Follow the Dark Money

Yes, it’s a legitimate story when Dominion spends big bucks supporting grassroots groups that favor the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Why isn’t it also a story when out-of-state billionaires underwrite pipeline foes?

We learn from the Washington Post Thursday how Dominion Energy, its partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and the American Gas Association poured resources into groups called EnergySure and Your Energy Virginia to “whip up” a grassroots campaign in support of the project.

Quoting from a presentation made by Dominion executive Bruce McKay to an industry conference in Arizona last month, the Post described the scope of the effort:

As of early October, Dominion had compiled a “supporter database” of more than 23,000 names, generated 150 letters to the editor, sent more than 9,000 cards and letters to federal regulators and local elected officials, and directed more than 11,000 calls to outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia’s U.S. senators.

Pipeline foes criticize Dominion for its outsized influence in Virginia state politics, characterizing the pipeline conflict as a David vs. Goliath contest. “Dominion is by far more well-resourced,” the Post quotes Denise Robbins of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as saying. “What we have is public support and the will of the people who don’t want these pipelines in their communities.” Continues the article:

The protesters also have criticized Northam for failing to disclose that several members of his 85-person transition advisory team have ties to Dominion – a company that has given extensively to Virginia politicians of both parties, and in which Northam owns stock. Dominion and its executives gave Northam’s campaign more than $87,000 this year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Post article highlights a legitimate story. Dominion is a dominant player in Virginia’s political process, and the public has a right to know how it conducts business. If Dominion, a regulated utility whose fortunes depend upon achieving favorable political outcomes, pours money into campaign contributions, lobbying and grassroots activities, that’s a fair topic of inquiry by the press.

What bothers me is that the Washington Post and other media show no comparable curiosity about Dominion’s opponents. What do we know about the groups contesting the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines? What do we know about the resources poured into the campaign to halt the pipelines? Where do these groups raise money for economic studies, cable television ads, and the organizing of protest marches?

To take a concrete example, what do we know about the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), the environmental justice-oriented group quoted by the Post, which has organized many of the anti-pipeline protests in Richmond?

Well, we know that the group is based in Takoma, Md., and maintains offices in Richmond and Norfolk. In fiscal 2015 it listed 22 employees. According to its latest 990 form and a 2016 audited report posted on its website, the group raised $263,000 in 2016 through contributions, another $1,043,000 through grants (including the release of previously restricted grants), and a nominal sum from other sources. While we know how much money it brought in, we don’t know where that money came from. Nowhere on its website, in its audited report, or its 990 form does CCAN reveal how many donors contributed, or who they were. Restricted grants (presumably from foundations) account for 80% of its revenue. Who is CCAN beholden to? The public doesn’t know. The Washington Post is happy to quote CCAN in its article but displays no curiosity about whose interests it serves.

Contrast CCAN to a true grassroots environmental organization like the Piedmont Environmental Council. The 2016 PEC annual report lists every donor — literally hundreds of them — who contributed $100 or more. The PEC makes no secret of the fact that its biggest backers of $100,000 or more include the Aqua Fund, the William M. Backer Foundation, the Loudoun Soil and Conservation District, Jacqueline B. Mars, Jean Perin, the Prince Charitable Trusts, and the Wrinkle in Time Foundation. It’s all there for the public to see and evaluate.

A look at the CCAN’s board of directors suggests that the group’s support comes mainly from Maryland and Washington, D.C., not Virginia. Only two of the 13 board members have identifiable Virginia connections: April Moore, vice-president of Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and Tony Noerpel, founder of Sustainable Loudoun. Another board member has West Virginia ties, and the rest hail from the Baltimore-Washington area. CCAN lays claim to “public support and the will of the people who don’t want these pipelines” in Virginia. But how do we know that it reflects the will of “the people” any more than does Dominion, which cites the support of construction unions, chambers of commerce, and economic developers?

We know where Dominion’s money comes from — from Dominion rate payers and shareholders. It’s pretty straightforward. We don’t know where CCAN’s money comes from. Could some or most of it come from out-of-state millionaires and billionaires who could care a fig about Virginia’s economic development?

