2013 in review: the year of frackademics, defense profiteers, and twittlesis

2013 has been a great year for the Public Accountability Initiative. Our investigations on issues ranging from corrupt greenwashing efforts to on-air war profiteers garnered major media coverage and delivered real impact. We ramped up our blogging activity. We moved into a new office in our home base of Buffalo and added two awesome staff members, one of whom seized control of our twitter account and actually started tweeting. We also made significant improvements to LittleSis, the research wiki that powers all of our nosy investigations, and began working on some exciting upgrades that we plan to roll out in 2014. Edits to the LittleSis database are up 20% from 2012, to 197,229 modifications (two tips of the hat to WileECoyote and seeker, the top LittleSis editors in 2013). Read on below for more highlights from our year.

Here at PAI, we follow the money in our daily work, tracking money flows through tangled networks in order to expose corruption and conflicts of interest. But we also do it in a larger sense: we follow the big money in the economy. Naturally, this has led us to focus our attention on banks, and fracking, and the defense and intelligence apparatus, among other things. With each of our investigations, we aim to challenge power and hold it accountable in a way that creates space for real democracy. By exposing corrupt and cozy deals among cronies, we hope to get the people a better deal.

Read on for more on how we did this in 2013. And if you like what we’re up to, please make a donation to PAI to support our work in 2014. Thank you!

– Kevin

2013 Year in Review

Reports & Investigations

We issued several major reports in 2013, all of them turning a critical eye on systemic corruption. But research and a report we had done in 2012 actually lay the groundwork for our opening salvo of 2013. Here’s Kevin’s quote in a front page New York Times story on Fix the Debt, the group of corporate CEOs lobbying for Social Security and Medicare cuts:

“It’s easier to get face time in Washington as a deficit hawk than as a corporate hack,” said Kevin Connor, the director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group. “They are spending millions, but they are protecting billions in defense contracts and tax giveaways that would otherwise be on the chopping block.”

Fix the Debt has not had a good year. Since January, its only appearance in the news section of the New York Times was in this article: “Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.” Slate’s Dave Weigel recently announced the group’s funeral.

Our first report of 2013, Fracking and the Revolving Door in Pennsylvania, focused on industry capture of the regulatory apparatus in Pennsylvania. Some of the key findings in the report included:

  • Pennsylvania’s three previous governors have strong ties to the natural gas industry.
  • Every Secretary of Environmental Protection since the DEP was created has had ties to the natural gas industry.
  • Twenty Department of Environmental Protection employees have held jobs in the energy industry either before or after their agency jobs.
The report’s findings generated press from the Huffington Post, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and StateImpact Pennsylvania among others and was labeled a “must read” by Buffalo’s own investigative news outlet:

Following our report, Michael Krancer, then Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, also left through the revolving door. He returned to the law and lobbying firm Blank Rome LLP to head up their energy, petrochemical, and natural resources practice, which we reported on in March.

PAI continued its investigations of frackademia with a report on then-Department of Energy nominee Ernest Moniz’s work at the MIT Energy Initiative and his 2011 paper “The Future of Natural Gas.” In Industry Partner or Industry Puppet PAI found that Moniz, the study’s chair, failed to disclose that he had joined the board of ICF, a consulting firm with oil and gas ties, prior to the release of the report. During his time on the board Moniz received $300,000. PAI also found that the MIT report failed to disclose that a study co-chair, Anthony Meggs, had joined gas company Talisman Energy prior to the release of the study and that another study group member, former CIA director John Deutch, has served on the board of the LNG company Cheniere Energy since 2006 and owns $1.4 million in Cheniere stock.

The release of this report coincided with Ernest Moniz’s nomination to be Secretary of the Department of Energy. The report prompted responses from MIT and the White House and led to a front page article in the Boston Globe and coverage from the New York Times, Bloomberg, and the Huffington Post.

Kevin was invited to discuss the report’s findings on Democracy Now!

Kevin discussing Ernest Moniz on Democracy Now!

In June, PAI took a look at the much ballyhooed Center for Sustainable Shale Development and found that despite being hailed as a partnership between unlikely allies (industry and environmental groups), CSSD was actually a green-washed industry mouthpiece. The report found that the major philanthropic force behind CSSD, The Heinz Endowments, had significant, undisclosed ties to the natural gas industry and that environmental sponsors with CSSD board seats are closely linked to the natural gas industry. Its major finding concerned the Heinz Endowments president, Robert Vagt, who had failed to properly disclose his lucrative seat on the board of gas pipeline giant Kinder Morgan.

Center for Sustainable Shale Development board.

The report was covered by the AP and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but both articles downplayed the significance of the disclosures, and the Post-Gazette editorialized against PAI (then helpfully gave us space to respond). Plenty of people apparently did see the issues as cause for concern.  A mid-August personnel shake-up at the Heinz Endowments, which included the ouster of its top environmental officer, had reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wondering if our report had something to do with it. In October, Heinz Endowments President Robert Vagt, who had the most serious conflict of interest, reportedly resigned over internal disputes around fracking. From The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Mr. Vagt serves on the board of Kinder Morgan, a firm that operates natural-gas pipelines in western Pennsylvania. His departure after six years as Heinz’s president follows the August dismissal of Caren Glotfelty as head of the foundation’s environmental program.

Sources said Ms. Glotfelty clashed with Andre Heinz, a board member and the son of foundation Chairwoman Teresa Heinz Kerry, over a grant to establish a research center to pursue safe fracking methods. Mr. Heinz is an advocate of alternative energy technologies such as wind, solar, and biofuel, and in the past the foundation has financed activist groups that oppose fracking.

