Dutch politician Geert Wilders, here with sacks of signatures for more financial Covid-19 support for bars and restaurants.
© ANP/Marco de Swart

In recent years, Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders has spent a fortune on legal fees to defend himself against hate speech charges. In September he was eventually convicted of ‘group insult’ for encouraging a group of followers to chant that they wanted fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. But who paid for Wilders’ lawyer? Research by Follow the Money has found that it was a foundation with one director: wealthy American businessman Robert Shillman, who also indirectly backs far-right extremists: the Proud Boys. Wilders violated integrity rules by failing to record Shillman’s donations in the parliamentary register of gifts.

Geert Wilders is back in the news, big time. The election programme of the Party for Freedom (PVV), which he leads, advocates setting up a ministry to de-Islamise the Netherlands and send migrants home, a ban on the Koran, and the closure of mosques. 

While these proposals are in line with his party’s previously stated policies, they have sparked outrage. The leader of coalition member Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), immediately said he found it ‘hard to imagine' governing with the PVV after the upcoming 17 March election. The party is equally at odds with the left and with prime minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD: Rutte said in 2017 that the probability of his joining forces with the PVV was ‘not 0.1 percent but zero’. So Wilders’ radical views have again left him isolated in parliament.

Wilders may have few friends in the Netherlands, but he is a welcome guest in the United States – at least on the extreme right of the GOP, which fared so well under President Trump. They see Wilders as a brave politician who is leading the fight against the Islamisation of Europe, despite being on Al-Qaeda’s death list as a result. And, as it turns out, one extremely wealthy American is so committed to Wilders that he is willing to dig deep into his pockets to support this unrepresentative fight.

On 3 August 2017, Wilders took the stage in an auditorium in Newport Beach, California, to fervent applause. It was a festive evening at The Resort on Pelican Hill, a five-star hotel overlooking the Pacific. The women were in evening dress, the men in smart casual. Beneath the chandeliers were round tables laden with napkins, cutlery, and filled wine glasses. Dinner had yet to be served. Behind the podium hung a Gobelins tapestry depicting a forest landscape, and the American flag stood next to the pulpit.

Former dancer

The meeting was organised by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, named after its founder, the ultra-right-wing author of Unholy alliance: radical Islam and the American left. He had brought Wilders to the US several times for lectures and fundraisers.

But the main guest this evening was not Wilders but self-made businessman Robert Shillman, founder of the billion-dollar company Cognex, which produces industrial optical equipment such as barcode readers. Shillman was sitting in the front row of the ballroom next to his Chinese wife June, a former dancer in the People's Liberation Army ballet who this evening wore a pink dress. They met after her dancing career, when she worked as a server in a Tokyo restaurant where Shillman dined. It was love at first sight, and June came to America not much later without speaking a word of English.

Geert Wilders shared photos of himself with Robert and June Shillman on Twitter.

In his speech, Wilders praised Robert Shillman, saying he didn’t know anyone who gave so much support to people like him who fought against the monstrous ideology of Islam. He told the audience how he first crossed paths with Shillman at a meeting in Los Angeles in around 2007. Shillman called Wilders ‘a visionary who knows what the future holds if we allow Islam to take over the West’. It was an honour to stand side by side with Shillman in ‘the greatest battle for the survival of our civilisation. You have never let us down, and I will never let you down.’

Shillman, a bald man in a perfectly tailored dark suit and tie, opened his speech with an anecdote about the 2015 Mohammed cartoon competition in Garland, Texas. The event, with Shillman as sponsor and Wilders as guest of honour, was attacked by two men with assault rifles, who were shot dead by police. Shillman recalled the words of a reporter who was there that day: ‘The best drawing he had seen that entire time was the chalk outline of the two terrorists on the ground.’ The audience at the tables laughed heartily.

‘Dr Bob is a visionary who knows what the future holds in store if we allow Islam to take over the West’

Like Wilders before him, Shillman sketched a dark world view. He spoke of an ‘existential struggle’ to protect Western values and culture from attacks by ‘Islamists and the Left who want to destroy us’. Shillman said he would have liked to be in the front line, ‘my family knows all about this’, but it hadn’t worked out that way. To make a difference, he took up the pen: not to write bestselling books, but in his own way. He smiled, reached into his pocket, and took out a black leather folder. ‘With this chequebook and this pen, I provide ammunition for those who are on the front lines. Men like David Horowitz and Geert Wilders, who confront the enemies of freedom every day. We are fortunate to have these brave men with us today.’

Shillman was generous in his admiration for Wilders. He called him ‘my friend’ and ‘the bravest politician not only in the Netherlands, but in the whole world’. He railed against the Dutch government for prosecuting Wilders for hate speech when he was simply speaking out against Islam. It was out to get him, and meanwhile Muslims were walking around in Dutch streets shouting ‘death to the Jews’. Were they also being prosecuted for hate speech? ‘No, that only applies to those who criticise Islam and Moroccans.’

