Daily Archives: April 20, 2015

It’s time for an outside probe of our Eternal General

Brady Toensing, D.C. attorney and vice chair of the VTGOP, has sometimes operated as the political equivalent of an ambulance chaser — taking legal actions with an obvious partisan motive. He comes by it honestly; his mother and stepdad are notorious conservative attack dogs.

But this time, I’m with him 100%. Toensing has sent a letter to Eternal General Bill Sorrell, asking him to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Sorrell’s campaign activities.

SorrellRehabThis is the second time Toensing has made this request. The first was in October 2012, in the midst of the election campaign — which was reason enough to dismiss it as a partisan stunt. But now, the time has come. There’s enough smoke around Sorrell’s campaign activities to warrant an objective fireman. Especially since Vermont’s campaign finance law makes Bill Sorrell the sole judge and arbiter of whether Bill Sorrell has violated the law. Which Bill Sorrell assures us is not the case. Indeed, he has already rejected Toensing’s request, insisting again that he’s done nothing wrong. We just have to take his word for it, I guess.

This stinks, and if any situation required an outside probe, it’s this one.

Toensing cites four allegations:

— “Coordinated expenditures” in the hotly-contested 2012 primary. Sorrell received a late blast of money (200 G’s) from the Democratic Attorneys General Association (by way of a third party superPAC). As Toensing’s letter says: “This record-setting expenditure was controlled and directed by former Governor Howard Dean, who, at the same time, was an active, high-level agent of your campaign.”

That money was almost certainly the deciding factor in Sorrell’s whisker-thin victory over TJ Donovan. And as Toensing notes in his complaint, one month before the primary, Sorrell “revers[ed] his office policy to allow PACS to accept contributions in excess of the state limit of $2000 and still make unlimited campaign expenditures in Vermont. This action cleared the way for the unprecedented expenditures made on General Sorrell’s behalf during the primary.”

— Failure to comply with campaign finance disclosure laws mandating that a candidate report “each expenditure listed by amount, date, to whom paid, for what purpose.” As Paul Heintz has reported, Sorrell’s reports for personal-expense reimbursement have included numerous vague and incomplete entries.

— A joint appearance with Dean Corren, candidate for Lieutenant Governor, on September 15, 2014. While Sorrell has aggressively pursued Corren for accepting an email blast from the Vermont Democratic Party, he has denied any wrongdoing in his appearance with Corren. He has, in fact, claimed that the appearance was not a campaign event — which is laughable to the point of bitter tears.

— Sorrell has routinely given state business to outside law firms that have contributed heavily to his re-election campaigns. Sorrell denies any quid pro quo, but Toensing cites legal precedent that indicates “In cases involving government officials, a jury can infer guilt from evidence of benefits received and subsequent favorable treatment.”

By that standard, Sorrell’s own denials are clearly inadequate. Given his refusal to investigate himself, as Toensing says, “the appointment of an independent counsel is necessary to restore and maintain the integrity of your office.”

I fully expect Bill Sorrell to refuse this very reasonable request for an objective probe of Bill Sorrell. At that point, we will turn to other Democratic officeholders for leadership. Governor Shumlin has repeatedly ducked questions about Sorrell’s activities, while Secretary of State Jim Condos has said his office lacks the standing to investigate.

Well, standing or no, Shumlin and Condos have their bully pulpits. It’s time to put them to use. They don’t have to throw Sorrell under the bus; all they have to do is say “There are questions that deserve answers, and the only way to restore public trust is through an independent counsel.”

Heck, if they want to, they can even throw in a gratuitous “I’m sure the investigation will show that General Sorrell acted properly.” The important thing is, it’s time to put the heat to Sorrell’s backside and get answers to all of these questions.

Governor? Mr. Secretary? Mr. Speaker? Mr. Pro Tem? We’re waiting.

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Ethan Allen Institute: Follow the Money

Back on March 25, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee held a public hearing on S.R.7, the “climate change resolution.” The only witness who stood in opposition was Vermont’s favorite crank, John McClaughry, founder and former President (now Vice President) of the Ethan Allen Institute.

You're being watched, Mr. McClaughry.

You’re being watched, Mr. McClaughry.

During his testimony, he said S.R.7 was part of a campaign by national climate advocacy groups “to put the skeptics on the defensive” and serve as a fundraising tool. By passing this resolution, he said, the Legislature would act as a “pawn” of those national groups.

Okay, well, since he brought up the idea of a national campaign and national organizations influencing Vermont politics, resolution sponsor Sen. Brian Campion asked him about the Ethan Allen Inistitute’s ties to the Koch brothers and their national network. McClaughry acknowledged a $50,000 grant from the Cato Institute “six years ago,” and he noted Cato’s ties to the Kochs. But otherwise?

I have never been aware that we got any money from the Koch Brothers or the Koch Foundation or Koch Industries, anything like that. And I’ve never had communication from any of those people urging me to, or urging our organization to fight against the climate change advocates. Never.

He went on to deny receiving funds from the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization with strong ties to the Kochs. SPN provides guidance and funding to free-market “think tanks” in each of the 50 states.

There’s a small problem and a big problem with McClaughry’s professions of independence.

