Formed in 1984, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) claims to be “America’s leading advocate of regulatory reform on a wide range of policy issues.” CEI’s stated mission is to “reform America’s unaccountable regulatory state,” by developing and pushing policies “to eliminate harmful bureaucratic controls.”
CEI has been called “an extension of the Koch brothers’ empire,” “a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil,” and “the Trump administration’s one-stop shop for climate denial.” The American Prospect argued that CEI has been involved “in practically every area of our economic lives, from finance to labor to food safety to telecommunications to health care, always on the side of deregulation and free markets.”
CEI has been pushing free-market fundamentalism for decades. In 1984, the year of its founding, the group started its “Jefferson Group” meetings for “free-market” policy advocates, congressional staffers, and journalists in Washington, D.C. By 1986, CEI had initiated its “Death by Regulation” project and filed the first of its lawsuits against federal fuel economy standards, arguing that they resulted in smaller, more dangerous cars.
Since 2016, Kent Lassman has been President and CEO of CEI, where he oversees the group’s strategy and manages its policy, communications, and fundraising staff.
Lassman is on the Atlas Network’s “Global Council of CEOs,” which provides “strategic counsel to Atlas Network leadership.” The network is an “expansive” network of corporate-backed free-market think tanks closely tied to the Koch Network.
Prior to joining CEI, Lassman was a Vice President at DCI Group from 2008 to 2016, a public relations and “crisis management firm” that touts Fortune 50 corporations and industry trade groups as clients. Lassman’s LinkedIn profile specifically touts his work for “Citizens Against Government Waste,” an industry-tied anti-government spending group, and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, which touts corporations as supporters.
Prior to DCI Group, Lassman was a Vice President for Strategy at FreedomWorks from 2006 to 2008. FreedomWorks is an influential “hard-line” conservative “Koch-aligned” group that helped start the Tea Party Movement and more recently has sown election doubts, opposed Biden’s progressive agenda, opposed COVID-19 lockdowns, and pushed climate change denial. Lassman “managed day-to-day fundraising and media operations” for the group, including overseeing its Washington, D.C. staff.
Fred Smith launched CEI in 1984, with his wife Fran Smith serving on the group’s original board of directors. Smith, now CEI’s Chairman Emeritus, was the group’s president from 1984 to 2013. According to his CEI biography, Smith is currently focused on efforts to “defend capitalism” and “the moral legitimacy of free markets.”
Smith has called himself a “‘knee-jerk-liberal’-turned-free-market-conservative” and he touts research on “a wide range of topics, including regulatory reform, free market environmentalism, antitrust law, and international finance and comparative economics.” His written works include chapters in a wide variety of books—including one book titled Global Warming and other Eco-Myths—dating back to the late 1980s, as well as a variety of academic articles.
Smith has made a variety of highly inflammatory comments across decades, including:
Gruffat is Managing Director of Weild & Co., an investment banking firm that aspires to be “best-of-breed in corporate finance” and claims to “deliver results for corporate finance clients.” Weild & Co.’s founder, chairman, and CEO David Weild IV is an influential “expert on capital markets” and former NASDAQ executive who claims to have managed over 1,000 public offering transactions.
In 2016, Gruffat supported Gary Johnson and Bill Weld’s libertarian presidential ticket, saying he would “absolutely” solicit donations for them.
CEI board of directors member Kristina Crane works for both the Atlas Network and for FreedomWorks, an influential “hard-line” conservative and “Koch-aligned” group that has vocally opposed corporate tax increases and billionaire tax proposals.
From 2007 to 2021, Crane was the Operations Manager for the Atlas Network — an “expansive” network of corporate-backed free-market think tanks — and since October 2021, has served as an assistant to Tom Palmer, the network’s Executive Vice President for International Programs.
Since October 2021, Crane has been FreedomWorks’ Office Manager. The group has recently “pushed election conspiracies and defended the so-called “don’t say gay” bill in Florida.”
CEI board of directors member Todd Zywicki is the George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law at Scalia Law School, as well as a research fellow and former Executive Director for the law school’s Law & Economics Center. Zywicki has been active in luxury trips that Scalia Law School has provided for conservative federal judges and other figures, presiding over sessions with titles like “Woke Law!”.
Zywicki is also a speaker and contributor at Leo’s Federalist Society, known for conservative kingpin Leonard Leo. Leo has also brokered tens of millions of dollars in gifts for Zywicki’s George Mason University and has been “directly involved” in Scalia Law School hiring decisions.
