A Civil Beat editorial calling for heightened agricultural pesticide controls is based on faulty assumptions and made without disclosing its own conflict of interest on this topic.
First, the conflict: Civil Beat founder, funder and editorial board member Pierre Omidyar has donated money to the pesticide advocacy group Center for Food Safety.
What a "coincidence" that its editorial coincides with today's press conference at the Capitol, where several groups — including CFS and Gary Hooser's HAPA — will demand that Gov. Ige adopt the very same controls that Civil Beat endorses.
When I brought this conflict to the attention of Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler last week, she initially denied it:
Your comment was a surprise to me and so I double-checked and am told by both Ashley [Lukens, director of CFS] and the Omidyar people that they in fact give no money -- and never have -- to this organization.
When I provided documentation — a PDF showing that CFS received a FLEX grant from Hawaii Community Foundation and a link showing that Omidyar funds the FLEX grant — Patti dismissed it:
As you well know, the FLEX grant is funded by 20 different HCF funds, the Omidyar Ohana fund being one of them. There are hundreds of recipients, many of which we write about frequently. It's HCF, not Omidyar, that control [sic] who gets that mnoney [sic] (I wrote about this in my piece on the Omidyars in Hawaii, linked above). So I could put a disclaimer on every story that says "The Omidyars give millions of dollars in grants and one of the hundreds of recipients may be mentioned in this story." So it is truly disingenous [sic] of you to assert that CFS is funded by the Omidyar family.
Patti absolves from Omidyar from responsibility by claiming that HCF decides where the money goes, not Omidyar, and asserts we should take it on faith that it's not a "donor-advised" grant. Nonetheless, Omidyar money is going to CFS — the most outspoken group on pesticides in Hawaii and a frequent source for Civil Beat articles (including one press release reprint).
Under Patti's reasoning, if money is laundered through a foundation, the donor need not disclose any conflicts and can disavow any connection to the recipients. Ironically, the very same day that Patti issued her disavowal, Civil Beat published an article that criticized the billionaire Koch Brothers for doing exactly that. It's also a reviled tactic of the oil and coal industries. But it's apparently OK when it's her boss.
Despite its supposed commitment to “investigative journalism,” and its much ballyhooed support for transparency and disclosure, Civil Beat has shown a decided disinterest in exploring the lack of transparency among Hawaii nonprofits, many of which — including Center for Food Safety — are engaging in direct political advocacy under the guise of education. In other words, they're actively working to influence the political process without revealing their funding sources.
Perhaps Civil Beat could start with the dismal lack of transparency by Hawaii Community Foundation, a tax-exempt charity that is the source of most nonprofit funding in the Islands and a recipient of Omidyar money. Years ago, donor-advised grant-making was identified on HCF tax returns. As their 1998 tax return shows, various donors and their donor-advised grants are clearly identified, beginning on page 14. And as recently as 2013, HCF's tax return furnished a roster of all grants it had awarded.
But HCF's 2014 990 return — scanned by Guidestar in December 2015 — discloses neither donor-advised grants nor a list of organizations that received grants totaling some $30 million. Instead, HCF supplied the following statement:
Hawaii Community Foundation through its grantmaking and program services has assisted 830 organizations ad others... Grant making occurs in eighteen different program areas as described on the attached statement. See Statement #2.
However, no statement is shown on the 990 form posted by Guidestar, leaving the public in the dark as to the recipients of HCF grant-making. Doesn't the public deserve greater transparency from a Foundation that plays such an influential role in the Islands? Especially when one of its funders has also started a “news site” that directly seeks to influence policy.
Which brings me back to today's editorial supporting all the recommendations of the Joint Fact Finding Group, convened to review agricultural pesticide on Kauai. The Civil Beat editorial reiterates this oft-repeated lie:
But from the beginning, the report was destined to add fuel to the fire, due to a huge, fundamental problem: Pesticide use data isn’t being collected.
Without knowing how much, how often and what kinds of pesticides are being applied, it’s hard for anyone to draw credible scientific conclusions regarding health and environmental impacts.
Take a look at the Kauai Agricultural Good Neighbor Program website. It clearly shows how much, how often and what kinds of restricted use pesticides are being applied to each company's fields. For example, in January 2016, Pioneer Du-Pont applied three different pesticides, which are identified both by product name and active ingredient. The report also shows the total amount used of both the product and its active ingredient, as well as the total area where the pesticide was applied.
Civil Beat also failed to note that the seed companies engage in pre-spraying disclosure to all nearby residents who have requested such notification, as well as to schools and hospitals. So those most likely to be affected do indeed enjoy a very high level of disclosure.
Civil Beat then dinged Hawaii Agriculture Director Scott Enright for saying he would be likely to impose buffer zones, based on what CB considers “confounding reasoning:” The report found no statistically significant evidence that pesticide use by Big Ag is harming Kauai’s environment or public health.
What Civil Beat again failed to report is that Scott said he would support “increasing monitoring of surface water and beehives," both of which would provide valuable information about whether pesticides are migrating off-site. The surface water testing also responds to the one and only area where the state's own water sampling — and not the JFFG's, as incorrectly reported by Civil Beat — "exceeded EPA environmental benchmarks."
Civil Beat concludes by saying:
Community fears, concerns and discord won’t be solved taking an approach to pesticide data that more resemble Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” routine than a proper scientific discussion.
Civil Beat might want to look at the role it plays in fanning community fears and discord with its inaccurate and inflammatory reporting on this complex issue.
I have no problem with starting “a proper scientific discussion” on this topic. But for some reason, neither Civil Beat nor the activists want to start with that.