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Who Owns the Sierra Club?

Anonymous Donors and Rigged Elections

by KARYN STRICKLER


The deliberate rigging of the 2004 Sierra Club Board of Directors elections–to keep reformers off the Board–smacks of a desperation so deep, that it begs the question–what does the old guard have to hide?

Internal Revenue Service forms show $47,898,118.40 in anonymous donations were given to the Sierra Club Foundation in the year 2000, and $53,593,640.00 in 2001. The LA Times reports, "Each of these donations was more than double the amount of all funds raised in each of the previous four years."

When angry, reform-oriented, incumbent members of the Sierra Club Board of Directors asked executive director Carl Pope, who gave the money — he wouldn’t say. When it was suggested that law required him to share the information with his Board — he couldn’t remember. So they asked again — and he wasn’t telling.

To the intense discomfort of many members, the Board of the Sierra Club was told to tell no one and to ask no questions. Most of the directors of the Sierra Club have no knowledge of who is giving this money or for what purposes, even though the vast sum represents a major portion of the organizational budget of the Club. The lack of information prevents the Board from fulfilling its fiduciary duty of proper oversight.

In the LA Times Carl Pope said, "’it’s true that most directors do not know the names of the anonymous donors.’ He said neither he nor other fundraisers have any obligation to disclose them because the money is donated to the independent Sierra Club Foundation."

Larry Fahn is the incumbent president of the Sierra Club Board of Directors. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees for the Sierra Club Foundation–the organization that received the anonymous gifts. Fahn reportedly said that he doesn’t know who the donor is and said, "I’m not dying to know," according to the Times. The 700,000 members of the Sierra Club have misplaced their trust in this officer who has a duty to know such things and to provide oversight.

The best case scenario is that the anonymous donor is simply a wealthy person with a strong environmental ethic. Even in that case there is a problem. Apparently the anonymous donor is giving "restricted" funds, allowing them to dictate how their money is to be spent. This approach bypasses the Club’s grassroots, decision-making structure that allows input from activists at all levels, who are supposed to set the organizational priorities and fund them accordingly.

Obfuscating on the part of Carl Pope leads to imaginations run wild and questions arise — What strings were attached to such an enormous sum of money? Worse yet, is the Club being bought off by a funder connected to an industry that pollutes or destroys our land, air, water and biodiversity?

At very least the nearly 102 million dollar, anonymous gift may be part of the reason that Pope and the old guard do not want reform-oriented candidates in their ranks, asking questions if elected. It may help explain the carefully planned, well-funded and executed smear campaign that has been aimed at petition candidates — reformers who want more victories and fewer compromises on environmental issues.

The purpose of the meticulously crafted, smear campaign is to scare Club members into voting for 5 of the 8 internally-selected nominating committee candidates, and against petition candidates. Petition candidates, regardless of their position on immigration, are all being painted with a broad brush of vague damnation and condemned as "outsiders."

One interesting strategy in this multi-faceted smear campaign is the 3 fictitious candidates who appear on the ballot. In an e-mail promoting the strategy it said that in order to disparage petition candidates, the fake candidates would "use their ballot statements to expose the outside stealth [petition] candidates, and then to withdraw from the race and decline votes for themselves."

The author of the e-mail, Ladd Seekins called his own strategy "unusual." It is clear that participants knew that the strategy violated the spirit of the law in a deliberate attempt to skirt the letter of the law. The e-mail said, "California law does not allow the Sierra Club itself to point out their agenda. [Three] new [fictitious] petition candidates have agreed to do that for us."

This twisted approach also violates the Club’s own bylaws, since it was coordinated internally by the former Sierra Club president, Robbie Cox on behalf of particular–if fictitious–candidates.

The broader smear campaign consists of rigged ballots which are arriving in members’ mailboxes with a dire warning on the front cover about a take over by "outside" organizations. "Outsiders" are clearly labeled in their ballot statements as petition candidates. Members are reading about this alleged, outside take over in papers across the nation. Thirteen former presidents have lent their weight to discrediting petition candidates. Fake candidates on the ballot reiterate the message to voters. Many members are getting a notice in their Sierra Club newsletter to the same effect — all painting petition candidates with the broad brush of vague damnation.

Flying in the face of broad based, grassroots participation in the Club, a single member has requested the entire membership list, presumably for the purpose a mailing–which could cost in excess of $250,000–to further diminish the chances of reform candidates and promote the 5 chosen nominating committee candidates. Unlike the 9 reform candidates–who have thus far have spent a combined total of less than $500–each of the chosen 5 are in the process of sending additional mailings and all will most likely meet the individual spending limits for a combined total of $10,000.

Such well-funded attacks on petition candidates looks less like a defense against imminent peril and more like manipulation and election rigging aimed at candidates not hand-selected by the old guard. This damages the Club’s democratic and grassroots process–now and in the future.

The problem for the old guard is that Sierra Club members and activists are smarter than they think. Members will see beyond their dishonest attempts to keep their seat at the political table and perpetuate their bureaucratic hold on power for its own sake- with the mission of environmental protection taking a distant second priority.

As a petition candidate, I have led the fight for fair elections, openness and the grassroots process in the Sierra Club. Insider politics and political deal-making won’t work in response to environmental degradation. Such a challenge can only be met by a grassroots mobilization of the American people. The fiduciary responsibility of a Board of Directors to provide organizational oversight requires some outside perspective.

Any well-run organization, whether corporate, governmental or non-governmental, can benefit from some fresh, new perspectives–the kind you can only get from an outsider. The Sierra Club itself has historically had many Board members who had no previous Club experience.

Contrary to the lessons learned from scandals that have rocked the corporate and non-profit worlds from Enron to the Nature Conservancy–Pope, Cox, McGrady and other old guard types seem to think they benefit from insulating and isolating themselves–but the environment does not. It makes you wonder what else they have to hide.

KARYN STRICKLER, former Executive Director of the National Endangered Species Coalition and petition candidate for the 2004 Sierra Club Board of Director’s election. Contact: fiftyplusone@earthlink.net.