Fossil Fuels’ Fishy New Friends

How public affairs firms engineered a “grass-roots” group defending oil and coal investments.

James Short, a retired deputy fire chief, is the founder of an organization called Protect Our Pensions. At least that’s what it says on the group’s website.

But ask Short about his role at Protect Our Pensions, formed last year to oppose efforts to push endowments, foundations and pension funds to divest their holdings in fossil-fuel companies, and he has a different take.

Standing in the doorway of a brick bungalow in southeast Washington, D.C., in August, a Cadillac with the license plate “Short 1” parked outside, he refused to answer questions before shutting the door. A follow-up call elicited this response: “That is not me. I do not know who is putting those blogs out.”

Students protest investment in fossil-fuel companies at the University of California at Berkeley on Nov. 18, 2014.
Photographer: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa/AP

Protect Our Pensions isn’t what it appears to be. While Short’s name and those of other coalition members show up on letters to state legislators and opinion pieces, much of the writing is actually done by public affairs firms operating in the shadows, according to documents and emails obtained by Bloomberg News. Instead of an active group of public servants and pensioners eager to discuss an important issue, most of the 41 people listed on the website didn’t respond to emails and phone calls. Some said they were proud to support the cause, but a few couldn’t remember signing up.

“The disturbing thing about this is they pretend to be organic, like it’s just this one firefighter who started it,” said Jim Griffith, a city council member in Sunnyvale, California, who rejected a recent request to join the group. “But it’s not.”

Grass-roots lobbying—the creation of groups of ordinary citizens to advocate for causes—has been around for decades. But when corporations hide their involvement or recruit members indifferent to the issue, tactics known as astroturfing, it can provide an appearance of public support that doesn’t actually exist.

The internet only makes such subterfuge easier. Anyone can set up a website and launch a social-media campaign while disguising who’s behind it. As Congress and federal investigators probe how such tactics helped spread disinformation during the last U.S. presidential election, Protect Our Pensions shows how similar strategies can be used to create an artificial veneer of public support for policies that stand to benefit corporations.

“These campaigns generate a series of problems regarding how political leaders and members of the mass public interact,” said Edward Walker, a University of California at Los Angeles sociology professor who wrote a book about the grass-roots lobbying industry in 2014. “When industry groups or wealthy donors masquerade this way, it allows policymakers to take actions that primarily support the well-heeled patrons funding the effort.”

Protect Our Pensions sprang to life in March 2016 as institutional investors, including university endowments and pension plans, debated cutting ties with fossil-fuel companies because of the industry’s role in climate change and its decades-long efforts to cloud the public’s understanding of the issue. More than 800 institutions have agreed to at least a partial divestment, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund and Syracuse University.

The oil industry was already opposing divestment, funding studies that showed financial peril for investment portfolios that removed oil and coal stocks. The industry also runs websites that offer its views and clearly disclose its backing.

Protect Our Pensions brought a new, sympathetic voice to the debate: longtime public servants worried about their retirement nest eggs. The group’s first piece, published in the Detroit News under the names of Short and Yolanda Hudson, a retired Detroit science teacher, urged officials to “quit using pensions as political pawns” because “the welfare of too many retirees is on the line.”

James Short.
Source: Facebook

Hudson, who now works as a yoga instructor, didn’t respond to phone calls, emails or a message delivered to her yoga studio. The Detroit News says it has no record of who submitted the article.

The funders behind Protect Our Pensions remain concealed. Six fossil-fuel companies and industry associations, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and the American Petroleum Institute, said they’ve played no role.

But there are clues pointing to the involvement of DCI Group LLC, a Washington public affairs firm known for its work with the energy industry and for building grass-roots coalitions that sometimes obscure their funders.

The group’s website, www.helpprotectourpensions.org, is linked to the same internet protocol address as DCI’s corporate website, according to reverse IP lookup tools. Shared IP addresses can sometimes be a coincidence, but of the 11 other sites connected to that address, at least eight are for coalitions or projects related to DCI clients.

There’s also this: Some of the earliest Protect Our Pensions blog posts have web addresses that contain a string of random Latin words. It’s common practice for publishers and website developers to use such strings as placeholders as they design pages. But the combination of words used by Protect Our Pensions, such as “proin in nulla condimentum diam mattis posuere,” are extremely rare. Google, which trawls hundreds of billions of web pages, shows this exact phrase appears on only one other website–BuyingBias.org, which DCI helped develop, according to a former DCI employee familiar with the operation.

Craig Stevens, vice president of media affairs at DCI, declined in an email to either confirm or deny that his company did work on behalf of Protect Our Pensions. But he said linking the campaign to DCI through its IP address “seems like conjecture.” He also said DCI “would never work with someone without their express agreement” and offered a general defense of the work his and other public affairs firms do.

“Our democracy is stronger,” Stevens said, “when citizens act and inform the government of how legislation, regulations, or judicial rulings impact Americans’ lives and provide policymakers with ways—if necessary—to improve them.”