Zywicki is a prominent opponent of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). He has complained about the CFPB’s “aggressive scrutiny” of predatory payday loans and has accused the bureau of “paternalistic command-and-control regulation.”
Zywicki has had interests in undermining the CFPB and other financial regulators. He was director of a consulting firm that was frequently hired by major financial corporations like Visa, Bank of America, And Citigroup to “influence the CFPB and other regulatory agencies.” The firm’s clients included one debt-relief company that was ordered to pay over $170 million in restitution and fines for charging “illegal upfront fees” to over 20,000 consumers.
CEI board of directors member and former chairman Michael S. Greve is a “longtime figure in the conservative legal movement.”
Alongside fellow CEI board member Todd Zywicki, Greve is also a professor of law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. Conservative kingpin Leonard Leo has brokered tens of millions of dollars in gifts for the university and has been “directly involved” in Scalia Law School hiring decisions. Greve is also a contributor for Leo’s Federalist Society.
Greve was previously the John G. Searle Scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the oldest and most influential conservative think tanks in the country, focused largely on promoting free-market ideology.
Greve was also founder and co-director of the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a conservative law firm that claims to fight “increasingly aggressive and unchecked authority of federal and state governments.” As early as 1998, Greve and CIR had mounted a “legal assault” against affirmative action, which the Supreme Court “effectively ended” in June 2023.
CEI Senior Fellow Myron Ebell has been known as “enemy #1” to the climate change community and has been known as “a leading contrarian” against the scientific consensus surrounding climate change. Ebell led former President Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Ebell later “led the drive to pull America out of the Paris climate accords” when Trump was in office. Axios credited Ebell for having “as much influence shaping Trump’s decision [to pull out of the accords] as any single individual.”
As early as 1998, Ebell was “instrumental” in a national strategy to dispute climate change and sow “uncertainties in climate science.” By 2009, Ebell had contributed to “the collapse of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress.”
Ebell chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, whose website is “paid for and maintained by” CEI, which calls itself an “ad-hoc group focused on dispelling the myths of global warming.” Ebell has called the Green New Deal a “back-to-the-dark-ages manifesto,” and has called former President Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan “illegal.”
Kazman has been in the public spotlight commenting on Moore v. U.S., a consequential tax lawsuit, which CEI initiated. Although the case is purportedly about a small individual investor who claims he was wrongly taxed for unrealized gains on foreign investments — a claim reportedly undermined by the fact the investor repeatedly sold stock from the investments — Kazman has noted Moore’s potentially major consequences for broader tax policy, including billionaire wealth taxes.
In 2016, Kazman co-authored an opinion piece alongside CEI president Kent Lassman complaining that an “unprecedented” coalition of attorneys general to fight climate change deception was “politics clothed in messianic garb, and its primary tools are censorship and intimidation.”
Also in 2016, Kazman vowed CEI would “quash” a subpoena it received from the U.S. Virgin Islands attorney general investigation into fossil fuel companies’ coordination with pro-corporate nonprofit organizations to undermine climate change consensus. Kazman claimed the subpoena imposed “intimidating demands” against CEI and claimed, “the real victims will be all Americans, whose access to affordable energy will by hit by one costly regulation after another.”
CEI has taken credit for having “initiated” U.S. Supreme Court case Moore v. U.S., which could hand a “massive windfall to multinational corporations” by striking down repatriation taxes on U.S. taxpayers’ unrealized gains from foreign assets. The case has also been seen as a “stalking horse” against new billionaire wealth taxes, potentially locking in a right for the ultra-wealthy to “opt out of paying anything remotely close to a fair share in taxes.”
In 2021 alone, CEI took at least $106,000 from industry groups whose sectors could gain at least $85 billion from ending the repatriation tax. Current or recent CEI sponsors that could benefit from the Court striking down the tax include Google, Altria, and Philip Morris, who together have paid over $12 billion in repatriation taxes from 2017 to 2022. Additionally, a CEI program for its 2019 gala revealed that its supporters included other major corporations that could benefit from an anti-tax ruling in Moore v. U.S., including Amazon, Verizon, Altria, AT&T, and others.
CEI’s own leadership could also benefit from the Court striking down repatriation and wealth taxes. CEI Chairman Jean-Claude Gruffat, who is also a board member of the “expansive” Koch-backed Atlas Network, is Managing Director for Weild & Co. a U.S. corporate finance firm that touts work for at least three foreign companies and could benefit from Moore v. U.S.’s implications for foreign taxation.