A 2014 minority staff report of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA,” reached the following conclusions:

  • The “Billionaire’s Club,” an exclusive group of wealthy individuals, directs the far-left environmental movement. The members of this elite liberal club funnel their fortunes through private foundations to execute their personal political agenda, which is centered around restricting the use of fossil fuels in the United States.
  • Public charity activist groups propagate the false notion that they are independent, citizen-funded groups working altruistically. In reality, they work in tandem with wealthy donors to maximize the value of the donors’ tax deductible donations and leverage their combined resources to influence elections and policy outcomes.
  • Far-left environmental activists, while benefiting from nonprofit status, essentially sell a product to wealthy foundations who are seeking to drive policy and political outcomes.
  • The Billionaire’s Club knowingly collaborates with questionable offshore funders to maximize support for the far-left environmental movement.

The “offshore funders” are associated with Russian energy interests who share the environmentalists’ goal of curtailing U.S. fracking of natural gas.

In their coverage of President Trump, Post reporters frequently allude to findings of the U.S. Intelligence community, in particular the report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” which argued that Vladimir Putin-directed initiatives aimed at discrediting Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. But I have yet to see the Post cite the passage that says RT (formerly Russia Today) ran anti-fracking programming highlighting environmental issues and the impact on public health. The anti-fracking stance, states the report, “is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability.”

Ken Stiles, a Virginia Tech geography instructor who used to work for the Central Intelligence Agency, has traced the flow of dollars from Russian energy interests through the Bermuda-based Klein Fund to the California-based Sea Change Foundation, and then from Sea Change to the Charlottesville-based social/environmental activist group Virginia Organizing. Virginia Organizing provides administrative support for anti-pipeline groups such as Preserve Montgomery County and the Friends of Nelson County. (This article in the Daily Signal provides the details.)

Virginia Organizing, which describes itself as “a statewide grassroots organization dedicated to challenging injustice by empowering people in local communities,” had a 2015 budget of $4.5 million. The group did not acknowledge the fact that it was a recipient of Sea Change Foundation money in either its website or its 990 form.

Stiles approached Bacon’s Rebellion before he contacted the Daily Signal. While I was intrigued by his findings, I thought it was a stretch to link Russian anti-fracking money with what appeared to me to be genuine, NIMBY-inspired grassroots groups like Preserve Montgomery County and the Friends of Nelson County. There was no way to know where the Russian money went once it reached the Sea Change Foundation. In all likelihood, I felt, the Russian money was so co-mingled with the contributions of rich American donors that it was meaningless to trace a trail from Russian oligarchs to an organization like Virginia Organizing, much less to groups one step removed from Virginia Organizing. I think Stiles got impatient with my journalistic standards of proof, so he went to the conservative Daily Signal instead.

Still, I believe that Stiles raised an important pointMuch of the anti-pipeline money in Virginia comes from wealthy out-of-state environmentalists (with a few rubles mixed in). These big donors have funded an archipelago of grassroots groups dedicated to fighting fracking and natural gas pipelines across the country.

When Dominion spends money supporting grassroots movements to influence public policy, yes, that is a news story. When out-of-state billionaires spend money, an unknown fraction of which came from Russian energy interests, to support grassroots movements to shut down fracking and pipelines, that is a news story, too — just not one that the Washington Post is interested in telling.

Virginians have a right to know who is influencing the public policy process in their state, and how much these shadowy interests are spending. It’s easy to follow the dollars going to campaign finances because campaigns are obligated by law to report them. Thus, we know that California billionaire and global warming activist Tom Steyer funneled almost $1 million through his organization NextGen Climate Action into Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s gubernatorial campaign this year, and $1.6 million into Governor Terry McAuliffe’s campaign four years before that. But there are millions of dollars of dark money sloshing around Virginia through social-justice and environmental foundations and activist groups which go mostly unreported. The public has a right to know where all the money is coming from and which groups are beholden to that money.

  • The Derecho

    So when will we see the “Sponsored by Dominion Energy” here as well?

  • Lawrence Wood

    Dark money today in politics reminds me of the reaction of cosmologists and physicists when it was clearly demonstrated that there existed dark matter in the universe and that their theories and understandings to date of “how things worked” really only explained about 5% or so of what was actually going on.

    This type of dark money political influence buying isn’t going away (unless we make a concerted effort to rid ourselves of it and the judicial system has not been supportive in that regard) and I question if today the average citizen even understands the 5% of the actual financial underpinnings of electoral politics in the US that scientists have at least grasped regarding the universe around us.

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