Disguised dark money group trying to sabotage climate change legislation

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The people behind the bizarre non-profit trying to kill Biden’s climate agenda

Judd Legum Aug 8

This story is being published in partnership with FWIW, a newsletter tracking digital spending, strategy, and trends in our elections

For more than a week, a group called United for Clean Power has run an extensive online advertising campaign arguing the reconciliation package negotiated by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), which contains historic investments in clean energy, doesn’t go far enough. The ads, which have run on social networks like Facebook and at the top of prominent publications like Politico, urge progressive Democrats in Congress to “demand environmental justice or kill the reconciliation bill.”

While the legislation could go further, it provides $369 billion in funding to decarbonize the economy, making it “the single biggest climate investment in U.S. history, by far.” With Republicans favored to retake the House of Representatives in 2023, it may represent the last chance for significant legislative action to combat climate change for years. That is why the most aggressive climate advocacy groups, including the Sunrise Movement and EarthJustice, are urging Congress to approve it immediately.

Why would a group that purports to be dedicated to clean power oppose the largest investment the United States has ever made in clean power? A closer look at the group’s advertising campaign raises more questions. For example, this is an excerpt from the sponsor’s message that United for Clean Power included in numerous Politico newsletters: “The time to take action on planet-saving climate legislation is NOW. Demand true environmental justice from your Democrat colleagues or block the Reconciliation bill.” Saying “Democrat colleagues” rather than “Democratic colleagues” is an affectation of Republican political operatives, not climate activists.

Further, United for Clean Power’s one-page website features the message: “Tell Congress: No Reconciliation Without Comprehensive Climate Change.” As climate journalist Emily Atkin noted, this makes no sense.

Actual climate and clean energy advocates, including several from the Environmental Defense Fund, Climate Nexus, and Climate Power, have never heard of United for Clean Power. And the actual clean energy lobby, American Clean Power, denied any involvement with the group.

An in-depth investigation by Popular Information and FWIW reveals that United for Clean Power has extensive ties to a network of Republican operatives who use non-profit groups to manipulate issues. In multiple interviews, individuals associated with the group refused to speak candidly about United for Clean Power’s history or current operations.

The origins of United for Clean Power

United for Clean Power was founded in 2015 by Erin Cummings, a self-described “policy and management consultant” who currently works for the Department of Homeland Security. In an interview last week, Cummings said that she started the organization to “raise awareness about ballot initiatives” and promote “positive renewable energy policies.” But Cummings, the organization’s principal officer, never raised more than $50,000 annually to support the organization’s operations. Cummings said that by 2017 she concluded the organization was not picking up enough traction and decided to “step away” to pursue other professional opportunities.

Cummings, however, did not shut the organization down. Rather, she transferred the organization to someone else. Cummings explained that it was “harder to create” a non-profit than “just take one over.”

Cummings refused to disclose who took over the organization after she left. “I can’t give you any information,” Cummings said. “I just can’t help.” Cummings acknowledged that her refusal to answer “looked bad” and said that she was “not thrilled” she was being asked.

The only known donor to United for Clean Power during Cummings’ tenure is an organization called Freedom Frontier, which donated $41,000 in 2015. Freedom Frontier is not a climate advocacy group. It is a non-profit run by Republican operatives to funnel cash to right-wing politicians.

Freedom Frontier, for example, donated $250,000 in 2015 to a super PAC supporting Senator Lindsay Graham’s (R-SC) presidential campaign, Security is Strength PAC. According to the Form 990-N Freedom Frontier filed in 2015 with the IRS, the organization’s principal officer was Joel Riter.

Riter is a right-wing political operative who got his start in Ohio politics as an aide to former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel (R). A 2014 profile in the Cleveland Plain Dealer described Riter as a “Super PAC guru” who was “now setting up dark-money groups to help… conservative candidates and causes.”