For a typical grass-roots coalition, a national firm like DCI will manage the contract and hire regional public affairs specialists to recruit members and place op-eds in newspapers. For Protect Our Pensions, much of the group’s work has been carried out by two such firms—FSB Core Strategies in Sacramento, California, and Mac Strategies Group Inc. in Chicago—both of which have worked with DCI in the past.

DCI’s Stevens said his firm works with hundreds of professionals around the world but that he couldn’t comment on any specific clients, projects or tactics.

FSB, located a few blocks down a leafy lane from California’s domed state capitol, touts on its website the importance for corporations to build grass-roots coalitions: In “political arenas, strength in numbers isn’t just a goal. Many times it’s the difference between success and failure.”

Around the time Protect Our Pensions’ Facebook page and website were going live, FSB was hunting for members.

“I am working with Protect Our Pensions, a coalition led by Retired Deputy Fire Chief James Short, with the Washington, D.C., Fire Department,” wrote Jerry Amante, FSB’s senior vice president and general counsel, in one typical pitch to a California mayor obtained through a public-records request. “The national coalition is currently working on putting together a group here in California that is concerned about the potential harmful impact/consequences of politicizing pensions.”

FSB Chief Executive Officer Jeff Flint said in an email that everyone it recruited for the group believes in its cause. “We’re proud of the work we do in getting citizens engaged in discussions on important issues,” Flint said. “That’s democracy and their participation is a good thing.” He declined to answer questions about who was funding Protect Our Pensions or whether DCI was involved.

Meanwhile, as the divestment campaign was picking up momentum in Chicago, Protect Our Pensions was cultivating a number of supporters there. One was Shalom Klein, who hosts a radio show called “Get Down to Business with Shalom Klein” and is the founder of a group called Jewish B2B Networking. “You might say he was born to schmooze,” his father, Moshe Klein, once said.

When Bloomberg first spoke with Shalom Klein in August, he said he’d grown concerned about divestment after hearing about it from some friends in academia, and that the phenomenon troubled him as a small businessman. “Social statement aside, it’s a bad business move,” he said.

Months later, he acknowledged in an email that he had been hired by Mac Strategies to recruit Protect Our Pensions coalition members. Several of those he signed up have close ties to Klein, including his mother-in-law and a former employee of his father’s accounting firm. Three other Chicago-area members said they couldn’t recall signing up.

“What exactly does the organization do or support?” asked one of them, Jason Rockhold, who has worked with Klein at a nursing-home company. Another, Marc Brown, a former trustee of West Deerfield Township in Illinois, was so perplexed when contacted by Bloomberg that he stopped by Mac’s office in Chicago for more details.

Ryan McLaughlin, CEO of Mac Strategies, said in an email that his firm “was engaged to build a grass-roots coalition in Illinois of like-minded stakeholders who oppose the politicization of public pension investments.” He said every person his company recruited willingly signed up and agreed with the mission, but he declined to comment about the source of Protect Our Pensions’ funding or whether DCI was involved.

Despite the obfuscation, Protect Our Pensions has had little trouble getting its op-eds published. The coalition’s most prolific author has been Carlos Solorzano, CEO of the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce of San Francisco, whose articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner have urged state officials to fight fossil-fuel divestment bills.

Supporters of a bill to stop New York state pensions from investing in fossil-fuel companies protest in Albany on May 8, 2017.
Photographer: Hans Pennink/AP Photo

After half a dozen attempts to reach Solorzano, he replied in September in a terse email, “Thanks anyway, I moved on from this issue.” A month later, another anti-divestment piece bearing his name was published in the online news site Fox & Hounds.
Many newspapers refuse to disclose who submits the op-eds they publish. But the San Francisco Examiner confirmed Solorzano’s piece was sent by FSB.

Often, these op-eds and letters to state legislators are written almost entirely by the public affairs firms. In January, according to correspondence obtained through a public-records request, FSB emailed Tim Shaw, mayor pro tem of La Habra, California, a draft of a piece the firm wanted to submit to Governing magazine in his name.

“We can edit some language or passages if it’s not quite reflective of your views in some places,” an FSB employee wrote. Shaw didn’t alter a word. “Looks great!” he replied. The article was published online a month later.

Shaw said he didn’t suggest any changes because he agreed with all the content and that he doesn’t know who is funding the coalition.

Mark Funkhouser, the publisher of Governing, said the article was submitted by FSB, and he understood there was a good chance it had corporate funding. But the magazine ran the article, he said, because the “arguments were a reasonable counter to the pro-divestment arguments.”

Brown, the former West Deerfield trustee who didn’t remember sending in a permission form, compared his Protect Our Pensions role to that of someone who signs a petition without paying attention to what the issue is. While he said he’s opposed to divestment, he’s still disturbed that no one will say who’s footing the bill.

Something, he said, “seems not kosher.” —With Jeff Green

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