Funds for trial

At the time of the festive evening in Newport Beach, the hate speech trial had been pending for more than a year. Wilders was represented by Geert-Jan Knoops, regarded as one of the best criminal lawyers in the Netherlands, but how Wilders paid for his defence has been unknown so far. He had no party funds because the PVV had only one member, Wilders himself, and therefore received no contributions or subsidies. According to the annual accounts, its total income varies between €100 and €150 a year.

"It states that the money was paid to a law firm in the Netherlands and was intended for an individual in his fight for freedom of speech"

Follow the Money has discovered that Shillman not only showered his friend Wilders with praise, but also contributed to his legal bills. This can be deduced from the 2017 tax return of the International Freedom Alliance Foundation (IFAF), of which Shillman is chairman and sole director. It is based in his hometown of Rancho Sante Fe, near San Diego.

The foundation’s 990 form, used to declare information about tax-exempt organisations, shows that it donated $213,686 in 2017, citing ‘support to foreign organisations, foreign governments, and foreign individuals’. It states that the money was paid to a ‘law firm in the Netherlands’ and was intended for ‘an individual in his fight for freedom of speech’. The name Wilders is not mentioned anywhere on the tax form, but it is clear the money was intended for him. His lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops has declined to discuss the payments for reasons of ‘professional confidentiality’, which also applies to funding for criminal trials. 

Wilders has tweeted that he has spent ‘hundreds of thousands’ on lawyer’s fees, is happy with all the support from home and abroad, and has never received a penny of the money himself. But he did not respond to questions from Follow the Money.

Wilders established the International Freedom Alliance Foundation in 2014. In that year he announced in Nashville, during a tour of the United States, that its goal was to ‘spread the truth about Islam, preserve our freedom, and stop the Islamisation of our countries.’ He said it should form a network of resistance fighters in all countries threatened by Islam.

Wilders’ foundation has charitable status in America, so donations are tax deductible, provided that the charity does not support political candidates or parties. But there is an exception for the financing of criminal trials, says John Casey, professor of public and non-profit management at New York University. It appears to be legal for the foundation to pay for Wilders’ criminal trials in the Netherlands, but ‘then of course there is the issue of the spirit of the law. The legislation for charities was not enacted to allow individuals tax advantages for funding of foreign legal challenges.’

Violation of integrity rules

The Dutch parliament’s travel register states that the IFAF paid for Wilders’ US lecture tours in April 2015 and July 2016. But Wilders does not disclose Shillman’s contributions from 2017, in violation of the integrity rules requiring MPs to record all gifts worth more than €50. However, that register is by no means always accurately completed. Previously, other MPs were the subject of controversy because they did not reveal donations.

Wim Voermans, professor of constitutional and administrative law at Leiden University, confirms that the donation should have been reported: ‘It seems to me that it is indeed a gift in the sense of the House of Representatives’ rules of procedure, so registration is mandatory.’ The parliament does not yet have an official supervisory body that can impose sanctions, though it will get one on 1 April.

A spokesman for the parliament said that Wilders had not requested reimbursement of his legal fees, but had done so for an earlier hate speech trial in 2009. The bill from his then lawyer Bram Moszkowicz amounted to more than half a million euros, but the parliament rejected it on the advice of an external accountant because it did not specify what the costs were for. Incidentally, Dutch MPs are not entitled to legal aid insurance through the parliament.

Shillman is a supporter of Trump: an arch-conservative Islamophobe who puts millions into causes close to his heart

So Shillman is generous to his friend Wilders, but who is he exactly, and what drives him? The businessman was unwilling to contribute to this article. In an email, he told us: ‘I have no interest in being interviewed by someone from your leftist “news” organisation.’ 

Robert J. Shillman – Dr. Bob to his friends – made his fortune with the Cognex Corporation and is a supporter of Donald Trump: arch-conservative, friend of Israel and Islamophobic. He invests millions in causes close to his heart.

Shillman is a board member of Friends of the Israel Defence Forces, and through the Shillman Foundation he sponsors this organisation and the Israeli armed forces with hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also serves on the board of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which works to improve the financial position of non-Jews who helped Jews in World War II. In 2008, Shillman was a member of the delegation of President George W. Bush, who visited Israel in honour of its 60th anniversary.

‘Not necessarily anti-Muslim’

Shillman has told Reuters that he is not necessarily anti-Muslim, but that as the founder of his own company he can be more outspoken than other businesspeople: ‘Most CEOs are hired guns, and their future depends on what their boards think of them. I don’t give a fuck.’

He also finances Horowitz, and gave an undisclosed sum of money to Brigitte Gabriel, who is of Lebanese Christian origin, and her organisation ACT! for America, the largest anti-Muslim group in the United States. In 2008 she wrote a book entitled They must be stopped: why we must defeat radical Islam and how we can do it. She also says Muslims ‘cannot possibly’ be loyal citizens of the United States.

