In 2016, Amber Heard scored a major PR win in her fledgling battle with her ex-husband Johnny Depp when she announced that she would be donating her entire $7 million divorce settlement to the ACLU and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. At the time, the move was widely hailed as altruistic — but if it ever came even close to fruition, there’s no evidence for it. Years later, the donation is a point of contention in the actors’ bitter defamation trial unfolding in Virginia, as Depp’s lawyers attempt to undermine Heard’s credibility by proving not just that she never made anywhere near the full donation, but that she lied under oath about having done so in a separate U.K. trial involving the couple in 2020. In the process, new information is coming to light about Elon Musk’s involvement in the donation controversy — and the ACLU’s desire to keep everything under wraps.
On June 29, 2020, Rolling Stone has learned, Depp’s legal team sent the first of six subpoenas to the ACLU to hand over records regarding a $3.5 million donation reportedly made by Heard. But the organization repeatedly stonewalled Depp’s team, forcing the actor to petition a New York court to compel the nonprofit to turn over a cache of documents. That motion was successful, unleashing a torrent of exhibits and testimony that offers a stunning window into how a venerable nonprofit became deeply entwined with Heard and Musk.
Back in June 2017, according to court testimony, Heard had made only a single $350,000 payment to the ACLU, which remains the only remittance to come directly from her to date. But she was able to reel in a much bigger donor in Musk, one of the world’s richest men, whom she dated for about a year just after her divorce from Depp. Rolling Stone has reviewed an email exchange dated that same month between ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and Heard, in which Romero gushed: “Had a great meeting with Elon. Love that guy. Love you too.” (Rolling Stone has reviewed this and other correspondence between the ACLU and Heard, which are not part of the court exhibits in Depp v. Heard.) One year later, Musk tweeted: “I am one of the top donors to @ACLU.”
By 2018, the ACLU became even more enmeshed with Heard, who had accused Depp of domestic violence as their brief marriage was unraveling (Depp has denied the claims and says he was the victim of spousal abuse). The group approached the actress to write an op-ed about gender-based violence and suggested that “she can interweave her personal story, saying how painful it is, as a GBV survivor,” an ACLU executive wrote in an email read in court. Despite the fact that Heard had been arrested for hitting ex-partner Tasya van Ree during an altercation at an airport in 2009 — an incident that was widely reported well before Heard became an ACLU ambassador — the group doubled down on its relationship with her. (Heard was not charged in the incident and van Ree later said the events were “misinterpreted and over-sensationalized.”) According to testimony in the defamation trial, the ACLU wound up writing the op-ed and pitched it to the Washington Post, with a member of the communications team writing, “Wondering if we might interest you in a piece by Amber Heard (who, as you may recall, was beaten up during her brief marriage to Johnny Depp), on what the incoming Congress can to do to help protect women in similar situations.”
It was a curious pitch considering one of the organization’s chief aims is to protect the right to due process. “The ACLU’s core belief is that people are innocent until proven guilty, and in 2018, these were allegations, not proof,” says University of San Francisco School of Law professor Lara Bazelon, who recently addressed the ACLU’s ties to the Heard-Depp case in an op-ed for The Atlantic. “For them to write to the Washington Post and say Amber Heard was beaten by Johnny Depp is convicting Johnny Depp before any court had. Their job is to presume innocence because that’s what the Constitution requires. So, these communications where they’re going to bat for her seem wildly at odds with what they’re supposed to be doing.”
That Washington Post op-ed became the centerpiece of Depp’s defamation claim. The ACLU worked with Heard to make sure the piece would coincide with the release of her film Aquaman and used legal resources to help Heard avoid future litigation with her ex-husband, court testimony revealed. On the day the story hit in December 2018, Heard announced via Twitter that she had been named an ACLU ambassador, writing, “The ACLU is the organization that first inspired me to become an activist, so I couldn’t be more excited about our work to make sure women and girls can live free from violence and discrimination.”
While critics like Bazelon suggest that the organization was making a shameless PR grab in its arrangement with Heard, the ACLU counters that its involvement in the op-ed was merely to bring attention to the broader issue of sexual assault and the backlash survivors face when they speak out.
