Summary: Since the 1970s, left-wing activists—beginning with failed presidential candidate Ralph Nader—have struggled to build a lasting base of support for Democrats at the polls. But one of them, former activist Doug Phelps, took it further, establishing a permanent empire of professional, paid canvassers designed to secure money and votes for the radical Left’s agenda. CRC’s Hayden Ludwig and Michael Watson expose, for the first time, this vast empire of canvassers known as the Public Interest Network, and the mysterious puppet master atop the pyramid.
Navigating the Left-Wing Labyrinth
While the size of the Public Interest Network gives the impression of containing dozens of sprawling, organic advocacy organizations located in nearly every state, PIN is really controlled by offices in three key cities: Washington, D.C; Boston, Massachusetts; and Denver, Colorado.
The Washington, D.C., office on Pennsylvania Avenue primarily houses the 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arms of Environment America, the super PAC Environment America Action Fund, and the 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arms of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US-PIRG). It also serves as the federal affairs office for smaller PIN organizations, such as the Boston-based Fair Share, a group that advocates for higher corporate taxes and changes to campaign finance law.
PIN’s Boston office is far larger in scope than the Washington office. It’s actually the office of MASSPIRG, one of the oldest PIRGs in operation, but it also houses the powerful NAOPI, NCPI, Center for Public Interest Research, and Fund for the Public Interest. (It’s worth noting that, while tax filings show these groups were incorporated and operate in Massachusetts, their staff and board of directors appear split between Boston and Denver, where many of PIN’s top officers reside.) Besides these five, at least another 10 organizations are listed at the same address, such as Fair Share, the super PAC Fair Share Action, the environmental groups Toxics Action Center and National Environmental Law Center, the voter mobilization groups PIRG New Voters Project and Student Organizing Inc., PIN’s in-house digital strategy group Public Interest GRFX, and the LGBT advocacy group Fund for Equality (a project of the Fund for the Public Interest).
The Denver office could be considered co-equal with PIN’s Boston headquarters, since many of PIN’s top brass are based there, including Phelps himself. For this reason, it’s considered the headquarters of the Public Interest Network, and houses the Public Interest PAC and the PIN think tank Frontier Group. PIN also maintains three activist training centers in Denver: Impact, which trains activists in campaign management for US-PIRG, Environment America, and Fair Share; Green Corps, which was created in 1992 to train activists in environmental organizing; and Change Corps, the general community organizing and canvassing camp.
Life in these programs is laborious. Over the course of their 60 to 70-hour weeks, students study “the tactics used to win change on issues such as marriage equality, where a small number of activists raised awareness and organized grassroots support” in favor of redefining marriage. They’re then systematically immersed in the agenda of the professional Left by speakers like former Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards; Obama Foundation CEO David Simas; Bill McKibben, founder of the major environmental advocacy group 350.org; and representatives from Van Jones’s Color of Change, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Southern Elections Fund.
Like the Fund for the Public Interest, students who become full-time organizers for Green Corps can expect exhausting work weeks, long-distance relocation, and termination without warning if they fail to meet canvassing quotas. A 2003 letter from unnamed staffers addressed to the Green Corps board of directors—which includes Wendy Wendlandt and Doug Phelps—asked the board to consider adopting “a written policy on employee termination that is shared with all employees,” an “anonymous forum in which organizers can evaluate the organization and its staff without compromising [their] job security,” and regular performance evaluations. “We feel confident that Green Corps will take the right steps to strengthen the organization,” the staffers concluded. “[W]e want to be proud when we say we are Green Corps.”
Phelps didn’t share their views. In his reply, the PIN president found their concerns over job security “hard to fathom”:
I wish you had taken your concerns individually to [the staffers who run the group day-to-day] rather than signing onto a group letter and sending it to the board. There is an inevitable negative vibe created by doing the latter. . . I myself don’t like people going behind my back or over my head in an organized fashion, and especially people I’m busting my butt to train and serve, and doubly especially if I’m paying them for the privilege!
Fight Big Money in Politics… with Super PACs?
The three PACs associated with PIN are somewhat more enigmatic than their nonprofit counterparts. For one thing, none of them are listed as part of the Public Interest Network, even though they share office space at PIN’s headquarters in Denver, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The PACs hardly appear in the same Internet search results as the Network, too.
