Hawaii anti-GMO activists rely on mainland millionaires for 'grassroots' campaign

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Article Highlights

  • Using non-profit funds to lobby and influence legislation is a violation of the fed gov’s charitable guidelines.

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  • The case of E Kupaku ka ‘Aina illustrates how astroturfing can work.

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  • There are millions of dollars flowing from mainland anti-GMO orgs to Hawai'i.

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The Genetic Literacy Project has identified millions of dollars flowing from mainland anti-GMO organizations to Hawai’i, funding local activists who represent their efforts to restrict the technology as ‘homegrown’ and ‘grassroots’.

The GLP previously uncovered how Molokai anti-GMO activist Walter Ritte violated Hawai’i election financing and disclosure regulations. Now there is growing evidence that Ritte and activist organizations have collected more than a million dollars from anti-GMO advocacy groups on the mainland to fund their campaigns.

The GLP’s investigation focused in part on Hawai’i Seed, which appears to be funded substantially by an activist Minnesota foundation known as Ceres Trust, which calls itself an “organic research” organization, but is actually a huge endowment fund that mostly funnels money to anti-GMO campaigns. The trust fund recipients—well-known anti-GMO activists on the mainland—paid out campaign contributions directly, and based on Ritte’s filing, illegally, to his failed race for a vacant seat on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Ritte also listed a contribution from Susan and John Scarlett (CEO of Geron, a biotechnology company based in Menlo Park, CA).  Ritte is Scarlett’s first cousin. Apparently to hide the fact that the money was coming from the mainland, the Ritte campaign listed their address as a bed and breakfast establishment—a misrepresentation and a direct violation of campaign law. More than 80% of Ritte’s campaign money came from out-of-state contributors—an additional violation of the spending law.

Astroturfing with mainland money

In 1985, then Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen suddenly found his office besieged by letters and calls that appeared to have been sent spontaneously by concerned citizens. These were actually generated by a well-financed behind-the-scenes campaign by the insurance industry. “A fellow from Texas can tell the difference between grassroots and astroturf,” Bentsen said.

That’s the derivation of the term “astroturfing”— the difference between the synthetic and the real, between manipulated and hyped support for a position by a vocal minority and the genuine expression of reason and majority opinion.

Is astroturfing what’s going on in Hawaii? As Derrick DePledge noted in a meticulously documented exposé of the mainland cash cows in Sunday’s Hawaii Star Advertiser, Councilman Gary Hooser, who has led the GMO demonization campaign in Kauai County, often describes the anti-GMO movement as the ‘greatest show of grass-roots democracy in the island’s history’.

But research by the GLP and the Star-Advertiser suggests that Ritte and other activist groups have been engaging in astroturfing in its effort to exaggerate the alleged dangers of genetically modified crops and foods, and the out of state bankroll for almost all of the efforts.

The GLP briefly addressed the role of CERES in its early September article. Besides funding Ritte directly, over 2010-2011, the last two years for which records are available, CERES pumped more than $1.5 million dollars into national and Hawaii anti-GMO coffers, with a sizable percentage of the national money targeted on Hawai’i.

CERES Anti-GMO Contributions

2011
-E Kupaku ka ‘Aina —Hawai‘i Land Restoration Institute $340,307

-Hawai‘i SEED. $145,490

-Kohala Center $40,000

-Bishop Museum $31,027

-Center for Food Safety, Washington, D.C. $550,000

2010
-Center for Food Safety, Washington, D.C $650,000

The case of E Kupaku ka ‘Aina (aka Hawai‘i Land Restoration Institute), illustrates how astroturfing can work. In 2010, it received more than $11,000 in grants. But in 2011, that shot up to more than $313,00 with the injection of CERES funds, and as of 2011, it was sitting on more than $200,000 in cash.

