It’s an all-too-familiar story at this point: A person pushing an unproven COVID-19 cure—and pushing back against the vaccines—pays the ultimate price for their skepticism.
But this time, there’s a new wrinkle. It’s not just one person dabbling in COVID quackery with tragic results; it’s actually a mysterious dark money organization, with ties to influential MAGA figures like Steve Bannon and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
This story, which unfolded nearly 18 months ago, would have likely gone untold if it weren’t for one person: Kenneth Happel.
Happel claims to have partnered with the group, Propter Strategies, in its secretive work. But eventually, he became another victim of it.
To this day, Propter Strategies is a black hole, despite its high-profile connections and multimillion-dollar budget. Aside from Happel’s account, there is no evidence of Propter’s activities anywhere in the public record. And that might be with good reason: Those activities included hawking the snake-oil COVID treatment oleandrin at the highest levels of the government, as the pandemic’s lethal second wave peaked across the country.
Happel, as it turns out, currently lies in a Las Vegas hospital bed fending off his second COVID infection. Less than two weeks ago, the disease took his wife’s life.
But in a phone interview from his hospital bed, Happel, 72, remained unrepentant and defiant about the numerous baseless theories that quite likely landed him back in the hospital, and killed the wife he loved dearly.
Happel still places hope in the pseudoscience that he, Propter Strategies, and Lindell had pushed so hard—a proprietary compound derived from oleander extract, which the pillow tycoon and at least one Propter official had invested in.
None of Propter’s board members replied to The Daily Beast’s multiple requests for comment for this article. Happel himself was hard to find.
That’s because, aside from incorporation and tax documents, Propter is essentially invisible.
The group registered as a nonprofit with the state of Texas in June 2020, when the virus had spread across the country and Lindell’s ad hoc mask-making enterprise had collapsed under the weight of his own ideology. And though the pillow mogul does not appear on Propter’s board, the group’s officials are well connected in their own right, from the Trump White House to the Supreme Court.
And so, Propter soon found itself flush with $5 million, according to public tax filings. But that was a dead end, too. The funds had been delivered anonymously via Donors Trust, earmarked for ventures with code names out of a straight-to-video thriller, like the “Internal Security Project” and the “Delta Project.”
Two sources close to Propter officials told The Daily Beast that they believed the organization had ties to Bannon. The erstwhile Trump whisperer hosts his War Room podcast on the same platform as Propter co-founder Frank Gaffney, another anti-China zealot. And they both teamed up at Bannon’s anti-China forum with another Propter official—senior fellow and former president at the hyperconservative Claremont Institute Brian Kennedy.
Bannon, of course, was also an oleandrin enthusiast.
There’s apparently only one other piece of information about Propter on the internet: a copyright mark at the bottom of a zero-budget website.
Registration data on that site—“needsp.us”—shows its owner is Happel. In the hospital bed interview, Happel confirmed that the Propter Strategies cited on his page was in fact the same group linked to those leading MAGA figures.
Happel told The Daily Beast that he’d included the copyright notice because of a video hosted on the site. While the video is no longer accessible, Happel claimed he had put it together in conjunction with Propter Strategies, which owned the copyright.
The clip, as Happel described it, touted the entirely unsubstantiated benefits of oleandrin in treating COVID, and slammed its detractors in mainstream media and medicine.
Happel—a former Tea Party activist with an entrepreneurial history that intersects with biotechnology—recounted working on oleandrin in 2020 with Propter board member Andrew Whitney. A serial entrepreneur and former Bain Capital investor, Whitney was actually pulling oleandrin double-duty—he was on the board at the nonprofit Propter, as well as at Texas-based Phoenix Biotechnologies, whose research centered on the product.
Happel also acknowledged the connection to Lindell, who, it turns out, also holds a financial stake in Phoenix Biotechnologies.
And so, smack in the middle of that deadly second-wave summer, Whitney and Lindell paired up for a MAGA media parade, stumping for oleandrin as a neglected medical miracle on fringe conservative platforms from Newsmax to Diamond and Silk’s show on YouTube.
