ABC news and IrishCentral.com both published news reports about a secretive gathering of billionaires in New York City. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet extended the invitations to their fellow billionaire pals (including Eli Broad) to discuss the economic climate and share about their work in philanthropy. From ABC news (link here):
Meeting of America's Richest About 'Need,' Attendee Says
Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett Discuss Coming Together 'to Do More'
By RUSSELL GOLDMAN and EILEEN MURPHY
May 20, 2009—
Under a cloak of secrecy, some of the world's wealthiest people gathered in an unprecedented meeting early this month in New York City "to see how they can join together to do more," according to one attendee.
Invited by the world's two richest men Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, along with David Rockefeller, a Who's Who of American wealth and influence gathered around a long table in a window-lined private room overlooking the East River on May 5.
"The overwhelming reason for the meeting was need -- that was the issue that galvanized everyone to participate," Patricia Stonesifer, senior advisor to the Gates foundation's trustees, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, told ABCNews.com. "This was a group very committed to philanthropy coming together to see how they can join together to do more."
Together the attendees have donated more than $70 billion to charity since 1996, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
"It was meant to be a private exchange but it wasn't a secret really, just a private meeting," Stonesifer said.
First reported by IrishCentral.com, ABCNews.com confirmed each of the attendees' presence at the meeting held at the residence of the Rockefeller University president on the campus of the Manhattan medical school.
It lasted about five hours, beginning in mid-afternoon and continuing through dinner, Stonesifer said.
"This particular group had never come together as a group before but many of the attendees had met in the past either individually or in smaller groups -- but never all at once," she said. "This was a great discussion and they agreed to continue the dialogue and meet again in the future. There were a lot of good ideas."
She said that the discussion "ranged from emergency relief efforts to scholarship efforts, to U.S. education efforts to global health." Another attendee who asked to remain anonymous described the meeting as "a private gathering of friends and colleagues to share their history and excitement about their philanthropy. [It was] a group together discussing a range of things they are working on."
When again asked about the meeting following ABC News.com's initial report Mayor Bloomberg said he sometimes holds private meetings that are "not going to be on the public schedulues. There are meetings all over this city and there are some very powerful people in this city."
Gates already has a number of his education buddies working in the DOE. The $650 million "Innovation Fund" is headed former LearnNow co-founder and CEO Jim Shelton (the for-profit LearnNow was sold to Edison just before Edison's stock tumbled). The $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" fund is headed by former New Schools Venture Fund partner Joanne Weiss (NSVF was an early supporter of LearnNow and made a couple of loans to the company before Edison took over) and Gates is the biggest supporter of NSVF (over $50 million donated).
More importantly, this congregation of wealthy businesspeople has the financial power to sway policies in ways that can run counter to the democratic process. For all their talk of accountability in education, Gates & Co. remain accountable to no one but themselves. Gates came to my home city of Portland, Oregon in the early 2000s to reform our high school system (in the poor neighborhoods at least) with the help of our then-superintendent Vicki Phillips - who is now heading Gates' domestic education programs. Phillips and her like-minded reformers swooped into Portland, shuffled schools around (converted to the K-8 model in the poorest neighborhoods), and left town for greener pastures. Phillips listened to no one but the business community. For all their work, Gates now declares the "small schools" model a failure and has moved on to the charter school movement. These decisions were not made with public input; Phillips listens just as well as Arne "Change NCLB's Name but Not the Details" Duncan.
We all have a right to closed-door meetings, but only a very small handful of us have the financial capital to sway public policy. When monied interests can align themselves in ways that multiply their strength, we end up with a class of oligarchs. As Justice Brandeis said, "We can have a democratic society or we may have the concentration of great wealth in the hands of the few. We cannot have both." This rings particularly true in the realm of education policy.