The Denver-based Public Interest PAC was created in 2015 and is headed by Faye Park, president of US-PIRG. With $50,000 raised and spent in the 2018 election (as of writing), it’s the smallest of the three PACs, and serves as one medium through which Environment America can give money to the Democratic Governors Association and the (now-defunct) anti-Republican attack PAC Correct the Record.
NCPI president Wendy Wendlandt is also treasurer for the super PAC Fair Share Action, which raised $2.8 million in 2018 and spent $2.1 million, almost entirely on the PIN canvassing operation Work for Progress.
In 2016, funding to the super PAC came almost exclusively from Environment America and Fair Share, with additional, smaller donations from the American Federation of Government Employees and the union group For Our Future. Besides Work for Progress, Fair Share Action’s biggest donation was $1 million to the Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. It also split another $500,000 between two Democratic PACs created by Clinton operative David Brock, Correct the Record and American Bridge 21st Century. (The two groups were split off from each other in 2015 in order to allow the former to coordinate directly with the Clinton campaign by posting friendly content online at no cost to the campaign.)
Environment America Action Fund is located in Boston and is headed by Environment America president Ed Johnson. The super PAC is significantly larger than the other two groups, raising $16.4 million in 2018 and spending $13.1 million, mostly on Democratic Party PACs and consultants: the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), LCV Political Engagement Fund, House Majority PAC, consultant BerlinRosen, and Work for Progress.
In 2016, though, the super PAC’s funding came almost entirely from Environment America and its state affiliates—money which then went overwhelmingly to the PAC Fair Share Action ($2.5 million), League of Conservation Voters ($2.5 million), and Work for Progress ($857,000).
According to the left-leaning Center for Responsive Politics, these three PACs have spent approximately $34 million on federal elections since 2012. But why all the mystery over connecting them to PIN?
The simplest answer is that it would hamstring the rest of the Network’s war on so-called “dark money”—untraceable donations to 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which aren’t required by the IRS to disclose their donors. Take this May 2018 article written by Joe Ready, a staffer for US-PIRG:
Disclosure may seem like a small thing . . . . But over the years, misguided jurisprudence has undermined that principle. Most notably the Citizens United decision declared corporations people, and unleashed a flood of corporate political spending.
Ready runs Democracy for the People, US-PIRG’s “long-term [plan] to overturn Citizens United [v. FEC],” the 2010 Supreme Court decision prohibiting the government from restricting independent expenditures by nonprofits and other groups in federal elections. The project aims to enact a constitutional amendment “declaring that corporations are not people, money is not speech, and our elections are not for sale” to “the mega-donors and Super PACs who are undermining our democracy [emphasis added] and the principles upon which it stands.”
Yet Fair Share Action and Environment America Action are funded almost solely by their respective 501(c)(4) counterparts, Fair Share and Environment America, and use that money to support major Democratic Party PACs and candidates—most notably Hillary Clinton—while at the same time claiming to oppose “big money flooding in from mega-donors and super PACs.”
That hypocrisy hasn’t stopped US-PIRG from claiming that “big-money politics has damaged our democracy.” But what about the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), a major recipient of money from the PIN super PACs? As it turns out, LCV is headed by Gene Karpinski, whose last job was executive director for US-PIRG—a position he held for 21 years before joining LCV in 2006. LCV senior vice president Tiernan Sittenfeld, too, is a former lobbyist for US-PIRG.
In fact, Environment America even bragged about its connections to the LCV after it gave $10 million through its super PAC to the group in July: “Key leaders of LCV, including Gene Karpinski, Tiernan Sittenfeld, Pete Maysmith, and others, worked over the course of three decades for organizations in The Public Interest Network.”
It’s the height of hypocrisy for multi-million-dollar groups like the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Environment America to shuffle funds from their super PACs to alumni and friends while arguing that “super PACs . . . should be illegal” with messages echoed word-for-word by dozens of US-PIRG’s state affiliates, but perhaps that’s par for the course in the Public Interest Network.
In the conclusion of Secrets of the Public Interest Pyramid, learn how the highly visible Grassroots Campaigns Inc. employees support some of the Left’s biggest organizations.