David Rivkin, representing the Moores alongside CEI, also represents right-wing court “maestro” Leonard Leo in a current criminal investigation into Leo’s network and has been scrutinized for his role in helping to defend Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito from ethics controversy. In 2020, CEI took $250,000 from Leo’s the 85 Fund.
CEI is on the advisory board for “Project 2025,” the conservative “battle plan” for a new Republican presidential administration convened by the “notorious rightwing, climate-denying thinktank the Heritage Foundation.” The unprecedented effort, “orchestrated with dozens of right-flank organizations,” aims to gut the “administrative state” from within by firing as many as 50,000 federal employees. Project 2025 plans to defund and dismantle the Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Education Department, the Commerce Department, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Despite its advisory board encompassing a wide swath of right-wing organizations, Project 2025 is too extreme even for some conservatives. One separation of powers expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute said of the project, “some of these visions, they do start to just bleed into some kind of authoritarian fantasies.”
Project 2025 poses a particular threat to climate change efforts. In a severe swing from current federal policy, Project 2025 “calls for shredding regulations to curb greenhouse gas pollution” and “dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government.” Climate change experts have warned that the project would “dismantle US climate policy” and gut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) while “hugely” expanding gas infrastructure.
CEI was one of the first conservative think tanks to go on the offensive on the environment. As early as the late 1990s, CEI was active in opposing the Kyoto Protocol, an early United Nations accord that committed industrialized nations to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has called CEI “one of the worst and most influential climate denial front groups,” funded by “a plethora of organizations tied to the fossil fuel billionaire Koch brothers.”
As part of its efforts to dispute climate change, CEI ran a 2006 ad with the slogan: “CO2: they call it pollution; we call it life.” During the Obama administration, CEI filed a lawsuit against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, claiming it went “beyond the EPA’s legal authority.” After the Supreme Court issued a stay blocking the plan in 2016, the Trump administration killed the Clean Power Plan by replacing it with its own “drastically weaker” pro-industry Affordable Clean Energy rule.
CEI Senior Fellow Myron Ebell has been known as “enemy #1” to the climate change community and has been known as “a leading contrarian” against the scientific consensus surrounding climate change. One expert has said, “Ebell and his ilk were basically successful in delaying action [to address climate change] by 10 years.”
Ebell led former President Trump’s transition team for the EPA, and Ebell later “led the drive to pull America out of the Paris climate accords” when Trump was in office. Axios credited Ebell for having “as much influence shaping Trump’s decision [to pull out of the accords] as any single individual.”
As early as 1998, Ebell was “instrumental” in a national strategy to dispute climate change and sow “uncertainties in climate science.” By 2009, Ebell had contributed to “the collapse of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress.” Ebell called former President Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan “illegal” and later called the Green New Deal a “back-to-the-dark-ages manifesto.”
Ebell chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, whose website is “paid for and maintained by” CEI and which calls itself an “ad-hoc group focused on dispelling the myths of global warming.”
CEI figures regularly defend Big Tech corporations like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon against antitrust regulation. The group has been “a leading attack dog” against Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan, calling her landmark antitrust lawsuit against Amazon “madness” and calling the FTC “power-hungry.”
In early 2023, CEI launched an “Eye on FTC” campaign to raise awareness of what it called “overreach and a lack of transparency” at the FTC under Chair Khan. The campaign, which complained about the FTC’s “dramatic and sudden expansion of antitrust enforcement,” touted a “six-figure budget” for television, radio, and digital advertising.
Meanwhile, former CEI attorney and Utah Solicitor General Melissa Holyoak was named a Republican nominee to serve as an FTC commissioner alongside Chair Lina Khan. Her FTC nomination has been opposed by both liberals and conservatives for her previous work to block big tech regulation.
While representing CEI and its Center for Class Action Fairness for five years, Holyoak was involved in a 2019 lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that successfully removed discounted rates for low-income broadband users affected by a merger deal involving telecommunications giants Time Warner and Charter Communications.
Beyond her time at CEI, Holyoak’s career includes “fighting class action lawsuits and aggressive regulation” while in private law practice.
