In June 2014, veteran Washington, D.C., consultant Richard Berman gave a roomful of oil and gas industry executives in Colorado Springs a peek inside his political playbook. The speech, secretly captured at a Western Energy Alliance-sponsored event and later leaked to the New York Times, concluded with Berman boasting about how he kept secret the identities of those who supported his efforts to undermine labor groups, environmental groups and others.
“We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors,” Berman said. “There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us.”
Now, a report by one of Berman’s groups is behind a request made last week by the Ravalli County Commission that Attorney General Tim Fox investigate five Montana-based environmental nonprofits over an alleged lack of transparency regarding the sources of their funding.
The eight-page report that spurred the commission’s action accuses the Montana Wilderness Association and Montana Wildlife Federation, among others, of accepting millions from a “cabal” of wealthy out-of-state environmentalists to push a hands-off agenda on public lands. The report was produced this year by Green Decoys, a project of the D.C.-based Environmental Policy Alliance, which is a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education (CORE). Berman is president and executive director of CORE.
The Green Decoys report was submitted to the Ravalli County Commission in early July by Keith Kubista, who is listed as an advisory board member for the Montana Outdoors Coalition. (Other board members include state Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, and Terry Anderson, past president of the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center). The commission included a copy of the report with its letter to Fox. Commissioner Jeff Burrows says he wasn’t previously familiar with Green Decoys, but is looking into the group and believes that all nonprofits should be held to the same transparency standards, regardless of their political leanings.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott, who drafted the letter, says he also was unfamiliar with Green Decoys. He says every Montanan should try to understand the motives behind money spent to influence policy, especially on public lands. Asked if Green Decoys should be similarly investigated, Chilcott draws a distinction between the report and the activity of the nonprofits it targets. “The report that I looked at from Green Decoys is not asking for a policy position on anything.”
MWF Executive Director Dave Chadwick says he was “baffled” by the commission’s letter, particularly in light of his organization’s diligence in reporting its political spending to the state. MWA Deputy Executive Director Gabe Furshong notes that MWA lists the names of donors willing to waive their anonymity in its annual reports. All the MWA donors that Green Decoys claims are “cloaking their efforts” are listed in those reports.
“It’s D.C. money attacking Montana organizations,” Furshong says. “It’s sad and embarrassing to see elected officials in Ravalli County leaning on this type of smear campaign.”