In late August, chatter about possible military intervention in Syria was reaching alarming levels. Having watched a cable news consensus emerge in favor of intervention, PAI decided to take a look at the voices advocating this position. The result was an analysis of the defense industry ties of twenty-two experts and seven think tanks who commented on military intervention.

The report highlighted the case of former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, a vocal and highly visible supporter of war with Syria, who did not disclose his board ties to Raytheon during his many media appearances. Raytheon is the defense contractor that supplies the military with Tomahawk cruise missiles that would likely have been used in Syria. Hadley was not alone, unfortunately. We found that in 111 reviewed appearances, there were only 13 attempts at conflict of interest disclosure.

This report was featured in a Washington Post article by Holly Yeager, who contacted several media outlets for comment:

Asked about the report’s findings, Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news at Fox News, said in a statement, “We generally disclose contacts when our judgment is that it’s journalistically germane to the story.”

Kevin sparked a lively debate in his appearance on HuffPost Live and was interviewed on Democracy Now! as part of a segment featuring the report.

The report also received a warm reception on twitter:

The return of the blog

We recommitted to our blog, Eyes on the Ties, this year, filling it with quick takedowns, report updates, and news cycle analysis that spanned the topics of finance, energy, defense, government transparency, and more.

One of our more notable entries came amidst the JPMorgan’s mortgage fraud settlement negotiations with the Department of Justice. Kevin discovered that one of the lauded members of the DOJ negotiating team, Assistant Attorney General Tony West, counted Washington Mutual as a legal client in 2008 when he was a partner at Morrison & Foerster. This conflict of interest remained unreported even as the New York Times published a glowing biography of West following the settlement’s completion.

More recent Eyes on the Ties offerings:

  • Whitney found that firms hired by corporations to infiltrate nonprofit groups have their own revolving door with the government.
  • Rob kept tabs on the Cuomo administration’s ties to the natural gas industry.
  • Gin took a look at a corporate spy-for-hire that is seeking a $9 billion valuation in its latest funding round.

We’re Social!

We upped our twitter game in 2013 to bring you daily doses of LittleSis analysis. A few of our favorite interactions this year:

LittleSis data & improvements

LittleSis continued to grow by leaps and bounds in 2013 – as an indispensable investigative research tool and database and also as a community of users researching and challenging the powers that be. User edits to the database were up 20% from 2012, to 197,229 modifications. Users added 23,725 people and organizations to the database, 30% more than any previous year (our robots lagged behind, only adding 9,281 entities to the database in 2013). WileECoyote and seeker led all users in edits, and 235 users joined up. You can too, if you haven’t yet!

We also made some significant improvements to LittleSis in 2013 and started working on some that will be ready in 2014. We revamped our help pages to make it easier than ever to map power networks on LittleSis. The help pages now include documentation of the many advanced editing and analysis features we’ve added over the years. Read up about the new help center’s features here or dive right in here.

We also added a new political spending tab to profiles, which turns campaign donation records pulled from the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database into easy-to-read graphs that are sortable by year. We began using CRP’s industry codes to allow users to explore data by industry.

We have some exciting improvements underway for 2014 that will make LittleSis more dynamic and intuitive. LittleSis co-founder and lead developer Matthew Skomarovsky has been working on new visualization tools that allow users to create maps of relationship networks using the information on LittleSis profiles (see example below). We are also revamping group pages to make it easier for like-minded researchers to find each other, share information, and collaborate on projects. Stay tuned!

Look for visualization tools in 2014!

Interested in supporting visualization tools (or other improvements) on LittleSis? If you’re a coder, drop us a line. If not, make a donation and include a note that you’d like to support LittleSis development. If what you have is time to spare, sign up to edit LittleSis.

A word from our staff on favorite projects from 2013

Research analyst Whitney Yax:

Nerd alert: my favorite project of the year was revamping the LittleSis help center. From brainstorming with my fabulous colleagues to learning how to write HTML, it was a fun and challenging task that will hopefully serve many LittleSis users for many years to come!

Research analyst Gin Armstrong on “Conflicts of interest in the Syria debate”:

It was incredibly energizing to collaborate on an investigation that had immediate implications. Our foray into video was a great way to showcase how embarrassingly easy it is to disclose relevant information to the public.

Research analyst Rob Galbraith on “Big Green Fracking Machine”:

It was really interesting digging into that creative greenwashing effort that combined industry tactics like sponsoring green-sounding front groups and co-opting environmental organizations. And the major conflict of interest we discovered at the Heinz Endowments was alarming.

Director Kevin Connor on “Industry Partner or Industry Puppet”:

The main players behind MIT’s natural gas study were well-connected and deeply-conflicted, and the university is awash in oil and gas money, so that made for a rewarding, though troubling, research process.

THANK YOU and goodnight 2013!

If you like what we’re up to, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to PAI as part of your year-end giving so we can roll into 2014 stronger than ever.

You can donate any amount you’d like here — $250, $100, $50, $25, or whatever you can manage.

If what you have is time, sign up to be a LittleSis user or let us know if you’d like to help in some other way.

Or if you just want to stay in touch, get more regular updates from us on twitter or facebook, or sign up for our email list.

All of us here at PAI thank you for your support in 2013. We couldn’t do it without you!

Not pictured: Kevin Connor, Rob Galbraith, Gin Armstrong, Whitney Yax