In 2015, the Supreme Court heard King v. Burwell, a lawsuit that CEI “organized and bankrolled” against the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Although the lawsuit threatened to end federal health insurance subsidies for about 7.5 million people, CEI claimed the ACA harmed “millions of Americans” and “threaten[ed] the rule of law.”
CEI “declined to say how much it [was] spending to bring the case to court” and claimed that its positions were “developed independently and are not influenced by the views of donors.” Meanwhile, then-CEI chairman Michael S. Greve said of the case: “obviously, this is a huge thing for C.E.I., and it sort of helps with name identification and donors and all the rest of it.”
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against CEI in a 6-3 decision, upholding the ACA’s health insurance subsidies. Chief Justice John Roberts rejected CEI’s position in the Court’s majority opinion, writing, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.”
The group has long relied on tobacco industry backing. In 2022, tobacco giant Altria named CEI among its recipients of charitable contributions, and as recently as 2019, Philip Morris International was among CEI’s “silver sponsors.” In a 2000 donation solicitation, then-CEI President Fred Smith wrote to RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, “RJR’s continued support and your personal involvement has meant a lot in our battles over the last 16 years.”
As early as 1994, Smith thanked tobacco giant Philip Morris for a $150,000 contribution, noting that the funding would “enable CEI to expand our efforts in such well-established areas as our Human Cost of Regulation program and other regulatory reform projects.” In 1995, Smith asked Philip Morris for an additional $200,000 in “continued support” to support CEI’s “even more aggressive” plans for the coming years.
CEI runs SafeChemicalPolicy.org, which “exists to downplay the health and ecological impacts of chemicals.” Although agricultural pesticides based on neonicotinoids are widely believed to have contributed to declines in bee populations, CEI has echoed claims of “no impact of neonicotinoids on honeybees.” SafeChemicalPolicy.org has a category entirely dedicated to honeybees, with dozens of articles with titles like “activists continue to ‘bee’ wrong about honeybees,” “claims about wild bee’s [sic] going extinct are off-base,” and “no need to worry about the bees.”
CEI relies heavily on corporate backing, with past and present funders including ExxonMobil, Alphabet, Amazon, Meta, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Philip Morris, and Altria.
CEI is also bankrolled by some of the biggest far-right dark money networks. In 2020, CEI took $250,000 from Leonard Leo’s 85 Fund. And in 2021 alone, CEI took over $2 million from right-wing dark money groups DonorsTrust, the Searle Freedom Trust, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Lynde And Harry Bradley Foundation.
DonorsTrust is one of the most influential conservative donor-advised funds in contemporary American politics and a top CEI funder. In 2013, Mother Jones dubbed DonorsTrust the “dark-money ATM of the right.” Donors Capital Fund functions like DonorsTrust but is intended for individuals who plan to contribute large sums of money to right-wing causes. Over the years, DonorsTrust and its affiliate Donors Capital Fund have financed numerous organizations advancing a number of conservative and far-right causes. They include groups associated with the conservative activist Leonard Leo, groups advancing white nationalism and anti-immigration policies, and groups spreading election conspiracy theories like True The Vote and the Claremont Institute.
Another major CEI funder is the Searle Freedom Trust, a 501(c)(3) private foundation run by Kimberly Dennis, a longtime operative in the right-wing philanthropy network. The trust has given hundreds of millions of dollars to “ultra-free-market” groups, including leading climate denial and anti-affirmative action organizations. Searle coordinates with some of the most influential policy groups in the conservative movement, including the State Policy Network and the American Enterprise Institute.
The Sarah Scaife Foundation, now under the stewardship of right-wing operatives following Richard Mellon Scaife’s passing in 2014, continues to be a major player in the conservative movement and funds CEI. The Sarah Scaife Foundation is the last vestige of Richard Mellon Scaife’s nonprofit empire. Scaife was a billionaire who was described as “funding father of the right” by the Washington Post. Scaife was known for his brand of conspiratorial politics, particularly his fascination with the anti-Clinton conspiracies, and for his deep ties to the conservative movement. Richard Scaife utilized his nonprofits to “fund the creation of the modern conservative movement” in the post-Nixon era, according to historians.
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Bradley Impact Fund have backed CEI. These are two major right-wing donor groups funded by a 19th century industrial fortune that have given away more than $1 billion, much of it to conservative causes related to civil rights, voting rights, welfare, education, climate change, and labor, among other issue areas. The Bradley Impact Fund was created in 2012 as a donor-advised fund affiliated with the Bradley Foundation. Its creation allowed individuals to donate to the Impact Fund and then recommend where that money should go in the form of grants.
