Digging for dark money

Guardian, CPI expose secretive climate-denial funding network

Just over a year ago, Peter Gleick, a scientist and climate-change activist, obtained a cache of internal documents from The Heartland Institute by calling the anti-regulatory think tank and claiming to be one of its board members. Even though Gleick was not a journalist, the ploy stirred up a debate about when and where the media can use deception to obtain information. The consensus, and it’s the right one, was that it’s a tactic of last resort.

Gleick’s gambit has also proved to be quite fruitful, however, and the budgetary records he dug up have inspired a chain of journalistic investigations that revealed a web of anonymous donors that spends millions of dollars each year casting doubt on climate-change science and fighting efforts to address the problem.

Case in point, last Thursday, The Guardian published a multipart exposé by Suzanne Goldenberg of a “secretive funding network” that distributed $118 million between 2002 and 2010 to 102 think thanks and advocacy groups “working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising ‘wedge issue’ for hardcore conservatives.” According to the first article in the report:

The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1m or more…

Such vehicles, called donor-advised funds, are not uncommon in America. They offer a number of advantages to wealthy donors. They are convenient, cheaper to run than a private foundation, offer tax breaks and are lawful.

The ultimate perk, however, is “complete anonymity for the donors who wished to remain hidden.” Goldenberg, The Guardian’s US environment correspondent, said she first heard of Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund while covering The Heartland Institute, one their beneficiaries, in the wake the Gleick affair.

John Mashey, a contributor to the environmental website DeSmogBlog (one of the outlets that published the documents that Gleick distributed), first identified the two trusts in a report published a month after the leak. Goldenberg has been speaking to people about “dark money” ever since, but the details of her report took time to sort out.

“The difficulty in writing about Donors Trust is also the very reason for its existence: its opacity,” she said in an interview. “You can see the money coming out, but you can’t see the money coming in. So you can’t say conclusively who is funding these organizations. It took me a while to realize that that was indeed the story.”

The outflow from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund is quite large. Working with information that she received from Greenpeace, which has long tracked funding for anti-climate-change groups (and released a major report on Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund the day after The Guardian’s was published), Goldenberg reported that:

The funding stream far outstripped the support from more visible opponents of climate action such as the oil industry or the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, the records show. When it came to blocking action on the climate crisis, the obscure charity in the suburbs was outspending the Koch brothers by a factor of six to one.

In part two of her exposé, Goldenberg listed a few recipients of the largesse, including the American Enterprise Institute, The Heartland Institute, and Americans for Prosperity. The article pointed out that money also went to the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (Cfact), which supports Climate Depot, a website that regularly publishes misinformation about climate change.

Goldenberg didn’t ID any of the money going in, but, thankfully, she was not the only one working on the story. By sheer coincidence, apparently, the Center for Public Integrity published its own investigation the same day that The Guardian story appeared. Based on IRS data, it was able to reveal names of some of the dozens “major conservative philanthropies” that have given money to Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund.

The center’s analysis, by Paul Abowd, also homed in on the Franklin Center for Government Public Integrity, a think tank that has created a network of online media outlets in state capitals that covered climate change from a conservative point of view. Fully 95 percent of Franklin’s revenue in 2011 came from Donors Trust, the center reported. What’s more, that funding allows Franklin to maintain a tax-exemption as a “publicly supported” entity. A former director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division told the center that if Franklin “were perennially accepting 95 percent of its funding from a handful of wealthy donors ‘it would not count as public support’ and could jeopardize its tax status.”

Liberal donors dole out plenty of money, too, of course, and the Center for Public Integrity acknowledged that, noting that it had received funding from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the Tides Foundation. But those groups are markedly more transparent about where the money comes from and where it goes, the report argued.

Abowd didn’t respond to an email asking how he’d clued into Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, but it seems reasonable to assume that he followed the same path Goldenberg did, with the documents that Gleick obtained from Heartland serving as the trailhead.

The latest revelations don’t exactly excuse Gleick’s actions, however. The files that he distributed were only the inspiration for deeper digging, which more journalists should be pursing as a matter of course. A recent report found that news outlets regularly quote think tanks that receive money from fossil-fuel interests, but only mention the industry funding 6 percent of the time. Obviously, that’s the way a lot of very wealthy people want it.

It’s the press’s job to disappoint them.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,