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Influence Watch: "Grassroots" campaigns keep spending on low-carbon fuel standard
Culp's lawyer gives money back; Benton mailer campaign was tiny
Two campaigns with friendly-sounding local names and big money from elsewhere continued to spend for and against the proposed low-carbon fuel standard last month.
Affordable Fuel Washington, a long-running creation of the Western States Petroleum Association — money from major oil companies like Phillips 66 and Marathon, which both have refineries in Washington — spent more than $107,000 in March fighting the LCFS. It’s spent more than $950,000 so far, according to its April 12 filing with the Public Disclosure Commission. Here’s what their messaging looks like.
The low-carbon fuel standard, which is House Bill 1091 this year, has died in the Senate each of the last two years, partly thanks to that campaign. It passed the Senate last week, but as we reported a couple of days ago, it developed some issues in the process. Go read that story if you want to dig into the policy a little. We’re just writing about influencer money here.
The disclosure forms for “grassroots”lobbying are vague by design, so we don’t know exactly how much money went to which of the long list of consultants the Affordable Fuels Washington is paying. What was new in March was nearly $25,000 for phone services. What say you, dear readers: Anybody getting calls, robotic or otherwise, urging outreach to their elected representatives on this issue?
On the other side of that fight is Clean Fuel Washington, a local-looking but curiously anonymized campaign that turned out to be a project of Neste, a Finnish oil company that is also one of the world’s largest biofuel producers. The demand for biofuels the standard would create figures to be a boon for the company’s massive refinery in Singapore.
That campaign spent nearly $80,000 in March, including more than $35,000 on digital advertising, which will buy you a lot of banner ads in The New York Times like the one below.
The campaign reports about $104,000 in spending thus far out of $225,000 contributions, nearly all from Neste. That’s far less than Affordable Fuel Washington, but the comparison is a little apples-to-oranges. Neste’s lobbyist didn’t start filing “grassroots” lobbying disclosures until last month, after we wrote about how black-box the campaign was. Big Finnish Oil looks like it’s working on catching up to regular Big Oil, which we can file under “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”
We should also note that this is just a fraction of the money being spent to influence the outcome of this fight. Dozens of lobbyists are in on this, representing a broad variety of interests that stand to win or lose should the standard be adopted. We’ll get to that down the road.
Culp lawyer coughs up retainer refund for failed lawsuit
Loren Culp’s failed campaign for governor, which had been sucked nearly dry by post-campaign payments to consultants, vendors, and the candidate himself, got a little cash infusion last month when its lawyer refunded part of the fat retainer for his disastrously failed lawsuit challenging Culp’s historically lopsided loss.
Loyal readers will recall that attorney Stephen Pidgeon charged Culp’s campaign a whopping $50,000 to file a lawsuit so ill-conceived that Pidgeon was forced to withdraw it almost immediately under threat of financial sanctions from Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
On March 9, Pidgeon refunded $16,160 of that to the campaign, according to its latest report to the Public Disclosure Commission. Otherwise, the flow of money both in and out of the campaign has dried up except for a handful of small donors who apparently demanded refunds after the campaign ended.
In January, Culp and his consultant, Christopher Gergen, announced plans to shift the campaign’s momentum to the New Patriot Political Committee, but that committee has yet to file any disclosure with the Public Disclosure Commission. That means the PAC has either raised nothing or is illegally raising unreported political money. Gergen, you’ll remember, pocketed more than 10 percent of the $3.3 million the campaign mined from the small conservative donors of Washington State, then split for Las Vegas.
Culp and Gergen are still doing weekly conservative talk shows on Culp’s social-media channels, which generally receive between 6,000 and 15,000 views, compared with about 41,000 views of the Dec. 21 video announcing the failed lawsuit. Culp’s videos generally point viewers to chiefculp.com, which promotes his new book. Gergen’s promotes the New Patriot PAC’s website. A loyal audience of that size can typically be tapped for a continuing stream of money.
Benton mailer campaign on estate tax turns out to be tiny
An anonymized mailer campaign against an estate tax bill that wasn’t going anywhere turns out to have been very small, with less than $11,000 spent on the fliers themselves.
As we reported, the mailer was the work of Don Benton, former Republican Party chair, state senator, state Trump campaign chair, and head of the Selective Service System.
For review, here’s the mailer, which was sent to constituents of at least half of the 12 sponsors of House Bill 1465, a proposed big increase in the estate tax, which is levied on the stuff you leave your heirs when you die. The bill went nowhere, but the mailer kicked up a ruckus, with multiple complaints filed to the Public Disclosure Commission.
Last month Benton told the Observer that he’d put together a coalition of donors for an effort to “educate voters” about the tax, but named only the American Business Defense Council, a national group devoted to repealing the estate tax and the federal and state level.
According to Benton’s recent filing with the Public Disclosure Commission, the group was the only funder of the campaign and contributed just $16,000. That’s a tiny campaign, at the very low end of how much you’d spend to reach voters in one legislative district, let alone several. When we reached out to Benton to see if there’s more coming, he replied: “Maybe? Not sure. We appear to have achieved our objective for now on this specific issue. I plan to do more of this type of thing going forward.”
As we noted the last time we wrote on this, the mailer was an odd tactic aimed at killing something that was already dead, and the small scale makes it a double headscratcher. Benton didn’t reply when we asked him to clarify “objective,” but if it was just stirring the pot, then it might be viewed as money well spent.
The industry term of art for this kind of faux-grassroots is “Astroturf” for the evil plastic grass that ruined countless knees — including one of your correspondent’s — and perverted various sports for a generation.
This isn’t a knock on our friends at the PDC; the law just doesn’t demand very much detail.