding value to Bayer and the FPA”. Bayer was to be “actively informed and involved in the supervision of these planned initiatives”, according to a 16 June 2018 email from Dimadis to Kerins and Loder.

In that same email, Dimadis listed a set of initiatives he said were “based on our discussion” as well an approach “about what the Foreign Press Association can do for Bayer and the opposite”. Bayer would be “actively informed and involved in the supervision of these planned initiatives”, Dimadis wrote.

Dimadis told the Bayer executives that if the company was a “major supporter” of the FPF, the company would receive the following:

Loder would get a seat on the FPF advisory board and participate in board meetings.

FPA would deploy multiple initiatives each year to raise awareness about topics identified by both FPA and Bayer.

Bayer would be given advance notice of honorees of the Foreign Press awards and the “selection of the honorary awardees for the Foreign Press awards should not be contradictory to Bayer’s strategic communications plans and initiatives”.

Also pledged the press association would organize daylong forums for journalists and “media influencers” on topics agreed to by Bayer that were relevant to Bayer’s goals, “for example agriculture, or any other issue” important to Bayer. “Everything will take place in coordination with Bayer’s team and the executive director,”’ the 16 June 2018 email states.

There would be a “major conference against fake news” organized by the FPA and Bayer in New York.

The press association would organize three “background briefings” for Bayer each year with national and international journalists “on topics that fit in Bayer’s communications priorities and strategic goals”.

Bayer’s financial support for the FPA would be withdrawn if Dimadis severed his relationship with the FPA, according to the plan laid out in the 16 June 2018 email.

The emails show that Bayer’s Loder then arranged a call with Dimadis on 25 June 2018 to discuss the planned initiatives.

Following that call, Dimadis wrote back to Loder, copying Kerins on the 25 June 2018 email, thanking Loder for the call and saying Bayer could consider him a “strong ally”. He then asked for Bayer to pay him personally, separate from funding to the press association’s foundation, as a “part-time contractor”. Absent that, he asked if Bayer would add extra money to the company’s yearly donation that could be directed to Dimadis after he delivered “each one of our projects”.

In a 11 July 2018 emailed response, Bayer’s Loder told Dimadis the company agreed to add in extra money to its FPA budget to “influence your personal role in these projects”.

“Your efforts with the FPA Board … are very much appreciated by Ray and me and are a very good development in reinvigorating the Bayer-FPA relationship,” Loder wrote to Dimadis in that same email. “You have been responsive to everything that Ray and I have discussed with you, and we certainly appreciate your attentiveness to this matter. We appreciate you taking action to move our partnership forward.”

In September 2018, ahead of a November 2018 foreign press awards gala, Dimadis sent Bayer a list of about 300 foreign correspondents for Bayer to select individuals the company wanted “to keep them engaged with Bayer”.

The emails show the overall plan with Bayer was targeted for implementation through the FPA and FPF, but instead Dimadis cut ties to those groups earlier this year, becoming president of the Association of Foreign Correspondents in the USA (AFC-USA) in “partnership” with Bayer and other firms.

The association held an awards ceremony last week in New York City featuring Kerins. Bayer is the single largest sponsor of the new press association, listed as donating $50,000.

It was only following Dimadis’ departure that FPF staff found the series of emails between Dimadis and the Bayer executives. Many of the emails had been deleted but were recovered by the organization.

FPA’s vice-president, Ian Williams, said the emails show Bayer was “attempting to buy” the press association; pursuing an arrangement in which Bayer would have control over which journalists received awards, who spoke at conferences and other events, and in return would “feather the nest” of Dimadis. He said he was shocked that the trade-off was so “explicit”.

Influence peddling denied

Bayer officials and Dimadis reject allegations anything improper took place and say that the foreign press organization has been rocked by financial improprieties, infighting among board members and a loss of donor support that has left the organization struggling to survive and looking for someone to blame.

According to Dimadis, before he started work for the FPF, Bayer was an existing donor who was unhappy with what the company perceived was a lack of value in its financial support of the press foundation.

Dimadis said he did nothing unethical and the arrangements with Bayer were all directed by the FPA president, David Michaels, and were benefits also available to other sponsors.

When Bayer expressly requested a seat on the advisory board of the foundation, it was known and agreed to by Michaels and board members, Dimadis told the Guardian. Through it all he was merely following Michaels’ directions for what Bayer could be offered, he said.

Yet, in an email dated 16 June 2018, Dimadis wrote to Kerins and Loder: “For all these initiatives I am the execution arm … These points are written by me and I send them to you confidentially – I haven’t shared anything of what we discussed with David.” He concluded his email: “I am ready to do some great things together that will create a lot of adding value to Bayer and the FPA by the end of this year.”

Michaels denied giving Dimadis permission to offer influence to Bayer and said he expressly told Dimadis not to do that.

Michaels said the emails make it clear that Bayer and Dimadis engaged in a “conspiracy” that threatened the integrity of the organization and journalism.

“The role of fundraising in the foundation can never ever be understood as an enticement that we would carry out their objectives. We never have for 100 years and we aren’t going to start doing it now,” Michaels told the Guardian.

For his part, Dimadis said his departure from the FPA and FPF came after he became aware of financial improprieties and came into conflict with Michaels. He said the FPA was attempting to smear his reputation and tarnish the image of the new association. He said that Bayer has no special influence within the new organization he runs.

He pointed to email correspondence showing he had the support of FPF’s chairwoman, Nancy Kamel. Kamel wrote to Bayer in June 2018 to say that Dimadis had “full support” to move ahead with a “mutually positive strategic plan” in a relationship with Bayer based on “mutual respect and benefits”.

Dimadis’ new press organization and Bayer have both openly promoted the relationship and asserted that Bayer’s support comes with “no strings attached”.

The company issued a press release last week touting a 14 November event in which the company recognized two foreign journalists with scholarship awards. The press release quotes Kerins as saying that Bayer believes in a “free and independent press” and any threat to that freedom “is a threat to our existence as a democracy”.

Dimadis was quoted in the Bayer press release stressing that Bayer’s contributions are “unconditional, allowing and ensuring the independence of our organization”.

Kerins and Loder said that Bayer did not seek any special influence within the FPF or FPA and merely wanted to continue years of financial support for the education of journalists. Bayer has been caught up unfairly within infighting at the FPA and emails that are being misconstrued, according to Kerins.

“We work hard to support these journalists organizations because they are in need. We provide support and we do not ask for anything in return,” Kerins said.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, who leads the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said any arrangement in which a funder is given influence into and journalistic endeavors, education and awards is improper.

“I find this stunning,” she said. “If a journalism organization wants to accept sponsorships, it needs to remain free, fair and independent.”