Park Foundation Political Spending Doesn’t Fit Their Charter
Recently, the River Reporter, a notoriously anti-natural gas publication but, I hasten to add, a newspaper that has always been fair to me, ran an editorial challenging our raising of the Park Foundation’s influence on the natural gas debate. They laid out their case nicely, but missed the point completely when they said “The Park Foundation Conspiracy, in the end, boils down to nothing more than the fact that the Park Foundation funds opponents of hydro-fracking, while EID supports hydro-fracking.”
Anyone with a background in non-profits knows their are different types of non-profits under the law. Some are charities, some are business organizations and some are political organizations. While there is always some overlap, a charity cannot engage in significant political activity, which is exactly what occurs when the Park Foundation “funds opponents of hydro-fracking.” It’s not a small point and charities violating this prohibition run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. Yet, the Park Foundation proceeds merrily along, getting the plaudits of its allies in the cause who seem not to care about the proper role of a non-profit that gets to earn and spend money on the pet causes of its funders without paying taxes on any of it.
Here’s how I responded to the editorial:
Your May 31 editorial about the role of the Park Foundation misses the point, perhaps deliberately. The Park Foundation doesn’t just “fund opponents of hydro-fracking,” as you suggest. No, its influence is pervasive.
It funds hack studies such as the Howarth report that has been excoriated by other Cornell scientists and the Cristopherson and Myers report that are so weak as to be laughable.
Then it funds the anti-gas organizations, everyone from the Environmental Working Group to Catskill Mountainkeeper, that use these “studies” as leverage for campaigns.
Then it funds groups such Earth Justice to sue using the questionable data. Then it funds media such as Trailer Talk and the DC Bureau to report on it all. Then it funds Common Cause who attacks gas companies for using their influence, which returns the favor by giving the Park Foundation principals awards for their service.
Additionally, it funds not only “Gasland,” but also Duke University (you’ll remember that very selective study), the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a profoundly radical group, and the Community Environmental Defense Council (CEDC), which actually tried bullying an Upper Delaware businessman, who only expressed his opinion, with a “lawyer up, big guy” threat.
The Park Foundation is creating the issues, using them to sue and then reporting on the results. They have every right to do all those things, but not in the guise of a non-profit corporation, the public purpose of which is not politics, but charity. Funding opponents of natural gas is not a legitimate function of a 501(c)(3) organization. That is the issue, plain and simple. Let them declare themselves a 501(c)(4) organization if that’s what they wish to do, but they shouldn’t be parading around as a charity when they’re really doing politics.
I am rather amazed at the reaction on the anti-gas side to my post about the Park Foundation principals. Clearly, it touched a nerve. Yet, all I did was point out the truth. No one has claimed any errors in my reporting. They just resent me bringing out some inconvenient facts, including not only the multi-faceted role of the foundation in the politics of natural gas, but also the stunning hypocrisy of some trust-funders who want the rest of us to live more simply and not develop our natural gas resources while they concurrently heat with gas and attack it.
I am not terribly impressed by such complaints, having been regularly called a shill for the industry, even though I had the exact same opinions before working with the industry and even expressed them on these pages. Likewise, I have no particular sympathy for others who make or have made their living elsewhere and profess to be the conscience of our area. I was born here and my family has been here since the 1700s, so I don’t accept the idea we need groups such as the Park Foundation or the myriad Rockefeller spin-offs (e.g., NRDC) to tell us how to either develop or protect our natural resources.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Who decides? What is appalling to me is that the Park Foundation and the National Resource Defense Council have no interest whatsoever in the fate of people who actually have to make a living in the area. They would shut us out completely. We are mere collateral damage to them and when I see them bending the rules of non-profits to insert themselves into every aspect of a political battle, I intend to speak out. It’s the American way.
Readers of this blog will be interested to know the IRS rules on this subject, which are summarized by that agency as follows:
To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.
Pretty clear, isn’t it? Is there any doubt the Park Foundation, a supposed charity that spends millions on advocacy and funds the CEDC (another non-profit registered as a charity) that actually drafts legislation for towns, is trying to “influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities” with its program? Even worse, Common Cause, a supposed watchdog over propriety in politics, gave the Park Foundation an award described as follows:
Adelaide Park Gomer, president of the Park Foundation based in Ithaca, New York, received the Advocacy Award from Common Cause for her work fighting fracking.
So, let me get this correct – they got an Advocacy Award from an organization they fund for “work fighting fracking” but they’re a charity that doesn’t do political influence. Oh, yeah, that makes complete sense, doesn’t it? Well, only if you live by the “let them eat cake” rules of New York’s high society. Can’t we just bring back Leona Helmsley? She was, at least, forthright in expressing her elitist views when she said “only little people pay taxes.” The Park Foundation … well, less so, unless, of course, you count the large salaries the Park Foundation pays family members (over $1.5 million for 2001–2002 combined), which one presumes they did pay taxes on. But the earnings on that $315 million kitty they use to “fight fracking” – not so much.
That’s pretty much the way it is with the Park Foundation – perhaps the nation’s worst NIMBY group. They have their hands in everything; creating, funding, reporting and leveraging natural gas issues for the sake of keeping it out their own backyard, regardless of the impact on their neighbors. And, when all is said and done, they fund a supposedly non-partisan, but actually highly partisan, group to give themselves an award for their sterling sense of giving and political activity that we’re supposed to believe is non-political. What a wacky world!