Shaky Foundations: Toxic Sources, Tainted Money
Back at the start of the 20th century, John D. Rockefeller remarked that "not even God himself can keep me from giving my money to the University of Chicago." The old bandit’s investments duly paid off, with platoons of Chicago economists and jurists all hymning the free market and invoking the inexorable laws requiring that some be rich and many be poor.
Philanthropy and its purposes haven’t changed much since Rockefeller millions were dispensed to winch the family name out of the mud, particularly after the Ludlow massacre when Rockefeller minions broke a strike by spraying with oil and then igniting tents filled with women and children.
Even before Ludlow, Rockefeller money was ladled out to the wildcatters in central Pennsylvania to absorb them into the many-tentacled Standard Oil Trust, with satisfactory results.
Nearly a century later, the environmental movement, supposedly big oil’s implacable foe, found itself on the receiving end of about $50 million a year from three oil conglomerates, operating through front groups politely described as private foundations. According to an analysis of financial reports from the Clinton years, the top givers were were the Sun Oil Company (Sunoco) and Oryx Energy, which controlled vast holdings of natural gas in Arkansas and across the oil patch. The Pew family once entirely controlled both Sunoco and Oryx, maintained large holdings in both, and was, in fact, sued for insider trading by Oryx shareholders.
In 1948 the family set up the Pew Charitable Trust, based in Philadelphia, with an endowment totaling nearly $4 billion in the year 2000. In its early days the foundation (a collection of seven separate trusts) was vociferously rightwing, with money going to the John Birch Society, to Billy Graham and to population control, always a preoccupation of the rich.
The utility of buying the loyalty of liberals impressed itself on the impressed itself on the family rather late, in the 1980s. But since then they have more than made up for lost time. By the beginning of the second Clinton term, the Pew Charitable Trusts represented one of the largest donors to the environmental movement, with about $250 million a year invested.
During Clintontime, the Pew environmental sector was headed by Joshua Reichert. Reichert and his subordinates, Tom Wathen and John Gilroy, not only allocated money to individual Pew projects, such as the Endangered Species Coalition, but they also helped direct the donations of other foundations mustered in the Environmental Grantmakers’ Association.
Pew rarely went it alone. It preferred to work in coalitions with those other foundations, which meant almost no radical opposition to their cautious environmental policies can get any money. There were some notable foundations that objected to Pew’s leveraged buyouts of environmental campaigns, notably the Levinson, Patagonia and Turner Foundations.
Still, Pew was the sort of Trust that John D. would have understood and admired.
But this did not tell the full story of coercion through money. One of the conditions attached to the receipt of Pew grant money was that attention be focused on government actions. Corporate wrongdoers were not to be pursued. With Pew money rolling their way, the environmental opposition became muted, judicious and finally disappeared. As long-time New Mexico environmentalist Sam Hitt put it: "Pew comes into a region like a Death Star, creating organizations that are all hype and no substance, run by those whose primary aim is merely to maintain access to foundation funding."
Meanwhile, the endowed money held by these trusts was carefully invested in the very corporations that a vigorous environmental movement would be adamantly opposing. An examination of Pew’s portfolio in 1995 revealed that is money was invested in timber firms, mining companies, oil companies, arms manufacturers and chemical companies. The annual yield from these investments far exceeded the dispensations to environmental groups.
Take just one of the seven Pew trust funds: the Pew Memorial Trust. This enterprise made $205 million in "investment income" in 1993 from such stocks as Weyerhaeuser ($16 million), the mining concern Phelps-Dodge ($3.7 million), International Paper ($4.56 million) and Atlantic Richfield, which was pushing hard to open even more of the Arctic to oil drilling ($6.1 million). The annual income yield from rape-and-pillage companies accruing to Pew in this single trust was twice as large as it total grants, and six times as large as all of Pew’s environmental dispensations that year (about $20 million in 1993).
Next of the big three in environmental funding was an oil company known as Cities Services, which endowed the W. Alton Jones Foundation, based in Charlottesville, Virginia. (In the merger frenzy of the 1980s, Cities was ultimately taken over by Occidental Petroleum, in a move that saved Ivan Boesky from financial ruin. It was later parceled off to the Southland Corporation, owners of Seven Eleven, then finally, in 1990, it was sold to Petroleos de Venezuela.)
In the crucial Clinton years, Alton Jones maintained an endowment of $220 million and in 1994 handed out $15.8 million in grants. According to the charity’s charter, the purpose of the foundation was two-fold: preservation of biological diversity and elimination of the threat of nuclear war. Although Alton Jones doled out about $14 million a year to environmental causes during the Clinton years with the same engulf-and-neuter tactic of Pew, this apostle of peace maintained very large holdings in arms manufacturers, including Martin-Marietta ($3.26 million), Raytheon ($1.32 million), Boeing ($1.38 million), and GE ($1.4 million).
Alton Jones’ portfolio was also enhanced by income from bonds floated by Charles Hurwitz’s Scotia-Pacific Holdings Company, a subsidiary of Maxxam, which was at that very moment trying to cut down the Headwaters Grove, the largest patch of privately owned redwoods in the world. The charity’s annual statement to the Internal Revenue Service also disclosed a $1.4 million stake in Louisiana-Pacific, then the large purchaser of timber from publicly-owned federal forests. The company had been convicted of felony violations of federal environmental laws at its pulp mill in Ketchikan, Alaska, where L-P was butchering its way through the Tongass National Forest.
