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

Keystone pols have a gas in Manhattan over the Pennsylvania Society weekend

While we have been giving a lot of blog attention to New York State over the past few weeks, highlighting Governor Cuomo’s ties to the business lobbies pushing for natural gas in New York, Pennsylvania’s titans of business and politics paid their respects to the Empire State this past weekend, making their annual pilgrimage to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria for the Pennsylvania Society Weekend.

Alternately called a “weekend-long marathon of dinners and cocktails” that “brings together political, civic and business leaders from across Pennsylvania and across the aisle” and an “orgy of eating, drinking and, needless to say, politicking by the state’s most powerful and influential people,” the Pennsylvania Society weekend is a 114-year-old tradition wherein Pennsylvania elites, “[p]oliticians from the governor down, lobbyists and lawyers seeking their favor, corporate chiefs from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia inclined to write campaign checks,” gather in New York for what has expanded to more than 60 events sponsored by candidates, law firms, and interest groups.

Former Governor Ed Rendell told the New York Times that the weekend of schmoozing is a compulsion: “For politicians, it’s like salmon swimming upstream to give birth. We do it by instinct.”

Like all things political in Pennsylvania, the natural gas industry has a pervasive presence at the Pennsylvania Society, where revolving door lobbyists tipple with policymakers and hopefuls at thousand dollar a head receptions and break bread at invitation-only dinners all in the twinkly, gilded grandeur of midtown Manhattan in December.

Continue reading Keystone pols have a gas in Manhattan over the Pennsylvania Society weekend

Regents Research Fund UPDATE

Two weeks ago I used LittleSis to look into the NYS Education Department’s shadow government, the Regents Research Fund.  The Fund’s interlocks show a clear pattern among the fellows: 13 (out of seventeen researched) had worked at Teach for America, New Leaders, College Board or the NYC Department of Education before joining the Fund.  Some of those organizations have ties to the same foundations that support the Fund.

Ties between foundations that support the fellows and their former employers

Continue reading Regents Research Fund UPDATE

Banking on think tanks

Last week Jon Cowan, president of think tank Third Way, and Jim Kessler, Third Way’s senior vice president for policy, co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed blasting Senator Elizabeth Warren’s progressive economic agenda as irresponsible and even reckless.

Third Way’s position should come as no surprise to those familiar with the think tank. Just a cursory glance through its LittleSis profile reveals several connections to JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and other financial institutions.

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Who’s who at Cuomo’s NYC and DC fundraisers

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated his Moreland Commission’s report decrying the influence of money in politics–and his 56th birthday!–at two pricey fundraisers in the past two weeks.  Some guests paid as much as $50,000 a pop to add to Cuomo’s $28 million campaign war chest.

Thanks to the Buffalo News, we know the names of some hosts of Cuomo’s breakfast fundraiser in the offices of the Podesta Group in DC. But what inspires these folks to get up early on a Monday to raise cash for Cuomo?

Continue reading Who’s who at Cuomo’s NYC and DC fundraisers

Invisible REBNY

As if heeding the Pope’s call, the New York Times has published a new series, titled Invisible Child, on inequality and homelessness in New York City, focusing on the story of Dasani, a 12-year-old homeless child. The series is a remarkable piece of reporting, insightful and moving in its portrayal of Dasani and her family, exhaustively researched, and incisive in its analysis of the larger context of economic inequality in New York City. The longform style allows for many illuminating moments that cannot be neatly summarized, so you should read the whole thing for yourself.

The stuff that we usually focus on here at Eyes on the Ties – the power structure and policy implicated by the story – gets relatively minimal treatment in the series. Invisible Child is clearly framed as a commentary on Bloomberg’s New York, from the choice of Dasani, who was born shortly before Bloomberg took office, to anecdotes like the following:

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IOGA of New York reducing its lobbying profile

Last week, Capital New York reported on “belt-tightening” at the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) of New York that included downsizing its staff and severing its relations with the lobbying firm Hinman Straub and its affiliate Corning Place Communications. Brad Gill, director of IOGA of NY, told Capital New York that his group “doesn’t have the resources to push back against” anti-fracking groups in the state. According to the story, IOGA of NY has lost 20% of its members with the big players all but giving up on the state. “Right now, Shell could care less about New York,” Gill told Capital New York.

One of the ads from IOGA of NY’s $2 million campaign last year

While IOGA of NY’s membership may indeed be dwindling, their claim that the gas industry is short on resources compared to the anti-fracking movement seems somewhat disingenuous. In 2012, the group spent $2 million from ExxonMobil on an ad campaign supporting fracking in New York.

Continue reading IOGA of New York reducing its lobbying profile

What’s in a name: Corporate spy-for-hire Palantir of “Team Themis”

This week Whitney revealed that many of the firms hired to infiltrate nonprofit organizations on behalf of corporations have their own revolving door of former government intelligence personel from CIA, NSA, DOJ, and more. These firms were identified in an exhaustive Center for Corporate Policy report, Spooky Business, which included a particular story about a group of these firms that referred to themselves as “Team Themis.” As CCP reported, Team Themis, led by HBGary Federal, a computer security firm, sent a proposal to Hunton & Williams law firm with an outline to infiltrate the nonprofit critics of its client, the US Chamber of Commerce. The array of unethical actions proposed by Team Themis is truly outstanding; infiltrate the nonprofit with a fake insider, wage electronic warfare, investigate staff and their families, and utilize former US military and intelligence staff to carry out operations.

How much does such a comprehensive strategy cost? According to CCP, Team Themis’ proposal came with a price tag of $200,000 per month for initial research and $2 million monthly for a full campaign.

Continue reading What’s in a name: Corporate spy-for-hire Palantir of “Team Themis”

Mapping Shadow Government: Regents Research Fund

Back in August we set up a Shadow Gov Working Group on LittleSis, inspired by Obama’s Open Government Working Group established in 2009 and his administration’s hot pursuit of Edward Snowden, who worked for NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.  The research group investigates corporations that tend to profit from the privatization of government, first focusing on Booz Allen. Gin’s analysis of a $6 billion corporation that relies on government for 99% of its revenue but doesn’t hire lobbyists is definitely worth a read.

The Albany Times-Union reported last week on the New York State Education Department’s “shadow government:” a think tank advising the Board of Regents and Commissioner John B. King on educational policy, but funded entirely by private foundations.

Unlike Booz Allen, the Regents Research Fund is a nonprofit organization that doesn’t receive taxpayer funding.  Its staff (called “fellows”) are meant as supplemental advisors to the Education Department’s public officials, not replacing any public sector positions.  Critics say the fellows may be more concerned with the education reform agenda of their sponsors than what’s best for New York schools, and not subject to public accountability.  In 2011, for example, the Board of Regents adopted the fellows’ recommendation about the role of test scores in teacher evaluations over those of a task force made up by 63 educators from around the state.

One of the fellows told the Times-Union: “There aren’t a whole lot of us out there with this training and experience.”  I wondered what she meant.  There are more than 200,000 teachers, not to mention principals and other administrators, in New York State alone.  What kind of experience was she referring to?  Who are these extraordinary fellows?

Continue reading Mapping Shadow Government: Regents Research Fund