But did the ACLU go even further in helping Heard enhance her reputation and fight Depp after he filed his defamation suit against her in 2019? Depp attorney Ben Chew argued in court that the ACLU actively worked to cover up the fact that Heard never made good on her $3.5 million donation. “They helped her lie about it,” Chew said. “And it’s one thing, Your Honor, for her to stiff the ACLU, which frankly played a reprehensible role in this case. It’s quite another for her to fail to honor her obligation to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, with sick and dying children, and that she failed to do as well.”
Terence Dougherty, general counsel and chief operating officer of the ACLU, testified in Virginia that Heard made a single donation of $350,000 in 2016, and the organization submitted a thank-you letter referring to that transaction, dated Sept. 9, 2016. But even that figure, which represents only 10 percent of her reported gift, is shrouded in mystery. Rolling Stone searched the 990 tax forms for the ACLU and the ACLU Foundation covering the period of April 1, 2016, through March 31, 2017, and found no donation matching that dollar figure. (In response, the organization tells Rolling Stone that Heard’s donation was made through “a donor fund” that would have kept her name out of its ledgers, and that the dollar figure could have been bundled with other donations.) Heard is expected to face questions about her donations to the ACLU when she is cross-examined this week.
Dougherty, during his testimony, also recharacterized Heard’s donation as a “pledge,” and the organization submitted an undated, unsigned pledge form to the court that it says was created in 2016. But the pledge form was printed on letterhead featuring the ACLU’s centennial logo, raising the prospect that it had been created more recently (the group marked its 100-year anniversary in 2020, the same year Depp’s team subpoenaed the ACLU). A spokesperson for the organization said the group began using the logo in 2014 for fundraising purposes.
All the while, the ACLU continued to imply that the actress had fulfilled her $3.5 million donation. In a December 2018 story in The Hollywood Reporter, the ACLU’s director of artist engagement, Jessica Herman Weitz, told this reporter: “I don’t think anyone would have looked differently at her if she kept the settlement money that was due to her, but she knew that money could do more for others than it could for her. What that money was able to do to help protect women and other gender-based violence victims will go a long way to make a difference for the people that we serve. That was my first interaction with her, which is pretty bold. It was not, ‘I’ll throw you a tweet.’ It was, ‘I’m putting my money where my mouth is.’”
Even stranger, ACLU attorney Vera Eidelman stated in a Sept. 13, 2019 email to a redacted group of recipients that the organization planned to file an amicus brief in Depp v. Heard in support of the defendant, and asked for consent to the filing. Some attorneys tell Rolling Stone the move seems an odd use of ACLU resources to get involved in what is essentially a high-profile domestic case between celebrities. An ACLU spokesperson counters that its work on behalf of its Women’s Rights Project sometimes involves litigation.
To date, the ACLU has credited Heard with donating $1.3 million, though most of that appears to have been made by Musk and $100,000 came via Depp, testimony showed. In their June 2017 email exchange, Romero wrote to Heard, referring to a philanthropic fund used by anonymous wealthy donors: “We did get a $500,000 check from Vanguard Charitable on 6/9. If this is your gift, I’m guessing you want me to apply that amount to the overall pledge.” Heard responded: “Yes! Sorry! Was not meant to go through vanguard. … I’m back in L.A. to see E and he said he had a great talk with you.” For his part, Dougherty testified that the $500,000 came from Musk’s account, and that an additional $350,000 made anonymously on Heard’s behalf in 2018 also likely was made by the Tesla billionaire. He added that no payments have been made by the actress or on her behalf since.
Heard’s team declined to comment about why she testified in the U.K. trial that she had donated the full $7 million to charity, but a source close to the actress claims that she has been forced to spend $6 million of her own money defending herself against Depp’s suits. A Depp spokesperson counters: “Ms. Heard had the entirety of the divorce settlement in her possession for well over a year before Johnny began any legal proceedings against her. Within five minutes of receiving the funds she could have written a check to support sick children at the CHLA and advance the cause of the ACLU, but she did neither, all the while publicly claiming it had already been done.”
Though Heard and Musk had called it quits by 2018, his relationship with the ACLU continues to go strong. The nonprofit says Musk has donated $6 million to its coffers to date, while declining to clarify to Rolling Stone the timing of his gifts. Last week, the organization endorsed the would-be Twitter owner’s statement that he would replatform Donald Trump.
Any chance that Musk might shine light on the ACLU matter appears slim. Depp’s lawyers were unable to serve Musk, and he never sat for a deposition. Though Heard included Musk on her witness list, he has indicated that he has no plans to take the stand.