Friday, March 18, 2016

Civil Beat's Errors and Conflict of Interest

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.


John McHugh said...

Thank you Joan for another well researched, written, and documented essay on the realities of pesticide use in agriculture in Hawaii. I realize that it is difficult to change the mind of those whose mind is closed on the matter but if, at the very least, your words are read by those that govern then there is at least a fighting chance that additional regulatory burden will not be heaped on an industry that is already heavily burdened. As farmers we understand the need to ensure that the consuming public and workers on the farm are safe from risks associated with pesticide application. If we could only flip a switch to a time when there were no invasive pests to attack our crops, our homes, and our health then we might never have to use pesticides. But, since that is not the case, pesticides are a tool which help us grow the food that feed our people, control the pests that destroy our homes, and stave off the insects that transmit disease. When they are handled properly and responsibly they are at the bottom of a long list of real concerns that threaten and undermine the stability of our communities.

Anonymous said...

No wonder PayPal wants your bank account to be linked to their service.

Omidyar is a slick business man.

Anonymous said...

Omidyar is trying to buy his way into the big boys club by donating to Hawaii Community Foundation. That's why Civil Beat will never investigate it.

John Kauai said...

This story was on "Science Friday" today. The author suggests that if pesticides didn't kill all the spiders that eat the insects that damage the corn, crop yields would be better.

I'm not saying this guy is right. I'm just offering it as something to think about.

FWIW: Joan, your comment on the Civil Beat article was deleted. I didn't agree with everything you were suggesting but I don't think it should have been removed.

WRT the Abbot and Costello reference, I felt that was right on. The "blues" (Costello?) aren't understanding the "reds" (Abbot?) and confusion reigns. It was the best metaphor I've ever heard -- that is if one has ever listened to that skit. It is hilarious.

The JFFG report states over and over and over again, that the holes in the Good Neighbor Program make it nearly impossible to determine what pesticide is actually being applied and where. Perhaps "someone" will correct that before the final report is published?

The report shows in Table 3 that anywhere from 0.87 (Atrazine) to 5.3 (Chlorpyrifos) times as much pesticide is applied when compared to the mainland applications. It isn't clear that this actually has meaning.

The report is going to be criticized for not being scientific, but it states over and over and over again, that obtaining the required information is impossible because there are no GIS coordinates assigned to the fields and because the data the GNP provides is not good enough. (I probably repeat myself here. Oh Well.)

Anonymous said...

Joan, what was the comment they deleted?

Joan Conrow said...

@2:35. My comment:

While dinging Scott Enright, you fail to mention he 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 samples "exceeded EPA environmental benchmarks." You also say, "Pesticide use data isn’t being collected. Without knowing how much, how often and what kinds of pesticides are being applied..." Have you ever looked at the Good Neighbor data? It clearly reports how much, how often and what kinds of restricted use pesticides are being applied.

I will again point out the conflict of interest inherent in Pierre Omidyar serving on your editorial board when his philanthropy is supporting the pestcide advocacy group Center for Food Safety via the Hawaii Community Foundation. As for my own disclosure, I have no financial ties to any pesticide or agribusiness interests.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Joan. Your comment is altogether temperate. I guess mere mention of the sainted Omidyar and his varied interests gets you blacklisted. Or perhaps Civil Beat can stir the pot but can't stand the heat.

Anonymous said...

@4:18- You are correct about Civil Beat stirring the pot, but not standing the heat.

Anonymous said...

So chicken s**t for Civil Best to take down your comment.

John Kauai said...


Joan's comment may have been temperate, and I certainly do not think it should have been taken down, I feel a strong need to rebut her support of the Good Neighbor Program. The GNP is "better than nothing" but the joint Fact Finding report says over and over and over again, that the information provided in the GNP is hardly enough to be able to develop a systematic examination of the use of RUPs on Kauai.

There are rumors, and I confess and/or acknowledge they are rumors, of increased birth defects on the West Side. I have a good friend who believes (s)he was directly affected by pesticides on the West Side and has spent the last several months recovering from those effects.

I'm not going to tell you that these events are because of the seed companies. But I will tell you that we don't know what caused them. And because we don't know, I'm in favor of finding out.

I recall the "hoopla" around living under high-voltage power lines. (around 1985) When a comprehensive study was done, it showed that the correlation that everyone though existed was not based on fact. We have the same problem on the West Side. All it takes is one or two babies to be born with defects that seem to be attributed to the chemicals and we have a problem.