Then, according to multiple outlets, the two businessmen struck gold. They landed an Oval Office meeting with Trump, thanks to Lindell’s relationship with the since-vanquished commander-in-chief. Also in attendance at that meeting was then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who went so far as to use oleandrin to treat his own COVID-19 that fall. (Carson claimed it cured him, despite its lack of official approvals or clinical evidence of efficacy against coronavirus infections in humans.)
Trump, under pressure from a resurgent second wave, was a fat target. His first politicized sham medical obsession, hydroxychloroquine, had lost its luster. Open to anything but masks, Trump warmed to Whitney’s Oval Office pitch, and subsequently expressed interest in the treatment, one of several quack products he advocated but curiously did not use himself when he fell ill with the disease.
While Whitney and Lindell pushed oleandrin—and specifically, Phoenix Biotechnology’s products—on the president, another Propter official was boosting the treatment on a parallel track.
In multiple video and written screeds in August 2020, the official, noted Islamophobic activist Frank Gaffney, excoriated supposed “Deep State” actors for engaging in “perfidious bureaucratic sandbagging” of oleandrin.
In one article, Gaffney—a former adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a Bannon ally, and an influential confidant of Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas—also name-dropped Phoenix, when discussing the commercial treatment Serrativir. In another piece he quoted Whitney, who had complained to him of “cure-canceling.”
At some point, things went sideways. Phoenix has since wiped Whitney from its website, and he could not be reached for comment. In a phone call, a Phoenix representative distanced the firm from Whitney, but declined to comment further.
In a phone interview, Lindell said, “I don’t know Andrew Whitney.” After The Daily Beast reminded him of a lengthy Axios report about their White House trip, as well as a number of joint media appearances, Lindell said, “I know Andrew Whitney.”
Lindell then spoke at length about Whitney, Phoenix, and its oleander “therapeutic that worked.” Propter, however, did not seem to ring any bells, though Lindell admitted he was vaguely aware of Gaffney’s evangelism.
The pillow king confirmed he still has a financial stake in Phoenix, and is still on the board. As for Whitney, “He got—ka-boom—gone.” Lindell did not elaborate.
Propter, too, went “ka-boom.” The company’s officials dissolved it shortly after The Daily Beast revealed its existence last November.
Happel, from his hospital bed, stood by the work.
“One of the saddest things,” he said, was how discussions about products like oleandrin had become a “political football” during the pandemic.
“I sincerely believe that [Phoenix and Whitney] thought they had made a discovery and wanted to do a test to find out if it was true—nothing more, nothing less,” Happel said. “The test never happened, and so we have no idea about the truth.”
“I understand less as I get older and older. We have forgotten how to listen,” he added.
Happel did not answer whether he or his wife had tried oleandrin.
Happel did claim that hydroxychloroquine “may have saved” his life during his first serious COVID infection last year.
But this second bout was worse, he said, and “the comorbidity isn’t helping”—a reference to a “severe lung condition” that had landed him and his wife in the hospital “a number of times.”
His wife, Happel said, had a “very, very damaged immune system,” but, like him, had not taken the vaccine.
Lindell said he did not recall Happel, and the two may never have directly collaborated, though Lindell also erroneously and repeatedly pegged the summer of 2020 as “three years ago.”
Informed of Happel’s dire state, and the recent COVID death of his wife, Lindell—a born-again Christian—did not appear affected.
“Yeah, well, you say that and I know a thousand people that’ve died with the vaccine,” Lindell claimed.
According to the government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, an effectively open-source database that does not verify all data, as of Jan. 31, after 539 million doses had been administered doses in the United States, there had been 11,879 reports of subsequent death. That figure almost certainly vastly overstates the number of deaths tied in any way to the vaccine, as VAERS counts deaths that occurred soon after taking shots, without examining any sort of causal relationship or taking into account other comorbidities.
But still, people like Happel and Lindell have chosen to put their faith into unproven treatments like oleandrin.
“I take it every day,” Lindell said of oleandrin. In fact, he said, he bought a stockpile of the stuff for his friends, family, and employees—anyone who needs it.
“I put money in to save this country,” he said.