For more than a decade, New Jersey businessman Barry Segal has lived a double life as a philanthropist, underwriting public health in sub-Saharan Africa even as he has undermined it in the United States.
In recent years, largesse from the building supply and real estate magnate, who retired from his company Bradco in 2008, has run on two parallel tracks. Via the Segal Family Foundation, he has poured his fortune into hundreds of organizations providing medical care and social support to women and children in Africa, as well as into groups developing infrastructure, education, economic opportunities, and clean drinking water.
Closer to home, he has also supported the U.S. Tennis Association Foundation and a host of autism-related organizations in the United States, and is active in the Patriotic Millionaires—a group of wealthy Americans in favor of wealth redistribution. His social media accounts are rife with posts denouncing racism and embracing such left-wing causes as the abolition of the electoral college. In cooperation with charities founded by luminaries like rapper Big Sean and songwriter Paul Simon, Segal has also backed programs for children in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey.
But his most bold-faced charitable partner has doubtless been former President Bill Clinton, with whom he has worked since 2006, and whom he has called “the man who really put Africa on the map for me.” In the years since, the Clinton Foundation’s own records show that Segal has given millions to its initiatives, earning him repeated appearances on lists of its largest contributors. Clinton keynoted the Segal Family Foundation’s annual gathering in 2013, and photos of Segal and his wife with the Clintons adorn the entrepreneur’s webpages, the most recent from late 2019, right before the coronavirus pandemic.
Segal has publicly credited Clinton with inspiring the creation of his own family foundation, but also that of another charitable group he runs and funds, one that has become increasingly dedicated to the spread of dangerous myths about vaccines. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disinformation infrastructure Segal helped build has dumped ever more toxic falsehoods into the public discourse.
Segal launched Focus Autism in 2009. Interested in alternative treatments for autism from the start, it began plowing money into groups promoting the debunked myth of a link between inoculations and the neurological condition in 2011, when disclosures to the Internal Revenue Service show its annual donations to such organizations totaled $178,500. In 2019, the most recent year for which filings are available, that figure was $765,873.
"They’re one of several deep pockets that the anti-vaccine movement uses,” said Professor Dorit Reiss of the University of California Hastings, a public health expert and activist, adding that the cause has become increasingly dependent on sugar daddies as it has lost access to crowdfunding services. “They are using this money to good effect. They need the money. They depend on the money. Especially as they are de-platformed, they are dependent on the money to reach people.”
Reiss contrasted Segal’s role in the movement with that of one of his biggest beneficiaries, infamous anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose group Children’s Health Defense received $145,120 from Segal’s group in 2019, according to public records—and thanked it for bankrolling three billboards on Times Square the previous year.
“When RFK goes to an event and speaks, everybody claps and he is adulated. Barry Segal was never one of those,” said Reiss. “Segal has kind of been in the margins with the activism, but he has a big role because of the money.”
Reached for comment, Segal would say little other than that those who would call him a major funder of the anti-vaccine movement “don’t know what the fuck they are talking about.” He also alluded to his extensive contributions to mainstream charities, which indeed dwarf his gifts to disinformation spreaders.
In public posts, Segal has insisted that he is not “anti-vaccine,” but only supportive of further research, distributed dosages, and parental consent. In his correspondence with The Daily Beast, he declined to comment on his relationship with the former president except to assert that Clinton was paid for his appearance. (A spokesperson for the Clinton Foundation did not deny this.)
But Segal’s history with the anti-vaccine movement belies any claim of simple skepticism, and makes it hard to believe Clinton might have been unaware of his views while accepting his money.
In 2014, Focus Autism—since rechristened Focus for Health—financed a widely publicized, and swiftly retracted, study linking vaccination to the development of autism in young Black boys. The scientist behind the study was the chemical engineer Brian Hooker, who for years served as a board member and adviser to the Segal organization. Hooker is also a close associate of Robert Kennedy, also sitting on the board of Children’s Health Defense and co-authoring a book with the Kennedy scion. Hooker also appeared prominently in the controversial and discredited documentary Vaxxed: from Cover-Up to Catastrophe.