CEI has received funding from the Charles Koch Institute, which split into two separate entities in 2022 and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that facilitated Charles Koch and his family’s free-market educational programs and funding activities.
|Grantmaker||Grantmaker Tax Year||Grantmaker tax period||Amount|
|Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program||2021||2022-06||$1,259,500|
|Searle Freedom Trust||2021||2021-12||$500,000|
|Sarah Scaife Foundation||2021||2021-12||$450,000|
|National Philanthropic Trust||2021||2022-06||$403,500|
|Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation||2021||2021-12||$300,000|
|John William Pope Foundation||2021||2022-06||$190,000|
|Beth and Ravenel Curry Foundation||2022||2022-12||$100,000|
|The John J Pohanka Family Foundation||2021||2021-12||$100,000|
|JP Humphreys Foundation||2021||2021-12||$100,000|
|Charles Koch Institute||2021||2021-12||$50,000|
|Bradley Impact Fund||2021||2021-12||$50,000|
|Achelis and Bodman Foundation||2021||2021-12||$50,000|
|The Freedom and Justice Foundation||2022||2022-12||$40,000|
|Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA)||2021||2021-12||$35,000|
|The Steve and Lana Hardy Foundation||2022||2022-12||$25,000|
|The Beach Foundation||2021||2021-12||$25,000|
|American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM)||2021||2021-12||$25,000|
|Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund||2021||2022-06||$21,205|
|Bader Family Foundation||2021||2021-12||$21,000|
|The Armstrong Foundation||2021||2021-12||$20,000|
|Schwab Charitable Fund||2021||2022-06||$18,050|
|William H. Donner Foundation||2020||2021-10||$26,948|
|NCTA – The Internet and Television Association||2021||2021-12||$15,000|
|Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS)||2021||2021-12||$15,000|
|Woodhouse Family Foundation||2022||2022-12||$10,000|
|National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)||2021||2021-12||$10,000|
|Offerdahl Family Foundation||2022||2022-12||$6,500|
|National Automobile Dealers Association||2021||2021-12||$6,000|
|The Barbee Family Foundation||2022||2022-12||$5,000|
|Merrion Family Foundation||2021||2021-12||$5,000|
|The Sayers Foundation||2021||2021-12||$5,000|
|McNeill Charitable Foundation||2022||2022-12||$4,000|
|James Deering Danielson Foundation||2022||2022-12||$4,000|
|The Mark E and Mary A Davis Foundation||2021||2021-12||$3,000|
|The Lozick Family Foundation||2021||2021-12||$2,500|
|Garvey Kansas Foundation||2021||2021-12||$2,500|
|Charles Koch Foundation||2021||2021-12||$2,150|
|Gorman Family Foundation||2022||2022-12||$2,000|
|Mary A Crocker Trust||2021||2021-12||$1,500|
|The Mark S Bradley Charitable Foundation||2021||2022-06||$1,000|
|Charles F de Ganahl Family Foundation||2021||2021-12||$1,000|
|The Stephen F and Camilla T Brauer Charitable Trust||2021||2021-12||$1,000|
CEI is part of the “right-wing” State Policy Network (SPN), whose membership includes prominent conservative groups the Heritage Foundation, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, and DonorsTrust. At its 2022 annual meeting, SPN’s members “spent four days immersed in a far-right agenda of social, political, economic, and culture war issues.”
CEI is among “partner organizations” for the Atlas Network, an “expansive” network of corporate-backed free-market think tanks closely tied to the Koch Network. CEI chairman Jean-Claude Gruffat serves as an Atlas Network board member and CEI CEO Kent Lassman is among the right-wing Atlas Network’s “Global Council Of CEOs,” who provide “strategic counsel to Atlas Network leadership.”
In September 2020, CEI CEO Kent Lassman was among “a subset of Atlas Network’s Global Council of CEOs” who “worked intensively to identify the crucial issues, opportunities, strategies, and messaging that would optimize” opportunities during COVID-19 and the so-called “social unrest” occurring at the time.
The Atlas Network, originally one think tank called the Institute of Economic Affairs, was founded by Anthony Fisher, who also co-founded conservative groups the Manhattan Institute and the Pacific Research Institute “with help from the Koch Brothers and the extractive industry.” The network has included “all of the Koch-affiliated think tanks in the United States,” including influential conservative groups the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.