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2 Candidates Fault Sierra Club Finances

A letter calls the current leadership 'reckless' for withholding the names of contributors who gave more than $100 million.

March 13, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Two candidates running for the board of the Sierra Club on an immigration reform platform have accused the club's leadership of "irresponsible and reckless" financial policies in accepting more than $100 million from contributors without divulging the donors' names to the club's board of directors or explaining how the money is being spent.

The charge, made by former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm and retired U.S. foreign service officer Frank Morris, is the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter battle for control of the influential, 750,000-member environmental organization.

"Stop the creeping moral corruption within the Sierra Club," begins an open letter from Lamm and Morris, two of three candidates who believe the Sierra Club should abandon its "neutral" position on immigration and join them in calling for tighter controls on newcomers to stabilize the U.S. population and its effect on the environment.

The letter contends that Sierra Club directors have been told "to tell no one and to ask no questions" about $102 million in anonymous donations. "Most of the directors of the Sierra Club have no knowledge of who is giving the money or for what purposes, even thought this money now represents a large part of the budget of the Sierra Club.... This is an irresponsible and reckless policy, which risks the good reputation of the Sierra Club."

Carl Pope, the club's executive director, 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.

But Pope said it is "blatantly false and absurd" to say that directors have no idea how the money is spent. To receive the money from the foundation, the Sierra Club submits grant proposals, which are then shared with board members. "There is nothing secret about it."

Tax forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service show that the Sierra Club Foundation received two enormous windfalls from anonymous donors: $47.9 million in 2000 and $53.6 million in 2001. Each of these donations was more than double the amount of all funds raised in each of the previous four years.

Pope, the club's principal fundraiser, refused to disclose the names of the two big donors. The foundation hasn't released their names to the IRS either, for fear that the names would be disclosed inadvertently on websites that track nonprofit charities.

"These anonymous donors want to remain anonymous," Pope said.

Pope did say that the largest donations had come from about a dozen individuals who wanted to make multiyear gifts at the peak of the 1990s rise in the stock market. About $20 million has gone to groups other than the Sierra Club, as directed by donors through grants approved by the foundation's trustees, Pope said.

The remainder has funded Sierra Club programs such as wilderness outings for inner-city youths, environment justice projects for poor and minority neighborhoods and clean air and clean water advocacy, according to Sierra Club President Larry Fahn. Some programs are being funded for five years by those donations.

As president of the board, Fahn said, he is supposed to be told the identities of the anonymous donors, as is the board's treasurer. "But I don't know the names of these donors," Fahn said. "I'm not dying to know."

He said he was "comfortable" in knowing that the staff of the Sierra Club and the foundation were "dealing with these funds in an appropriate and legal matter."

Lamm said he considered such nondisclosure a breach of the board's fiduciary obligations. "Is this foreign money? Is it money that comes with special obligations? It's negligence to spend money of that amount without knowing the source."

He said he would want to know he wasn't running a money laundry "or being a front group for an entity that doesn't have the best interest of the United States at heart."

Lamm and Morris both questioned whether any of the anonymous donors had been behind what they called a vicious smear campaign against the immigration reform candidates by a "clique of Sierra Club leaders."

A third immigration-control candidate is David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor.

Morris, an African American who has written about immigrants taking jobs away from blacks, said, "We've been attacked as racists and nationalists and haven't been able to understand the severity of the attacks."

"This could be it," he said, "that the anonymous donors are calling the shots."

Sierra Club leaders, including most past presidents, have said that all three candidates were being supported by anti-immigration groups and various anti-Semitic websites.

Pope denied that any of the anonymous donors were pressuring the club to oppose candidates who want the club to take a position on immigration issues.

"Some of our donors -- not the major anonymous donors -- have expressed opinion on both sides of this debate," Pope said. As for the anonymous donors, he said, "They haven't said they are happy or unhappy about it."

Members of the Sierra Club voted in 1998, 60% to 40%, to stay out of the immigration debate.

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