Hooker did not respond to requests for comment.
Another Focus for Health ex-board member is Robert Krakow, an attorney specializing in “vaccine injury” lawsuits who famously collaborated with Kennedy to try and block an emergency vaccination order in New York City amid a measles outbreak in 2019. Krakow only responded to The Daily Beast to state he was no longer affiliated with Focus for Health, and to deny the group had any role in his litigation, despite public disclosures showing it paid his firm $81,266 in 2019.
In 2015, Segal was named Humanitarian of the Year at the annual AutismOne conference, formerly sponsored by anti-vax actress Jenny McCarthy and notorious as a forum for discussing such so-called autism treatments as feeding children bleach.
Focus for Health has also pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the National Vaccine Information Center, which experts have described as the “most powerful anti-vaccine organization in America.” And Segal personally penned a foreword to a 2016 book by Kent Heckenlively, the self-styled “world’s number one anti-vaxxer,” whose activities are so extreme he was banned from entering Australia.
Outlets from Insider to CNN have noted Segal’s role in financing the anti-vaccine movement. And by his own account, in 2017, Segal obtained meetings with both Bill Clinton and with Chelsea Clinton in which he directly presented his anti-vaccine views.
In his blog post on the Focus for Health website, Segal claimed that the Clinton Foundation had been “uncomfortable taking the money through the Focus for Health Foundation because of our stance on vaccine safety.” He added that he used his meeting with the ex-president to request a conference with Chelsea Clinton, the former first daughter and current vice chair of the Clinton Foundation.
In a letter apparently sent to the elder Clinton embedded in the post, Segal noted he and Chelsea could not come to an agreement on vaccines.
“I’d like to keep the door open to discuss this issue further,” Segal concluded in the missive. “It’s important that you be aware what the ‘other side’ is thinking.”
The post also includes an image of a $100,000 check from the Segal Family Foundation made out to the Clinton organization. The two charities appear to have maintained their relationship through 2019, or at least right up until the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Clinton Foundation did not deny these meetings occurred, nor dispute details of the former president’s relationship with Segal. Instead, they simply noted that the organization has invested millions—including Segal’s own money—into supporting vaccination efforts across the planet.
“Donations to the Clinton Foundation support our efforts that are grounded in science and data—and the science and data are clear on vaccines,” a spokesperson for the group wrote in a statement for The Daily Beast.
Segal did not answer questions about whether he continued financing anti-vax groups in 2020 and 2021 as a deadly pandemic emerged worldwide. Focus for Health has remained largely silent during the COVID-19 pandemic—though it did warn last winter against “rushing” a vaccine. But Callum Hood, director of research for the Center for Countering Digital Hate, noted this is in keeping with the organization’s generally low profile.
Hood highlighted that the organizations Segal has bankrolled, as opposed to him personally, have been anything but discreet amid the pandemic. In a widely covered report titled The Disinformation Dozen, the Center’s team identified Kennedy and the National Vaccine Information Center as some of the top online disseminators of lies and misrepresentations about the novel coronavirus and life-saving vaccines.
Another repeated recipient of Focus for Health Funds, the National Health Freedom Coalition, has sought to ban masks in multiple states. Hooker’s research that Segal’s group funded even found its way into a viral video Kennedy has promoted to try to dissuade Black Americans from getting the COVID-19 jab.
It’s all part of a massive pivot Hood said the anti-vaxxer movement has made with the onset of the pandemic: switching from targeting anxious parents and the families of autistic children to the general population.
“The influence of these organizations should be beyond doubt,” he told The Daily Beast. “The fact that there’s well-funded, pretty professional organizations working on that is really significant. And I’m sure it’s had a big, big impact on vaccine hesitancy as a result.”