Through ACT! For America, Shillman financed the Thin Blue Line Project, which published the names and addresses of alleged radical Muslims, supposedly to protect the police. In practice, the website also listed the details of prominent law-abiding Muslim leaders and student organisations. In 2013, it stated that the project was ‘in part thanks to a generous donation from Dr Bob’.

"Most CEOs are hired guns, and their future depends on what the supervisory boards think of them. I don’t give a fuck"

Brigitte Gabriel spoke with Donald Trump during a stay at Mar-a-Lago in 2017, not long after his election, and visited the White House later that year. She has also maintained warm relations with Geert Wilders for years. When one of her subordinates at ACT! For America had a meeting with him in The Hague in August 2014, she mentioned it on Facebook . Wilders in turn called her ‘a very brave woman and a dedicated activist for freedom’.

Robert Shillman’s interest in politics has grown with his fortune, and his political preferences have changed colour over the years. Until 2000 he mainly sponsored Democrats: in the 2004 elections his money went to Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry, but also to George W. Bush.

More than a decade later, Shillman became a Trumper. In 2016 he paid for a billboard in Times Square depicting Trump as Superman, and three years later he hosted Mike Pence at a fundraiser at his estate in Rancho Santa Fe.

In the run-up to the November 2020 presidential election, Shillman donated $275,000 to the Trump campaign. He had also given $325,000 to the Trump Victory fundraising committee a year earlier. According to the Los Angeles Times, this makes him one of the largest donors in California. In the recent second round of the Georgia Senate election, he gave financial support to the losing Republican candidate David Perdue.

Undercover operations

Robert J. Shillman is also a sponsor of Project Veritas, a far-right organisation founded by James O’Keefe in 2010. Project Veritas (‘Truth’ in Latin) is known for spreading conspiracy theories and for undercover operations at campaign rallies of Democratic politicians, secretly recording and using it to expose alleged abuses.

According to the influential US magazine The New Republic, in 2019 Project Veritas secured a $50,000 donation from Shillman with a promise to investigate ‘illegal aliens voting’ and ‘voter fraud’. ‘For more than a year, Project Veritas has been secretly producing undercover operations designed to undermine the integrity of absentee and postal voting - an enterprise codenamed Diamond Dog.’ In 2013, Shillman, through the Shillman Foundation, donated $25,000 to Veritas, according to IRS form 990.

Project Veritas has close ties to the highly controversial Proud Boys, which the FBI considers an ‘extremist group’ and the Southern Poverty Law Center a ‘hate group’. Members of the Proud Boys were prominent in the storming of the Capitol on 6 January. According to The Guardian, Canada is now considering labelling the group a terrorist organisation, which would mean the Proud Boys land on the same list as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

The Proud Boys are rife with conspiracy theories, such as those about an alleged imminent genocide of white people. In addition, they are one of the largest disseminators of anti-Muslim and anti-women rhetoric, writes the Southern Poverty Law Center. Only men are allowed to become members. In the weeks surrounding the storming of the capital, the FBI arrested several Proud Boys for participating in the attack.

Wilders’ adventures in America

In 2017, Shillman paid Wilders’ foundation, the IFAF, more than $200,000 for legal costs. As far as we know, this is the first time he had received such large sums from one financier in the United States. He had regularly travelled to America, but because he rejected Islam as a whole and advocated a ban on building new mosques and closing Islamic schools, he was unacceptable to large groups in the United States, where freedom of religion is an inviolable principle of the rule of law. However, he did find common ground with far-right-wing Republicans.

Wilders used his American network to collect money for his legal battle. Pamela Geller, a well-known anti-Islam activist, and Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, displayed ‘Support Geert Wilders’-buttons on their websites. Those who clicked through could donate via PayPal to the Stichting Vrienden van de PVV (Friends of the PVV Foundation), which has the same address and telephone number as the PVV, according to the Dutch chamber of commerce.

Congressman David Kyle and David Horowitz organised a screening of Wilders’ short anti-Muslim documentary Fitna in February 2009 for congressional staffers. Wilders was present, but only a handful people showed up. The American Conservative Union held its annual meeting during his stay, but did not include him in its programme, showing that many Americans were reluctant to associate themselves with his views. Undismayed, Horowitz arranged a talk by Wilders in the same hotel as the meeting. It was probably here, or in any case at this time, that Wilders and Shillman first met.

The cash register started to ring

Wilders has benefited from his American adventures. The conservative think tank Middle East Forum (MEF), led by Daniel Pipes, financed the defence of Wilders’ first trial in 2010 and 2011. According to Reuters , Pipes transferred the money directly to Wilders’ lawyer Bram Moszkowicz. Wilders did not register the donation as a gift, but this did not result in problems for the politician, since there was no one supervising the register or imposing sanctions for noncompliance.

