Environmental Leaders need to Practice Transparency

Environmental Leaders need to practice the transparency that we are always asking for    Greg Gerritt

I have been on both sides of the political organization and nonprofit world, having started and managed a local watershed organization and also a political party.  I have also worked for 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations, been a candidate for office three times, been a campaign treasurer several times, been a state party treasurer, and have managed the finances for referendum campaigns for a C4 organization 7 times.  I have filled out about 100 quarterly campaign finance reports over the last 35 years.  I am a long standing progressive, with a track record of activism and accomplishment, as well as a political thinker and political innovator. 

I remember the times when politicians could get money from anywhere and not report on it, and how damaging that was to the public’s interest.  I objected to that so strongly that when the State of Rhode Island did not have a process laid out by which 501(c)(4) organizations could report on campaign expenditures for bond issue campaigns, I started sending in campaign finance reports in order to move the Board of Elections to develop bond issue campaign finance procedures.  I have also been represented by a city councilor who did not file campaign finance reports.  Somehow, no one in the neighborhood was surprised when that same city councilor was convicted of stealing from a non-profit he had founded.  Honesty and transparency in the funding of campaigns and nonprofits is critical for a functioning democracy.

Over the years, it seemed to me that most of the folks trying to hide the sources of campaign money or how it was being moved were people who publicly worked against the public interest.  So it is with a heavy heart that I am calling out Matt Brown, the RI Political Cooperative, and the non-profit Renew New England (now linked with Renew US) for what appears to be playing fast and loose with the laws governing how non-profits can interface with political candidates and organizations, while hiding the true sources of contributions, and also improperly reporting donations and expenditures on campaign finance reports. This includes taking money from fossil fuel-funded foundations via a 501(c)(3) and using that money for electoral expenditures. I would expect those kinds of activities from Donald Trump or the Tea Party – not from someone with a supposed history of supporting progressive causes. 

Always follow the money. The fossil fuel industry is funding some of these efforts, and a shell game is being played to hide the true source of funds. Renew was founded in 2020 by Matt Brown, originally under the name Green New England Deal Council. Recent 990s show that the Endeavor Foundation served as one of Renew’s major early funders, contributing $275,000 in 2020. The Endeavor Foundation collectively holds shares worth millions in corporations like Exxon Mobil, Enbridge, Duke Energy, Shell, and Procter & Gamble. Since that funding rolled in, Matt Brown filled the organization with staff who cross the RI Political Coop spectrum. Shortly afterward, large campaign contributions to Matt Brown, Cynthia Mendes, and other Co-op candidates began pouring in from Renew staff – today, that total has reached more than $27,000 in contributions from Renew staff alone. This flow of money reflects a pattern implicating a potential effort to hide the true source of campaign donations to Co-op candidates. Not only should these be classified as corporate donations, but we should understand what they truly are – corporate donations made with fossil fuel profits.

At the same time, a combination of internal documents and public information shows how the RI Political Cooperative and Renew are inextricably linked, showing that the Political Cooperative relies on capacity support from Renew. What we hear in public compared to what is actually happening are two different things. What we hear is that Renew, created by Matt Brown, is working to implement a Green New Deal; what is actually happening is a ton of money from the fossil fuel industry changing hands to fund divide and conquer tactics at the local level.

One thing that is very troubling is that the people and organizations involved have – despite their supposedly good intentions – actually slowed down and damaged the ability of Rhode Island organizations, movement advocates, community leaders, and other individuals to make real progress on climate justice. Offering up bills and proposals that are nearly unreadable and wildly impractical, while attacking the people actually moving important bills through the legislature makes me think that at least some of their work is being performed as a front group on behalf of the fossil fuel interests that fund them. These are actions taken right out of the right wing playbook in American politics. 

The strangeness of campaign finance law in America often leads people to try new forms of organizations and innovations in how campaigns are funded. I have had to innovate on occasion myself as noted above.  But the proper way to innovate is with even more transparency than is called for – not by hiding the source of donations or improperly using grant funding to support political work. Such unscrupulous behavior leads to a misinformed electorate, giving rise to leaders who neglect facts and misrepresent the real needs of people, particularly those who have been left behind for far too long. This type of public interest malpractice holds communities back and would lead anyone to question their true motives.

There is only so much individuals can do to hold campaigns to the standards we want all campaigns to meet.  However, based on a combination of documentation, activities, and campaign finance reporting that has come to light, it appears that these groups are meeting neither the letter nor the spirit of the law.  If Matt Brown, the RI Political Cooperative, and Renew insist that they are complying with the law, I hope they let the sunshine in and practice transparency both in their documentation and in their campaign finance reports. At the current moment, neither the Political Cooperative nor Renew have filed campaign finance reports, which reminds me all too much of my former City Councilperson.  If it turns out that their activities do not meet the standards that progressives should expect and uphold, I hope they will examine their actions, comprehend where they went wrong, and resolve to correct their course. Transparency and accountability are especially vital today, as right wing-style misinformation and shadowy front organizations threaten the very foundations of our democracy.