The small problem: According to IRS filings, SPN gave EAI $24,930 in 2013.

I’ve been told, second-hand, that McClaughry later wrote to Campion apologizing for his misstatement. If I find out more about that, I’ll let you know.

That kinda-sorta takes care of the small problem. But it fails to address the big problem, which is:

Between 1998 and 2013, EAI received at least $572,260 from out-of-state donors with ties to the Koch brothers’ sprawling network of right-wing foundations. This network is designed to limit public disclosure and provide tax breaks for “charitable donations” that promote the political interests of wealthy conservatives. The network is also designed to give donors plausible deniability by laundering their donations while still giving them control over how their money is used.

Over the past ten years, EAI’s annual revenues have fluctuated between $132,000 and $201,000. So $572,280 is a whole lot of money by EAI standards.

My figures come from Conservative Transparency, a database that ” tracks the flow of money among conservative donors, advocacy groups, political committees, and candidates.”

It’s likely that EAI has received even more money from national conservative organizations, but legal disclosure standards are woefully weak. From the Conservative Transparency website:

Although most nonprofit organizations are required by law to report their outgoing grants to the Internal Revenue Service, they do not have to disclose the sources of their funding. As a result, the transactions in Conservative Transparency are based on information reported by the donors and exclude “dark money” raised by the recipients from unknown donors that are not in the database. The totals in each recipient’s “financial record” are based on a review of the recipient’s publicly available tax documents filed with the IRS.

CT lists 36 donations to EAI from out-of-state conservative groups between 1998 and 2013 (the most recent year for which filings are available), totaling $572,280. A lot of that money came, indirectly, from the Kochs, their organizations, and their fellow members of this broad conservative network.

These donations came from a handful of national foundations, all with strong alliances to the Kochs and their nonprofit empire. This network is designed to provide an appearance of independence, but there’s no doubt that the Ethan Allen Institute is in the Kochs’ orbit.

Here’s a list of EAI benefactors, with dollar figures from Conservative Transparency and descriptions from Sourcewatch.org.

Donors Capital Fund: $298,500. DCF and a related entity, DonorsTrust, “create separate accounts for individual donors, and the donors then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different non-profits. They cloak the identity of the original mystery donors because the funds are then distributed in the name of DT or DCF.

“The Koch brothers and other ultra-wealthy industrial ideologues appear to be cloaking an untold amount of their donations to conservative political outlets through DT and DCF.” One of Charles Koch’s big funds has given “only to Donors Capital Fund since 2005.”

The modus operandi of DCF provides plausible deniability to EAI and other recipients; they can assert with a straight face that they don’t get money from the Kochs. But they do benefit from the largesse of a money-laundering operation created by, and generously funded by, the Kochs.

The Roe Foundation: $95,000. Private foundation started by the late Thomas Roe, former chairman of the State Policy Network, a key cog in the Koch machine. (See below.) His foundation “continues to provide financial support to free-market policy groups across the country.”

The Jaquelin Hume Foundation. $63,000. The Foundation “‘supports free-market solutions to education reform’ and funds many conservative and libertarian organizations.” It has strong ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network.

The Cato Institute: $50,000. A “libertarian think tank founded by Charles Koch and funded by the Koch brothers.” Over the years, “the Koch family has donated more than $30 million to the organization.”

The State Policy Network. $24,930. SPN “has franchised, funded, and fostered… a web of right-wing ‘think tanks’ in every state across the country. It is an $83 million right-wing empire as of the 2011 funding documents from SPN itself and each of its state ‘think tank’ members.” SPN had its origins in the 1980s, but dramatically stepped up its activities in 1998.

“Fueled by robust funding from right-wing funders including the Koch brothers… SPN has grown rapidly in recent years. There were 12 original think tanks when SPN was founded. In 2013, there were 64 SPN member think tanks in all 50 states.”

Although SPN insists its members are “fiercely independent,” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has reported that SPN head Tracie Sharp “compared the organization’s model to that of IKEA.” Like IKEA, SPN “would provide the raw materials along with the services needed to assemble the products. …’Pick what you need,’ she said, ‘and customize it for what works best for you.’

“…  Sharp ‘also acknowledged privately that the organization’s often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda. ‘The grants are driven by donor intent’ ..  [and] often ‘the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.'”

The Chase Foundation of Virginia. $24,830. “the private foundation of investor Derwood Chase.” It gave nearly $900,000 to right-wing groups in 2011 alone. Its beneficiaries have included many of SPN’s state-based organizations.

The JM Foundation. $15,000. According to its own website, it was created by Jeremiah Milbank, who “was an ardent believer in individual liberty, limited government, and free markets.” It lists its top activity as “supporting education and research that fosters market-based policy solutions, especially at state think tanks.” Like, for instance, the Ethan Allen Institute and its SPN cohorts.

That’s it. The Ethan Allen Institute may be able to deny knowingly receiving money from the Kochs, but there’s no doubt that it is significantly dependent on out-of-state “foundations” with very strong Koch ties, and with Koch dollars providing much of their lifeblood.

Last time I wrote about EAI, I mentioned a Tweet that accused me of lying about its ties to the Kochs. I expect I’ll get an apology about the time Hell freezes over.