One backer of the MEF was Nina Rosenwald, whose Abstraction Fund donated $533,000 to the IFAF between 2010 and 2011 – the period of Wilders’ first trial– according to tax forms published by ProPublica, the American platform for investigative journalism. Rosenwald is the granddaughter of Julius Rosenwald, co-founder of Sears Roebuck and, according to the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland in 2018, sponsors several conservative and ultra-right organisations . She also supported Wilders directly, through her own Gatestone Institute, an anti-Muslim think tank. The institute was chaired for a while by future national security advisor John Bolton. Wilders regularly wrote for the Gatestone Institute website, and in 2015 and 2016 flew to America to give lectures at that organisation’s expense.

Between 2014 and 2016 Wilders received just under €150,000 from the Horowitz Freedom Center, of which Robert Shillman is a director. The money did not go to the party itself, but to the Friends of the PVV Foundation, the party’s subsidiary organisation. Since the foundation’s annual reports are not available, it has never been clear what it was spent on. Between 2013 and 2019, Wilders made five trips to the United States sponsored by the Horowitz Freedom Center. Other visits were funded by the IFAF, of which Shillman was the sole director and Wilders the founder.

"Wilders finds it an absolute disgrace: ‘Islam critics are dragged before the courts (...) while Islamists are pampered and defended’"

Wilders was not the only ‘freedom fighter’ supported by Shillman. He also provided so-called Shillman Journalism Fellowships via the Horowitz Freedom Center and the Canadian right-wing website Rebel Media. One recipient, to the tune of £5,000 a month, was the UK’s controversial Tommy Robinson, the founder and former leader of the extreme right-wing and anti-Islamic English Defence League, who has several convictions for assault. Twitter banned him from its platform in 2018 for hateful conduct, and Facebook and Instagram followed in 2019. When Robinson filmed British Pakistani sexual abuse suspects as they entered a courtroom, he was arrested. That same day, the judge sentenced him to 13 months in prison, in relation to a suspended sentence imposed a year earlier in a similar incident.

A wave of indignation followed in Great Britain but also in the Netherlands. The hashtag #FreeTommy went viral on Twitter, and the newspaper De Telegraaf published an extensive article about Robinson headlined ‘A martyr of the working class’. Geert Wilders was at the front of the line to express support for Robinson, who also received generous support from Shillman.

A few months after Robinson’s imprisonment, Wilders recorded a video outside the British embassy in The Hague, saying he thought it was ‘an absolute disgrace’ that Robinson was behind bars. ‘Islam’s critics are dragged before the courts (...) The authorities are trying to silence us, while Islamists are pampered and defended.’

In June 2018 Wilders went to London and participated in demonstrations for Robinson’s release. In October, he wrote that the British men of Pakistani descent accused of raping young, innocent girls were ‘animals’: the authorities should lock them up and throw away the key. And Robinson deserved to be knighted .

At liberty again, Robinson paid Wilders a visit in December of the same year. They posed together in the Dutch parliament. ‘Today I hosted my brave friend Tommy Robinson… great meeting, great discussions, great guy!’, reported Wilders on Twitter.

Another controversial figure who received Shillman’s financial support was Britain’s Katie Hopkins, a former businesswoman and columnist who in recent years has developed into an extreme right-wing opinion maker. Like Robinson, she has been banned from Twitter, where she had a million followers. Wilders posted a photo of himself and Hopkins on Facebook in November 2018, taken during the annual Restoration Weekend organised by the Horowitz Freedom Center. The following year, Wilders attended again and had warm wowarm words for Hopkins in his speech. He called her a ‘true hero’, someone who speaks the truth, ‘tougher than Thatcher, braver than Boris Johnson, and she should be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom.’

‘Ministry of repatriation’

The PVV’s election programme states that all Syrians seeking refuge in the Netherlands should look elsewhere or go home. In this, Wilders is exactly in line with the opinions of the holders of Shillman fellowships who contributed to FrontPage Magazine , published by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. One, Daniel Greenfield, argued under the heading ‘The Syrian refugee crisis is not our problem’, that the US should not have to take in refugees from Syria – at least not if they’re Muslims, because Muslims are ‘not victims but perpetrators’. The only true refugees are Christian, and explicitly ‘not Muslim’. Another fellow, Raymond Ibrahim, maintains that Muslims should not be accepted because they fled the chaos ‘created by their own religion, Islam’.

With his proposals to forbid the Koran, set up a ministry of repatriation and send back Syrian refugees, Wilders is isolated in The Hague. It seems impossible that he will be part of a majority government in the coming years. But he is sure to remain a hero in the eyes of one man: his benefactor Robert Shillman in sunny Rancho Santa Fe.

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