Now, many of you are going to point to studies that have shown these chemicals to be safe. And I'm willing to believe that under the controlled conditions of the studies they were. But I need to remind you that the JFF report states that there are no studies on the concurrent use of these chemicals.

My wanting to find out is not limited to GMO operations on the West Side.

Anonymous said...

John Kauai said "My wanting to find out is not limited to GMO operations on the West Side." I want to find out too, and my BELIEF and hypothesis is that the problems stem from "mass hysteria" (medical definition) among a subset of the population on Kauai fanned by duplicitous pols and dubious non profits. Now my hypothesis is just as valid as anything the JFFG has suggested, and JK has provided the powerline example of this. Think "smart meters." We should look at all aspects of this- and maybe scientific illiteracy, too. I don't want no damn DNA in my food- 80%. Oh, you might want to add obesity, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, inactivity, minimal healthcare,vaccinations for the anti vaxxers, and lots of other things to the study. And I am affected by the notion that we all will have to pay for a share of this bullshit sooner or later. Add that, too.

Anonymous said...

If the dairy investor is down on conventional agriculture, what does that make him. Conflicted? Hypocritical? Oblivious?

Anonymous said...

9:41, the answer may be D, all of the above. One the one hand, he makes a splashy gift of $50 million to the Hawaii Community Foundation. On the other, his editor at Civil Beat whines that her boss gives away so many millions, she can't be expected to keep track of it all. Sort of like the guy feeding an ammo belt to a machine gunner, proclaiming innocence when one of those bullets actually hits somebody. Is he a bad guy? No, I'm sure he's charming and well-intended. But $8 billion in net worth can buy a lot of ill-considered neoliberal adventures. Here's a deep background syllabus.

Way too much reading, but hey, you won't find it in Civil Beat

Anonymous said...

John used to be California. You want to see birth defects! Oahu is FILLED with handicap population.

John K---i! Earn your title. The silent majority said from the start. Show the facts first before the bill. Now the JFFG wants to start the process, which is great. The JFFG also said no evidence to the claim.
You're talking some great stuff, but! The facts still remain. The silent majority still waiting for data to back up the original 2491 claims.
We back to square 1, getting the data.
You also forget, this island got divided and it still is.
You making your claims, the silent majority just watching.

Have a great week Mr. California

John Kauai said...

20 Mar, 4:44:

Yes, we are back to square one. We knew we were at square one when 960 was overturned.

This is like me showing you a box and telling you that there is no scorpion in the box. How do you know until you look? If I insist there isn't and that you should put your hand inside and just "trust me", would you? What if you had several friends who told you that they put their hand into the box and got bit?

I'm not forgetting that the island is still divided. Overturning 960 didn't suddenly "bring us together".

If the "silent majority" wants to know then they need to stop being silent. If they don't care, then why bother those of us that do?

However, I may have missed your point.

FWIW: I also used to live in Minnesota, Colorado (twice), Texas, Florida (3 times) and New Mexico (twice) and this is my second time around in Hawaii. Hawaii is in "second place" for the "state I've lived in the longest" but it coming up fast to be number one. The only time I was forlorn leaving a state was the first time I left Hawaii. All the other "migrations" were off to bigger and better things which allowed me to come back.

Anonymous said...

5:08 p.m. we are silent and make a difference when we voted. We silent because we live n work around ground zero.

We silent because we know pesticides not killing us. Drugs, diet, exercise, and prolonged abuse of our bodies shorten our lives. When the good Lord wants to take us he will.

For me! I'm not afraid of dying, I've been close a bunch of times. I'm ready if its my time.

We silent because when you look at the big picture of how this islands functions and what we have, we know pesticides is the least of our worries.

FREAKING DRUGS IS! The zombies fucking up themselves n their families is at the tipping point. But you wouldn't know. You don't see or pay attention to that world.

Yea we silent. Drugs abuse is what we protecting ourselves from. And other things more important than pesticides.

When you were gone, we the silent majority was working our asses off to take care what was important to our communities. You not here long enough to FEEL the hurt of this freaking division.

If you didn't catch my hint, let me tell u plain as day. Leave out the second word. Put your time into your community and earn your NAME.


Finish off a great week on Kauai! You all!

Anonymous said...

5:08 I going tell u again. Kauai has more people DYING from drugs then pesticides. 100 to 1 even more! Don't turn your head n look the other way.

This SHIT is freaking real!