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The Money Men Behind CitizenGO’s Anti-Rights Agenda

In the second of her series on the anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ campaigning platform CitizenGO, Sian Norris examines its funding model and the financial scandal haunting one of its board members

CitizenGO’s anti-abortion bus in New York City in 2019. Photo: Mark J Sullivan/Alamy

The Money Men Behind CitizenGO’s Anti-Gender Agenda

In the second of her series on the anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ campaigning platform CitizenGO, Sian Norris examines its funding model and the financial scandal haunting one of its board members

CitizenGO, the international petition website that sought to be the anti-gender alternative to campaigning websites such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees, boasts that it is funded solely by “small online donations arranged by thousands of citizens from all over the world”.

But new research from Neil Datta’s European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights has revealed that its founder Ignacio Arsuaga approached wealthy influencers of the far and religious-right to gather seed funding. 

And while the site boasts of its reliance on “small” donations, a 2017 leak revealed that numerous wealthy Spanish people had made large gifts to anti-gender organisation HazteOir – Arsuaga’s original organisation that “belongs to the CitizenGO group”.

These included a €20,000 gift from David Álvarez, the founder of the multinational Eulen business; a €10,000 from the founder of El Corte Inglés, Isidoro Álvarez; and another €10,000 from Esther Koplowitz, one of Spain’s wealthiest women.  

Datta’s research now reveals that CitizenGO’s original funding is linked to Russian oligarchs, the Vatican, the US Christian right and a disgraced Italian politician sentenced to four years in prison for bribery.

The Backers

Having set up HazteOir in Spain, CitizenGO’s founder Ignacio Arsuaga wrote in 2013 how he conceived his new petition platform as “an online tool for active citizens to be able to defend family and life and effectively influence national governments and parliaments and international institutions, from the grassroots”.

He then approached possible donors with a business plan to gather seed funding and launch the platform. Arsuaga promised his targets that “CitizenGO will produce a social benefit that we trust will impact human history. Abortionists, the homosexual lobby, radical secularists, and champions of relativism will find themselves behind CitizenGO’s containment wall”.

But who were the targets? 

According to Datta’s report, ‘Tip of the Iceberg’, Arsuaga targeted Patrick Slim, a Mexican billionaire whose father is one of the world’s richest men; Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev; the National Organisation For Marriage’s Brian Brown; Italian politician Luca Volontè and his Novae Terrae Foundation; and Vatican officials. He also approached wealthy Spanish families including David Álvarez and Miguel Vilar Mir, promising his donors a seat on the CitizenGO board.

The targets were and remain hugely influential in anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQ activism. Slim has been linked to Agenda Europe – a network of anti-gender organisations and individuals working to undermine abortion laws and LGBTIQ protections across the region. As well as the National Organisation For Marriage, Brian Brown is behind ActRight Action and the World Congress of Families – an annual gathering of anti-gender actors and politicians whose previous speakers include far-right leaders Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini. 

Konstantin Malofeev is one of Russia’s richest men and the man behind the St Basil the Great Foundation – a charitable organisation that funds anti-abortion activism including crisis pregnancy centres. His television channel, Tsargard TV, has hosted alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his influence has extended to supporting far-right French politicians. US intelligence has described Malofeev as “Putin’s right arm for operations of political interference in Europe”.

CitizenGO’s board suggests that Arsuaga was successful in his attempts to secure seed funding for the operation. 

It includes Brown and Volontè; as well as Gualberto Garcia Jones, the Human Rights Advisor for the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the Organisation of American States. Representing Malofeev is Alexey Komov, staff member of the St Basil Foundation and Malofeev’s man on the international stage. Komov is also on the board of the World Congress of Families. 

Details of the funding were revealed in contracts, including one with Brown’s ActRight organisation. The contract with CitizenGO stated that “ActRight [will] support CitizenGO (member of ActRight Global) with an annual amount of 50,000 US Dollars, via a direct contribution”. Another contract with Luca Volontè’s Novae Terrae Foundation “undertakes to provide a fixed annual amount of 12.000,00 €, renewable from year-to-year”.

Datta also identified José Luis Bonet, the man behind Freixenet sparkling wine, as a CitizenGO backer. 

The Scandal

CitizenGO board member, Luca Volontè, was sentenced in January to four years in prison for accepting bribes from Azerbaijani politicians.

He was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and used his position to help mute the Europe’s criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record. He achieved this via a Russian-Azerbaijani ‘laundromat’ – a term defined by the Organised Crime and Reporting Project as “an all-purpose financial vehicle set up, typically by a bank or other financial services company, to help clients launder money, hide ownership, evade taxes or currency restrictions, embezzle or movement money offshore”.

The laundromat channelled €2.39 million into Volontè’s Novae Terrae Foundation that in turn supported Ireland’s Iona Institute, CitizenGO, the ECI Mum, Dad & Kids initiative against equal marriage and Steve Bannon-linked Dignitatis Humanae Institute. 

The laundromat was exposed in 2016 by Italian media. But, when that money dried up, Volontè turned to his CitizenGO allies for support. Writing to Arsuaga to request aid, he said: “I have sent a similar request for for financial support to our friends Brian [Brown], Vincente [Segu] and Alexey [Komov].”

It was reported that Arsuaga sent the beleaguered politician €20,000, while Brown offered an undisclosed amount. Segu is connected to Patrick Slim, who gave Volontè €66,000. Vatican representatives sent a disclosed amount. 

CitizenGO is currently campaigning against the Matic Report, which seeks to guarantee sexual and reproductive healthcare across the European Union. In the UK, it hopes to influence the Government to cancel the temporary law change which allowed telemedicine for early abortion and is demanding the toy company Lego discontinues an LGBTIQ set.  

In the next part of the series, Sian Norris will look at the influence of CitizenGO in Kenya and east Africa

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