It’s listed with the IRS as a charitable 5013c, claiming its mission is “environmental beautification” and to “restore degraded landscapes.” But it’s acted in part as an anti-GMO front. Penny Levin, the institute’s executive director has spoken out against using genetic modification to address a viral blight that could threaten the taro crop. Levin has also spearheaded anti-GMO talks, co-sponsored by CERES, as recently as last month on Molokai.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS), the Washington, DC based advocacy group known for its opposition to conventional agriculture, including crop biotechnology, has been acting as a financial funnel to Hawai’i groups for years. CERES provided $1.2 million to CFS in 2010 and 2011 alone, a sizable chunk of it earmarked for “grassroots” efforts in Hawai’i, including support of Ritte. Ritte, who has served as a past board director of Hawai’i Seed, and CFS director Andrew Kimbel appeared together at a Hawai’i SEED event in January, when Ritte accused elected officials on the island of corruption and supported “driving these criminals off this island.”

The Sacharuna Foundation, a Virginia-based private foundation started by Lavinia Currier, an heiress and former filmmaker who has ranch property on Molokai, donated $257,400 to CFS from 2005 to 2010. Currier also gave $68,750 to Hawai‘i SEED from 2005 to 2011.

The Sacharuna Foundation also donated to two anti-GMO groups with ties to activist Nancy Redfeather, founder of GMO Free Hawai’i, who regularly organizes anti-GMO events and acts as a coordinator to fly in anti-GMO speakers. Ka Ohana o na Pua received $53,000 from 2005-2011 and the Kohala Center in Waimea accepted $40,000 in 2011. Both groups claim to promote “agricultural education,” but they are known for presenting scientifically questionable views about crop biotechnology.

Figures are not yet available on Guidestar on Sacharuna for 2012 and 2013, but based on the escalating activism and the almost daily visits by mainland and international anti-GMO activists, the dollar contributions are almost certainly considerably higher.

Ritte acknowledged to the Star-Advertiser that he has been a recipient of this mainland largesse and that it’s helped fund organizing efforts and activist travel. Hooser, who and Council members in Hawaii, have also benefitted from the mainland money funnel, working closely with the Center for Food Safety and Earth Justice in coordinating their legal efforts.

Molokai connection

The money has been also been used to sponsor local “educational” activities that often end up being fronts for many anti-GMO activities. One of the more active groups is the Molokai Community Service Council (MCSC), which is an umbrella group for many small organizations, some of which are uncontroversial. But it has developed a decidedly activist edge in recent years, spurred on by director Karen Holt, who many consider a silent partner of Ritte and the Molokai activists.

According to their most recent tax returns for fiscal year 20110, it received $1.47 Million in income and had net assets of $2.3 Million. Where did that money come from? The pages of their tax returns that should list the source of that income is mysteriously missing from the Guidestar databank or in statewide documents.

MCSC runs the Ho`omana Hou High School, which has been engaged in anti-seed industry activities for years. In March 2012, Hoomanu Hou staff members and Ritte, acting as their ‘adult supervisor’, went so far as to bring students to a Molokai Irrigation System Users Advisory Board to lobby government official Russell Kokubun, Hawai’i Department of Agriculture Director, who was participating in the meeting.

MCSC also paid Hui o Kuapa, which Walter Ritte is listed as Agent and is a Director, more than $200,000 in 2010 for what many residents believe was a make-work project, a fishpond restoration. More than half of those funds are not accounted for according to both organizations federal 990 tax returns.

MCSC was also listed as one of the event sponsors of the September 2012 anti-GMO Molokai event, titled “Occupy Monsanto: Global Action Against Genetic Biohazard,” which brought in anti-GMO speakers, organic activist Hector Valenzuela, and Paul Achitof from Earth Justice Hawaii. That event was organized by Molokai MOM, an anti-GMO group that is  not legally registered as a charity and is run by the wife of Walter Ritte’s son, Mercy Ritte.

Molokai MOM also sponsored what organizers characterized as a “grassroots” benefit concert on July 5th of this year. Approximately 80% of the funding came from Hawai’i Seed Director Jeri DiPietro and 4% from her father in law, Ritte. Other notable contributors were Maui County Council member and prominent anti-GMO activists Eleanora Cochran, filmmaker Natasha Florentino and Nancy Redfeather.

Using non-profit funds to lobby public officials and influence legislation is a violation of the federal government’s charitable guidelines for MCSC and Hawai’i Seed and could put their tax-free status in jeopardy—and certainly confirms their role as astroturfing organizations, funneling mainland anti-GMO money.

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