Riter left his job with Mandel in June 2011, to work “with [Tom] Norris, a lobbyist and political consultant who runs Cap Square Solutions.” In 2012, Norris and Riter were linked  “to the mysterious Government Integrity Fund” a dark money group that spent $1.3 million on TV ads lauding Mandel, who was then running for U.S. Senate and attacking incumbent Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

In 2016, according to a report by the Missouri Ethics Commission, Freedom Frontier was the sole donor to LG PAC, contributing $4.4 million. The money was then used to run TV commercials attacking the opponents of Eric Greitens, a right-wing Republican who was then a candidate for Governor. The Greitens campaign created a list of potential donors “who either could not give, or elected not to give, directly,” and passed the list to Norris, who was working with Freedom Frontier. The Greitens campaign was fined $178,000 for improper coordination with LG PAC. (Greitens won but was forced to step down in 2018 following allegations of sexual assault and campaign finance violations.)

Cummings did not respond to text messages about the funds she received from Freedom Frontier and her relationship with Riter.

Who runs United for Clean Power now

Today, there is only one person formally associated with United for Clean Power, a man named Greg Finnerty, who is based in Columbus, Ohio. Cummings said she did not know Finnerty, who has previously donated to Democrats and Republicans, but that any questions about the organization should be directed to him.

Finnerty declined to speak with Popular Information and FWIW over the phone but said he was available to answer via text. Asked who was involved with United for Clean Power’s current activities, Finnerty did not answer directly but said that he was the “sole director.” Finnerty said that the purpose of the organization was “to highlight the irresponsible environmental policies and climate change denying ways of my home state [Ohio].” He described himself as “a bit player in this game trying to hit singles.”

Notably, Finnerty said “my state and others must wake up to the damage being done to the peril of future generations by inaction,” and the “Schumer Manchin bill may be a good start.” This directly contradicts the public messaging of United for Clean Power. A recent United for Clean Power post on Facebook, for example, describes the bill as “NOT GOOD ENOUGH” and urged Democrats to “go back to the table and demand true climate change action in the Reconciliation package or block its passage altogether.”

Finnerty did not respond to texts about how he obtained control of the organization from Cummings or his relationship with Riter and Norris.

Public records, however, show that Finnerty has extensive connections to Riter and Norris. Finnerty is the registered agent for CAP Square Solutions, the lobbying firm run by Norris that Riter joined in 2011. In a March 2022 donation to Congressman Frank Lucas (R-OK), Riter lists his current employer as Clark Fork Group, a “public affairs” firm that engages in “independent expenditures” and “issue management.” Who incorporated Clark Fork Group? Finnerty. Freedom Frontier made large payments to both CAP Square Solutions ($120,900) and Clark Fork Group ($345,000).

Since Finnerty replaced Cummings as director, United for Clean Power has been much more successful raising money, bringing in more than $200,000 annually. And the organization has engaged in a range of political activities unrelated to climate or clean power. In 2018, United for Clean Power sent direct mail attacking a Republican member of the Ohio House who was pushing payday lending reform legislation. The group purchased pop-up ads on right-wing websites including Breitbart and the Daily Caller. In 2018, United for Clean Power paid $135,000 to a Republican ad firm, Majority Strategies. At least six other groups linked to Riter have contracted with Majority Strategies for consulting services in the past. Majority Strategies did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In 2020, United for Clean Power bought YouTube ads in support of Shauleen Higgins, a Green Party candidate running for Oregon Senate. Higgins received just 4% of the vote, but it was enough to tip the race to the Republican candidate.

Reader beware

Since July 30, United for Clean Power has spent over $44,300 on Google and at least $32,700 on Facebook for ads seeking to derail the reconciliation package. They have sponsored Politico’s New York Playbook newsletter, which costs $20,000 per week and also sponsored Politico’s national Nightly newsletter. For several days last week, the group purchased a full takeover of the Politico homepage — a placement that, as of 2020, cost upwards of $150,000 per day. The group has used other digital outreach channels too, including SMS, to reach voters with similar messaging.

Finnerty did not respond to questions about the sources of United for Clean Power’s funding.

Regardless of how they are financed, the ads deceptively present United for Clean Power as a group deeply committed to combating climate change. Politico Vice President for Communications Brad Dayspring did not return a request for comment.

As the Senate passed the historic reconciliation measure over the weekend, all eyes now turn to the House of Representatives, where the bill is scheduled for a vote this week. As of Sunday, United for Clean Power’s campaign urging progressive members of the House to reject the bill was ongoing.

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