Hong Kong gambler bankrolls Media Matters, may have helped endow foreign policy voice

Vince Coglianese Editorial Director
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Daily Caller senior editor Jamie Weinstein contributed to this report.

Hong Kong gambler Bill Benter, a controversial supporter of causes many consider anti-Israel, is a funder of Media Matters for America, The Daily Caller has learned.

“I have been a contributor to Media Matters for many years and am proud to support the important work that it does fighting for truth in media, working for more honest political discourse and promoting our shared progressive values,” Benter told TheDC in a statement.

A source told TheDC that Benter donated to Media Matters, at least in part, so the liberal organization could bring MJ Rosenberg on board as its foreign policy voice.

Rosenberg has become a lightning rod for questioning the loyalty of American supporters of Israel by calling them “Israel firsters,” and for taking other radical positions. Alan Dershowitz, the liberal Harvard Law School professor, has denounced him in a series of recent interviews and articles, saying that Rosenberg’s rhetoric and ideas are similar to what neo-Nazi and pro-Hezbollah websites offer.

According to tax documents obtained by TheDC, the Media Matters Action Network paid Rosenberg $129,568 in 2010, plus $4,505 in other compensation. That organization is one of Media Matters’ political arms. It is tax-exempt under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code.

TheDC wasn’t able to independently confirm the source’s claim that Benter donated to Media Matters with the intent of endowing Rosenberg’s salary, and it appears that Benter contributed directly to the 501(c)(3) — not to its affiliated 501(c)(4) group. (RELATED: More stories in the investigative ‘Inside Media Matters’ series)

When TheDC asked Benter’s intermediary, Matt Dorf of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications, whether Benter was in any way involved in bringing Rosenberg on board, and whether Benter possibly solicited funds for Media Matters’ (c)(4) affiliate to help pay Rosenberg’s salary, Dorf said the latter question was “exactly the right question” and that he would ask Benter.

Dorf later replied that Benter would not be providing any further statement.

The question is relevant considering Benter’s involvement supporting J Street, a Washington lobby that bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” but in practice attracts left-wing supporters and has been called “a unique problem” by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Attendees at J Street’s 2009 conference espoused radically anti-Israel views, including the idea that Israeli leaders should be tried for war crimes and that the Jewish state is largely responsible for its own predicament in the region.

Benter, who made his fortune betting on horse races in Hong Kong, became the center of public inquiry when it was discovered that he solicited an $811,697 donation to J Street from a mysterious Hong Kong donor named Consolacion Esdicul. At the time of Esdicul’s donation, it was J Street’s largest.

Esdicul, who lived in Hong Kong, had no known history donating to causes dealing with the Middle East. When her large contribution was revealed in September 2010, J Street said Esdicul made her donation at Benter’s direction.

“As we were launching J Street, Bill committed to contribute and to help raise substantial funds for the effort should we get it off the ground,” said J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami in a statement at the time.

“One contribution he helped raise was from Ms. Esdicul, a business associate from Hong Kong, where he lives for part of the year and has business holdings.”

The Israel Matzav blog later reported that a source told him Esdicul was Benter’s long time secretary in Hong Kong.

Benter will not say if he solicited funds for the Media Matters Action Network like he did for J Street. He also turned down TheDC’s request for a more in-depth interview about his worldview, only providing a generic statement.

“Much of my philanthropic activity over the past several years has focused on preventing war and creating peace through education, scholarship and advocacy, not only in the Middle East but around the world,” Benter’s statement read, after he confirmed that he was a Media Matters funder.

“I want to make it absolutely clear,” the statement continued, that “I would never support or condone anti-Semitism in any form.”

Rosenberg failed to respond to TheDC’s requests for an interview. Media Matters also did not respond to TheDC’s request for comment.

Outside of the mystery surrounding his role as a J Street supporter and fundraiser, Benter is a man full of intrigue. A college dropout, he made his fortune gambling on horses in Hong Kong using a complex formula he developed.

According to a profile in Wired magazine, many gamblers consider Benter to be “the most successful sports bettor in the world.” That profile also notes that he is especially proficient at masking his bets to avoid unwanted attention.

Benter, 55, is part of high society in his native Pittsburgh, according to local press reports, which chronicle his attendance at cultural events. One such report listed him and his wife Vivian as the “cool couple.”

In 2007 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette named him one of the city’s “25 Most Beautiful People for Now.”

“The brainy Bill Benter made a fortune overseas,” that article explained. “But he brought it home to Pittsburgh, launching a thriving medical transcription service (Acusis) and donating liberally to universities and cultural groups.”

Indeed, Benter donates to numerous charities in Pittsburgh, both through The Benter Foundation and through his business Acusis. Newspaper accounts report that he has donated to the local Zoo to help underprivileged kids, funded charter schools, supported the local symphony and donated one million dollars to Chatham University to “promote engagement across cultures,” among numerous other charitable ventures.

Internationalism seems to a key concept to understanding Benter. In the South China Morning Post, he discussed why he helped pay for a group of Hong Kong students to visit North Korea.

“If you believe conflicts result from lack of understanding, more contact, more engagement is the antidote,” he said in a rare interview.

North Korea is ruled by a severe dictatorship, and its tensions with the West are not understood to be due to a lack of engagement. But this insight into Benter’s unconventional mindset may help explain why he supports left-wing groups with similar notions about the Middle East. In many cases, such organizations end up demonizing the Jewish state.

Benter is also a prolific donor to various other left-wing causes and politicians in the United States, including MoveOn.org and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

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