Who really is influencing politics in Hawaii, and how can the public find out?
As I reported on Monday, the Hawaii Center for Food Safety believes that seed companies are unduly influencing the Legislature, and it requested emails from five lawmakers to try and find a smoking gun.
When CFS failed to get the legislative emails — two Representatives said no, because the files are "personal and pre-decisional," and three Senators said the request was “overly broad, vague, and ambiguous”— CFS appealed to the Office of Information Practices. And then it appealed to its mailing list, claiming “our democracy is on the line” and asking folks to sign a petition demanding release of the emails.
Let's set aside the whole GMO debate for a moment and focus solely on the issues of transparency and influence, both of which are favorite rallying points for CFS.
I was particularly struck by this line in the CFS petition appeal (emphasis added):
Only overwhelming public support for transparency will ensure these records are released and our democracy is protected from corporate greed.
So again I ask the question, why is there concern only about the transparency of for-profit corporations, and absolutely none for nonprofit corporations? Does anyone actually believe that only for-profit corporations are greedy, or trying to exercise undue influence on the political process?
In its petition appeal, Center for Food Safety writes (emphasis in original):
HCFS filed the request on behalf of the community to ensure the proper functioning of our democratic process. Reviewing these records is the only way for the public to truly assess the extent to which the pesticide-seed industry exerts pressure and influence on our elected officials and policy-making process.
So why doesn't CFS believe the same holds true for its own records? How are we to assess the proper functioning of our democratic process, and who is influencing it, if advocacy groups like CFS don't have to reveal their funding sources, or who pays them to lobby?
And make no mistake, they do lobby, and they lobby dirty and hard.
Hawaii CFS Director Ashley Lukens is a registered lobbyist for a political advocacy group masquerading as a nonprofit, which allows her to avoid reporting the source of her lobbying funds. In an email to me, Ashley defended her lack of disclosure:
Donor disclosure only applies for lobbying for candidates or ballot initiatives which Center for Food Safety does not do.
Except CFS most definitely does lobby for ballot initiatives. It helped draft Kauai Bill 2491, and as its own website admits:
CFS has a number of “model” state bills or local initiatives to better protect non-GE farmers, prohibit GE crop planting or require labeling. Through these efforts CFS has successfully assisted in the passage of a number of bills around the country in the past.
And Ashley herself lobbied for the Maui anti-GMO initiative, as first one, and then another, of her own press releases reveal.
CFS does have a separate political action fund, which should be doing the lobbying, not the nonprofit. What do we know about this group? Nothing, aside from the fact that it got IRS approval.
We do know CFS spent $455,000 on the Washington state GMO labeling initiative, and $1.1 million to promote the Oregon labeling initiative. CFS clearly has been trying to influence the legislative process in those states, but it's far less clear where CFS gets its money, other than, as I previously reported, “fortunes derived from big oil, big industry, big pharma and big banks.”
And that information was never disclosed by CFS, but painstakingly uncovered by reviewing the tax filings of foundations and trusts.
So even as CFS publicly clamors about the corrupting influence of corporate money, it is itself a tool for corporate money — well-hidden corporate money.
Now CFS is spreading some of that corporate money around to other Hawaii nonprofits, like the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, which claims to be a grassroots organization, but apparently has been unable to raise even $25,000 from individuals.
As I recently reported, CFS and HAPA are banding with nonprofits — Life of the Land, KAHEA, Hawaii SEED and others — to launch an initiative aimed at getting so-called “progressive” candidates elected. But we'll never know who is bankrolling this very deliberate attempt to influence Island politics, because these groups don't have to disclose their funding.
And what do we know about CFS, which came to Hawaii like gangbusters, and began a very calculated effort to manipulate Island politics and people through disinformation and propaganda campaigns?
Well, it's pretty much the Andrew Kimbrell show — a fact that prompted the Better Business Bureau to ding CFS in its charitable accountability review.
Now maybe you don't mind if Andrew Kimbrell and the scions of the 1% manipulate Hawaii politics under cover of nonprofits.
But surely we can all appreciate the hypocrisy, and rich irony, of Kimbrell and Ashley Lukens claiming they're worried about “saving democracy” even as they intentionally and actively work to undermine it.
To quote Ashley herself in a Hawaii Business interview:
"I'm all about giving people freedom within really clear expectations, with transparency and accountability throughout."
Except, of course, when it comes to Center for Food Safety. Then transparency and accountability are only for the "other guys."