VoteVets Reaped Heavy Backing from Environmental Groups

March 2, 2012 06:48

The grants reflect one of the key strategies for supporters of climate legislation, which was to link U.S. dependence on imported oil with the Iraq War. – OpenSecrets


By Viveca Novak and Robert Maguire at


An organization begun six years ago by Iraq war veterans received nearly $4 million from environmental groups in 2010, a year during which it spent $3.2 million running ads that targeted congressional candidates and urged passage of a climate bill.

The Sierra Club gave $670,000 to the liberal VoteVets Action Fund, and the NRDC Action Fund donated $500,000. The largest total came from the Alliance for Climate Protection, the group founded by former Vice President Al Gore: $2.6 million, research by OpenSecrets Blog has found.

VoteVets Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization under tax law and has never disclosed its donors to the public; it is not required to do so. OpenSecrets Blog was able to learn the identities of some of them through filings by the donor groups with the Internal Revenue Service.

The lack of disclosure by the 501(c)(4) groups makes them much more opaque than super PACs, though both are allowed to accept unlimited sums of money from practically any source. Super PACs, however, must identify their donors.

Until 2010, the organization had not been involved in environmental causes and instead focused on opposing the troop surge in Iraq under President George W. Bush, supporting a new G.I. bill to fund education for military veterans and similar issues.

The Alliance for Climate Protection gave money to VoteVets in three separate grants, the dates of which are not listed on the IRS forms. The reason for the contributions is, however: “To support the purchase of airtime for an educational television advertisement about the national security benefits and benefits to American soldiers of clean energy,” reads one description. The other two are also for airtime purchases, but the ads are explained as being “about the benefits to the American people of more clean American-made power” and “about the costs to American soldier’s of America’s dependence on foreign oil.”

The grants reflect one of the key strategies for supporters of climate legislation, which was to link U.S. dependence on imported oil with the Iraq War.

The ads sponsored by VoteVets that mentioned the climate bill ran in early 2010, urging passage of a “clean energy climate plan” to cut the nation’s need for foreign oil. The Senate Democratic leadership pulled the plug on the climate bill in July of that year, and it has not been a legislative priority since then.

VoteVets also sponsored more candidate-specific ads, such as one praising Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, until shortly before the election. And VoteVets has a PAC that gave $209,645 to candidates in 2010, exclusively to Democrats.

Jon Stoltz, the founder and chairman of, told OpenSecrets Blog that the environment “has always been an issue for us, we’ve always been interested in the oil independence issue — [U.S.] energy policy is one that helps terrorists.” In 2010, he said, the pending climate bill led to a special push by a variety of groups that came together.

Some of the officials of organizations that donated to VoteVets are longtime stalwarts of Democratic giving. Daniel Tishman, NRDC’s chairman and and the CEO of an enormous construction firm, has contributed more than $280,000 to various Democratic candidates and committees since the start of 2007, as well as to the League of Conservation Voters’ PAC; an NRDC vice chairman, Patricia Bauman, who helps run her family’s Bauman Foundation, has given more than $225,000.

The IRS filings on donations by nonprofits to 501(c)(4) organizations that were politically active may be only a sliver of the contributions to the groups. In all likelihood, individuals and/or corporations also donated, and there are no public tax filings that would reveal their gifts. Furthermore, expect a long delay before forms covering 2011, let alone 2012, are available. The filings are due to the IRS on the 15th day of the fifth month following the end of a group’s fiscal year, with an automatic three-month extension available. The groups may have a second 90-day extension upon some showing of need.

Stoltz told OpenSecrets Blog that “we’re going to be very active this cycle — more active than we have been in the past.”

For more about the donors to politically active nonprofits, see the first story in our series, The Shadow Money Trail.

Correction: The original version of this story said that $3.78 million was given to VoteVets by the Alliance for Climate Protection. The actual number is $2.6 million, and the story has been changed to reflect that. VoteVets received a total of $3.78 million from three environmental groups.

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