Sierra Club Facing Investigations

Published October 24, 2014

Sierra Club Facing Investigations

By H. Sterling Burnett

The Energy and Environment Legal Institute, a non-profit using litigation to correct onerous federal and state governmental actions that negatively impact energy and the environment, has requested multiple investigations into the Sierra Club. The filings have put the Sierra Club on the defensive.

Violating Election Laws?

In one action, EELI has requested the Federal Election Commission investigate the Sierra Club for potential federal and state financial disclosure violations. The Sierra Club recently bought $1 million in ads opposing Iowa Republican State Sen. Joni Ernst in her bid for the U.S. Senate. In conjunction with other liberal activists groups, the Sierra Club also bought ads supporting Democratic Senate candidates Kay Hagen in North Carolina and Gary Peters in Michigan.

The EELI complaint says the source of the funding for the ads violates campaign finance laws. EELI legal counsel David Schnare said, “According to Federal Election Committee disclosures, the Sierra Club’s Super PAC had $50,000 in cash at the beginning of the year and since then has raised $23.5 million. Where did it come from?”

“It appears that the Sierra Club and its Foundation are no more than a way to launder political campaign money,” Schnare said, “The Sierra Club PAC has to explain where it gets its money, but the Sierra Club itself does not. So the Sierra Club offers itself as a way to hide the source of campaign funds, turning around and giving the money to its Super PAC for direct election campaigning.”

Schnare emphasized his objection is to the alleged money laundering. “I staunchly defend the right to free speech, including by organizations and especially with regard to elections. What I despise is free-speech hypocrisy,” he said.

“We have asked the FEC to look into this practice by the Sierra Club, just as the Sierra Club asked the FEC to look into center-right groups like Americans for Prosperity. In our view, what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” Schnare.

The Taxman Threateneth

A second EELI action formally requested the Internal Revenue Service investigate the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Foundation for providing impermissible benefits to private parties and for failure to pay taxes on business income unrelated to their core business.

As an example of the tax violation, the Sierra Club has its members sell the products of a select local solar panel company in various states in exchange for donations. In Maryland, the Sierra Club made a $750 profit from every sale, yet it never paid taxes on its profits from what is essentially a commercial venture.

In addition, members of the Sierra Club’s board of directors and some of its donors—people and companies heavily invested in natural gas or renewable energy companies—are directly benefitting from the Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, an effort to shut down coal-powered electricity production.

Commenting on the IRS referral, Schnare said, “The Sierra Club … once a healthy collection of local clubs dedicated to enjoying and promoting experiences in nature ha[s] been perverted into a top-heavy autocratic national political organization concerned with becoming wealthy and influencing political elections. Worse, their efforts have resulted in appointment of directors who directly benefit from the organizations’ ‘charitable’ activities. This is against the law.”

H. Sterling Burnett ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.