At the same time, Alton Jones maintained a position (just under $1 million in stock) in FMC, the big gold mining enterprise, who dousing of endangered salmon habitat in Idaho with cyanide at the Beartrack Mine was greased by Clinton’s Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Picking up revenue from FMC’s salmon destruction with one hand, in 1993 the foundation gave about $600,000 with the other hand to supposedly protect salmon habitat in the same area. The grants went to the compliant and docile groups in the region, such as the Pacific Rivers Council.
At a crucial moment in January 1994, Pacific Rivers Council and the Wilderness Society–another recipient of W. Alton Jones cash—demanded that a federal judge suspend an injunction the groups had–to their great alarm—just won. The injunction had shut down FMC’s Beartrack Gold Mine, from which the company expected to make $300 million courtesy of the 1872 Mining Act, whose reform the Clinton administration carefully avoided. When the Wilderness Society’s attorneys asked Judge David Ezra to rescind the injunction, he was outraged but had no alternative but to comply. FMC’s stock promptly soared, yielding extra earning for Alton Jones’ holdings in the mining concern.
The last of the three big environmental foundations is the Rockefeller Family Fund. In the Clinton era, the RFF was run by ex-Naderite Donald Ross, who pulled down, according to IRS filings, $130,000 a year, plus another $23,000 in benefits. The relationship of the Family Fund to Rockefeller oil money scarcely needs stating. Though the Fund dispensed a relatively puny $2 million a year in grants, it exercises great influence by dint of the foundation’s leadership of the Environmental Grantmaker’s Association. The Fund also functioned as a kind of staff college for foundation executives. Pew’s John Gilroy and Tom Wathen both learned their trade under Ross’s tutelage.
In the 1980s, when the Multinational Monitor revealed that the ten largest foundations in America owned billions in stock of companies doing business in South Africa, Donald Ross lamented that many foundations “simply turn their portfolios over to a bank trust department or to outside managers and that’s the last they see of it.”
If the innuendo here was that conscientious foundations should keep an eye on their investments, Ross has some explaining to do. The Rockefeller Family Fund, in its 1993 IRS filing, held $3.5 million in oil and gas stocks, including Amerada Hess (one of the first companies to drill on Alaska’s North Slope and company convicted of price fixing), As an old Nader man, Ross should have presumably felt some embarrassment in the Fund’s extensive holdings in the Ten Worst Corporations, as listed by Multinational Monitor, a Nader operation.
The the Rockefeller Family Fund also maintained heft investments in mining companies, including ASARCO, an outfit with a distinctly noxious environmental rap sheet. Its activities have laid waste to western Montana, easily overwhelming the yelps of the Mineral Policy Center, which conducted a futile campaign against the company, partially funding by the RFF.
The Ross-run fund also invested money in FMC and Freeport-McMoRan, whose worldwide depredations were on the cutting edge not only of ecocide but–in Indonesia—of genocide as well. The Rockefeller Funds’ mineral and chemical companies holdings exceeded a million dollars in 1993.
In that same year, the RFF had a strong position in timber giant Weyerhaeuser, the largest private landowning company in North America. The potential for conflicts of interests endemic to all foundations with the ability to influence federal policy is sharply illustrated here. The Rockefeller Family Fund was one of the lead architects of the foundation-funded campaign to protect ancient forests on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. Any reduction, actual or prospective, of timber available for logging on public lands drives up the value of privately-held timber tracts. The Fund was in a position to make a killing by buying Weyerhaeuser stock low and selling it high, before large-scale logging resumed on public lands.
The Family Fund was nicely covered because it also had holdings of $237,000 in Boise-Cascade, which at the time was the largest purchaser of federal timber sales in the Northwest. Indeed, in 1993 Boise-Cascade bought the rights to log the controversial Sugarloaf tract of 800-year-old Douglas fir trees in southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, courtesy of a released injunction engineered by a deal between the Clinton administration and environmental groups funded and closely supervised Ross’s organization. Ross also played a key role in the hiring of Democratic Party hack Bob Chlopak (another former Naderite) to oversee the conversion of a tough national grassroots movement to fight Clinton to the death over the permanent protection of old-growth forests into a supine national coalition that swiftly draped itself in the white flag of surrender.
Even after Donald Ross left the Rockefeller Family he continued to stride between two worlds. Ross formed a lobby / PR shop called M + R Strategic Services, where his clients, according to SourceWatch, included both environmental groups (the Nature Conservancy, NRDC, the National Wildlife Federation and Earth Justice) and environmental foundations (Hewlitt Foundation, Patagonia, Lazar Foundation, and Wilberforce—as well as the Rockefeller Family Fund). He didn’t forget the corporations either. In 2009, Ross became chairman of the board of a defanged GreenPeace.
All of these foundations had their bets nicely covered, both politically and financially. The once unruly grassroots green movement was brought under tight control through annual disbursements of funds, rewarded on the condition that these groups follow the dictates of the funders. At times this meant giving up hard-won legal injunctions. In other instances, it meant refraining from filing politically sensitive lawsuits to stop timber sales or gold mines and muting its public criticism of Democratic politicians.
With court injunctions lifted, there was only one way for environmentalists to confront illegal and ecologically destructive operations: civil disobedience. And that was a tactic the big foundations would never underwrite. Disobey these conditions and a group risked the annual renewal of its funding.
Precious few did.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article is excerpted from Green Scare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.)