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Published — May 20, 2014 Updated — Today at 10:29 pm EST

Singularity University disavows super PACs

But school won’t explain why school official formed committees in its name

Introduction

Update, 10:12 p.m., May 20, 2014: Singularity University released a statement to the Center for Public Integrity this evening indicating that Randi Willis, the school’s managing director for program operations, has filed termination paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to shut down four super PACs she registered and indicated were tied to the university.

The school’s statement says the super PACs were “filed personally by Randi Willis as a private individual” and “neither her filings, nor her subsequent actions in speaking with the press, can rightly be categorized as being on behalf of Singularity University. Although Ms. Willis chose to use language commonly associated with Singularity University in the names of the committees, none of the four PACs was filed on behalf of, or with any affiliation to, Singularity University.”

Singularity University’s statement continues: “Singularity University does not sanction the use by employees — in their personal endeavors outside of work — of branding terms that are substantially similar to, or the same as, branding used and/or trademarked by Singularity University in its business. Ms. Willis’ use, in this case, of such terms in the committee names was inappropriate.”

Singularity University states that it “first became aware of the filings on Thursday, May 15, 2014, when Ms. Willis informed Singularity University’s Management Team of an article published by the Center for Public Integrity about her filings.”

Willis, who serves as the four super PACs’ treasurer, filed termination papers for the super PACs on May 16, according to the university. No such termination filings appeared in the FEC’s document database as of late Tuesday, although it often takes several days for the agency to receive, process and certify such filings.

The university, which is funded in part by prominent corporations such as Google and Cisco, would not confirm whether Willis has been disciplined or fired.

“Singularity University does not comment publicly on human resource matters,” Susan Moran, the school’s managing director for marketing, wrote in an email. Willis’ staff page remained live on the school website as of late Tuesday.

Moran added that “to our knowledge, no other Singularity University employee was aware of the committees’ creation or otherwise involved in any planning going forward with respect to the committees” — a statement that contradicts what Willis told the Center for Public Integrity last week.

The Center for Public Integrity’s original story from today appears in its entirety as follows:

Singularity University is disavowing involvement with four federal super PACs the school’s managing director for program operations recently formed in its name.

But the tech-focused California school is remaining mum on the official’s assertion that other school leaders are involved with the super PAC and that the committees would seek funding from the “millionaires and billionaires” that affiliate themselves with the school.

In a phone interview Monday, Singularity University Chief of Staff and General Counsel Joey Neugart declined to answer questions about the super PACs after contacting the Center for Public Integrity with a one-line statement he requested be addended to a story published last week. The statement reads:

“Singularity University (SU) is a benefit corporation with a social impact mission. SU is not affiliated with, has not established, and has no intention of establishing any candidate committee, party committee, or political action committee.”

The problem: The Center for Public Integrity did not report that the school created or is officially affiliated with the super PACs, which by law may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates. Super PACs may also accept corporate, union and special interest cash.

Political committees backed by corporations are typically formed and operated by an employee or employees of the corporation, as appears to be the case with the super PACs tied to Singularity. The four new super PACs Singularity University’s Randi Willis registered May 12 are named “Singularity PAC,” “Impact,” “Global Grand Challenges” and “10^9+” — the latter a reference to Singularity University’s stated goal of helping its graduate program students develop “the tools, knowledge, skills and mindset for delivering real humanitarian impact to 1 billion people.”

Willis also serves as the super PACs’ treasurer, affirming in signed statements to the FEC that the new committees intend “to make independent expenditures, and consistent with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decision in SpeechNow v. FEC, it therefore intends to raise funds in unlimited amounts. This committee will not use those funds to make contributions, whether direct, in-kind, or via coordinated communications, to federal candidates or committee.”

In an interview last week, Willis explained that Singularity University officials would spend the next several months determining the super PACs’ focus and that they wouldn’t likely become active until after the 2014 election cycle.

The California-based school was co-founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil and is funded in part by prominent corporations such as Google and Cisco.

“Instead of waiting for people in office to come to us, the idea is, ‘Let’s put people in office,'” said Willis, whose LinkedIn biography says she has been with the university since 2011. “We have a number of millionaires and billionaires who come through here and who we believe would consider contributing.”

Willis did not return messages seeking additional comment. A Singularity University spokeswoman shed little additional light on the situation, telling the San Francisco Chronicle today that the school isn’t interested in involving itself in politics, “and we never will. That’s not what this is about.”

What exactly this is all about is a mystery. Had Neugart gone beyond his written statement, the Center for Public Integrity might have learned answers to these questions, among others:

  • Why would a company official create super PACs that either employ the university’s name or terms and concepts it frequently uses in its literature and messaging?
  • Did Willis lie when saying other university officials were aware of the super PACs and planning to involve themselves with them?
  • Are the super PACs not intending to seek donations from wealthy people who associate with Singularity University?
  • Has the university directed Willis to terminate the super PACs?

The four super PACs still exist as of today, according to federal records. But super PACs — particularly ones with no record of yet raising money — are easily shut down. Willis would just have to notify the FEC of her intention to close the committees, if she chooses to do so.

Read more in Federal Politics

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