Lawmakers, Agriculture Community Express Concern Over Findings of Campaign Audit

Lawmakers, Agriculture Community Express Concern Over Findings of Campaign Audit
A recent audit of the What's Upstream campaign determined its operation involved legal lobbying. Affected stakeholders and national lawmakers are disagreeing with the ruling and working toward addressing the "legal loophole" created. Photo: Christine Majul

In the wake of a national audit of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-funded and Washington state-based “What’s Upstream” campaign targeting the agriculture community, U.S. lawmakers and state agricultural stakeholders are calling the findings inaccurate and inappropriate.

Last fall, the campaign was under fire for alleged unregistered grassroots lobbying using taxpayer dollars. Yet last month, an EPA’s Office of Inspector General (IG) audit determined the campaign lobbied Washington lawmakers legally, causing an uproar from dairy and livestock proponents who worry the ruling gives similar campaigns a legal loophole for acceptable operations.

The Washington campaign began in early 2016, when the What’s Upstream campaign put up billboards in Olympia and Bellingham claiming: “unregulated agriculture is putting our waterways at risk,” featuring a stock photo of cows standing in stream water in Amish Pennsylvania. The effort was funded by an EPA grant to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NIFC) and partially organized by the Swinomish Tribe, a sub-grantee.

The campaign’s website included a “take action” button where visitors could send a letter asking state senators to implement 100-foot streamside buffers on farmland to further control alleged water pollution caused by Washington farmers.

Ag Stakeholders in “Great Disappointment’ Over Audit 

Now, members of the agriculture community are voicing concerns over the findings of the audit.

“Our reaction is absolutely amazement and great disappointment because we don’t think that their evaluation is correct,” said Gerald Baron, who is the executive director of the Whatcom County-based Save Family Farming (SFF).

Tyler Cox, president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, also expressed his concern. “This is an issue that is going to affect everybody that has anything to do with bovine animals. This was an extremely inflammatory campaign. I have a hard time understanding how it was not lobbying…the accusation of that campaign is a pretty amazing stretch to use tax dollars.”

“That was pretty harsh…and the…implications were just not okay,” said Cox. “That’s preying upon a public that is certainly uninformed on the actual science of the situation…and that’s just not an okay avenue.”

Last September, SFF attorney James Tupper Jr. sent a formal complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) alleging the “What’s Upstream” campaign engaged in illegal and unregistered grassroots lobbying to influence lawmakers. He urged the PDC to collect the proper documentation, register the campaign and file penalties for “blatant violations of state law.”

Tupper wrote Washington residents deserved to know “years ago” the EPA and Swinomish Tribe Environmental Policy Director Larry Wasserman “were intending to deploy $655,000 in federal grant funding on a grass roots campaign to enact new laws and regulations in our state.”

Last October, an e-mail surfaced which revealed the EPA knew about the original intent of the campaign four-and-a-half months before the agency stopped funding the effort.

In February 2017, the PDC ruled no illegal lobbying occurred and cleared the claim. PDC Executive Director Evelyn Fielding Lopez argued the campaign only encouraged a “general call” to lawmakers, and failed to direct residents to a piece of legislation.

Addressing The ‘Legal Loophole’ 

The IG’s April 24 audit cited similar reasoning for its ruling which determined the campaign’s website encouraged sending a letter to Washington lawmakers in general support of clean water, while pointing to a need for waterside buffers.

“Given that the form letter did not reference any proposed or pending legislative action linked to the purpose of the letter and that we should interpret the criminal statute as narrowly as possible, there appears to be no violation of the statute by the campaign,” the IG determined.

“The fact that they noted they were taking the most generous view of the law indicated they were looking hard for a legal loophole and thought they had found it even though it seems to be a clear violation of the law,” said Baron.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington (R-4) also found fault in the IG’s ruling. “I will evaluate all available legislative options to tighten requirements governing federally funded grants so that no technical loophole allows farmers or anyone else to be targets of taxpayer-funded lobbying campaigns,” he said in a written statement to the Seattle Times this month.

Also vocal was U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas who co-led the effort asking for the audit. “I’m pleased the IG report is complete,” Roberts said in reaction to the audit’s release. “However, just because something is found to be legal does not mean it is the right thing to do. For a federal agency to award grants that demonize an industry and promote anti-agriculture billboards and bus signs, EPA clearly had a malicious intent.”

However, Swinomish tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby wrote the “What’s Upstream educational campaign was not only necessary, it was entirely legal.”

Baron told Lens that SFF is continuing to communicate with national lawmakers over the audit’s findings. “Our overall response is that we‘ve gotten assurance from very high levels within the new administration that they are taking this issue very seriously,” he said.

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