How Does Spending Millions on Political Activities Help Clean Up Rivers & Streams?…It Doesn’t

The expansion of the Sierra Club and other “green” groups in terms of their direct spending on elections is dramatic. In 1994, total “green” spending on elections was shy of $2 million dollars, according to OpenSecrets.org.  This trend actually went downward for several cycles, then inched back up, and only took a noticeable jump in 2004, when “greens” spent about $3.4 million. But even this was a relatively modest bump compared to what has happened in the past few cycles. In 2008, spending was clearly going up relatively to previous cycles, reaching about $5.5 million, and a slight down-tick for the 2010 mid-terms, which yielded about $5 million in election spending. Yet nothing matched the dramatic increase that came next.

The 2012 Presidential election cycle saw a record $17 million spent by “green” environmental groups. This amounted to more than triple what they had spent in the previous election cycle. But what was truly shocking was just how much was spend in the 2014 mid-terms. Historically, spending would go down during a mid-term election. Instead, it skyrocketed to about $85 million dollars, a five-fold increase.  To put this massive number in perspective, the defense industry spent just shy of $24 million dollars in 2014. Indeed, the “green” groups expenditure nearly matches the amount of money spent by all of the players in the energy/natural resources industries combined, which is roughly $96 million.

One of the Sierra Club’s biggest contributions to the green movement’s political force is engaging at the grassroots level.  Since the Sierra Club local organizations, like labor unions, are free to electioneer, the national leadership has applied top-down mandates on their local clubs – mandates that were directly coordinated with “Obama campaign staff,” during the 2012 election, according to a Sierra Club document.  The Sierra Club recruited more than 12,000 of its members to join Environmentalists for Obama, to participate in “Get Out the Vote” shifts on Election Day, and to plug into the Obama campaign’s dashboard, making over 30,000 phone calls in the final two weeks before the election. During the summer, Sierra Club deployed 328 leaders in nine important states, spending the summer and early fall building grassroots support for the president. The Sierra Club, alone, deployed 66 staff to work on 53 contests. Their staff trained 350 volunteer team leaders and mobilized more than 3,300 of members to go door to door or make phone calls, providing personalized contact in the final critical days of the election. For the first time ever, the Sierra Club also shut its doors across the nation on Election Day to provide all staff the opportunity to volunteer with Obama for America or another competitive federal or local race in their areas.

Claiming that grass-roots organizing is their specialty, the Sierra Club operated like a political party, not relying exclusively on the ground game, but putting money into media outlets to advertise for propositions they helped get onto the ballot. In Michigan, they backed a renewable energy ballot initiative – one that would increase the cost of electricity with no concomitant improvement in electrical reliability or service. The Club deployed four additional full-time staff, two online and media staff, and a portion of time from field organizers around the country.  In so doing, they completed 66% of all voter conversations through the coalition predictive dialer, composed 64% of the online rapid responders, supplied more than 30% of the volunteer poll greeters on Election Day, and recruited 23% of the businesses and grasstops endorsements. Despite this effort and a “sizable direct contribution” of funds to support this campaign, the proposition failed.  One has to ask, what could that money and local organizing have done to forward the foundational principles of John Muir – could they have accomplished actual environmental improvement and preservation of unique places.

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Can Non-Profits Spend Money on Elections?!

On September 18, 2014, the Sierra Club announced that its Super PAC, the Sierra Club Independent Action, “bought nearly $1 million worth of television airtime in Iowa, in a strong push to defeat Republican State Senator Joni Ernst.” This comes on the heals of a $1 million ad buy over the summer targeting Ernst by a coalition of leftist groups that included yet another Sierra Club entity, the Sierra Club Political Committee, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Earlier in 2014, a similar coalition of leftist green groups also teamed-up to support U.S. Senator Kay Hagen of North Carolina, and Congressman Gary Peters, who ran for U.S. Senate in Michigan. According to the Wall Street Journal, several “green groups including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sustainable Business Council Action Fund, will pay for $2.5 million in TV and digital issue ads supporting embattled Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and Senate candidates Rep. Gary Peters of Michigan.”

In its August 31, 2014 Federal Election Committee disclosure, the Sierra Club Independent Action Super PAC reported raising only $23,451.88 since January 1, 2014, and the group had less than $50,000 Cash on Hand. How did the Sierra Club Independent Action come up with a $1 million a couple of weeks later for a smear ad in a key U.S. Senate race?

The answer may lie in the Sierra Club Independent Action’s 2012 campaign cycle actions. In that cycle, the Sierra Club contributed a total of $700,000 in cash to its Super PAC, $640,000 of this coming in one lump sum on September 30, 2012, according to their FEC disclosure filings. Its total individual contributions for the entire 2012 cycle was $1,220,969, meaning that 57% of the Super PAC’s total receipts came from the Sierra Club itself, and 52% of the total for the entire cycle was transferred from the Sierra Club to its Super PAC within weeks of the November 2012 elections.

On October 2, 2014, E&E Legal sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) asking the FEC to investigate potential federal financial disclosure violations by the Sierra Club in the wake of their recent $1 million ad buy aimed at smearing and defeating Republican State Senator Joni Ernst in her bid for the U.S. Senate.

“The heart of the issue is that the Sierra Club, through its 501 (c) (3) and/or its 501 (c) (4), is raising money and hiding the identity of its donors, and then at least in 2012, within weeks of a critical election, making a huge transfer of money to its Super PAC to try to influence the results of the elections,” said E&E Legal General Counsel David W. Schnare. “While we don’t yet know where the Sierra Club came up with the additional $950,000 for their latest ad buy in Iowa, it’s likely some of this came from the Sierra Club itself. This is a clear violation of donor disclosure laws since the net effect is to hide the identify of individual donors through the use of the Sierra Club non-profit groups, and we have asked the FEC Chair to investigate this matter.”

Schnare also pointed to the hypocrisy of the Sierra Club attacking other groups involved in elections for not disclosing their donors when they are doing the exact same thing. In July of 2012, as the United States Senate considered a bill (DISCLOSE Act) that would potentially shine more light on groups spending money to influence elections, the Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, “It’s…no secret that our nation’s political discourse has hit an all-time low while the mud-slinging and flat out lies are at an all-time high…That’s why the Sierra Club supports the DISCLOSE Act, which is aimed at establishing transparency in election spending and money in politics.”

“I’m sure we can all sleep better knowing the Sierra Club, which has covertly spent millions of dollars trying influence key races, whose high priced Washington and state-level lobbyists help steer policies that personally benefit its directors, and which has made a killing off of green marketing schemes, is leading the charge for greater transparency and accountability in our political and democratic process,” said Craig Richardson, E&E Legal’s Executive Director. “This is the epitome of hypocrisy and it’s exactly why so many people today are turned off by Washington, and its approach to politics and policy making,” he added

 Sierra Club′s Attack ad on Now Senator Joni Ernst

Sierra Club′s Attack ad on Now Senator Joni Ernst