House Republicans will reactivate investigations into the relationship between hostile foreign governments and activists who oppose American energy production if their party regains a congressional majority in November, congressional sources and policy analysts say.
As rising gas prices and inflation bedevil consumers, Congress should devote more time and attention to “anti-energy campaigns” that undercut America’s geopolitical standing while benefiting strategic competitors such as China and Russia, Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the Washington-based National Center for Public Policy Research, a free-market think tank, told The Daily Signal.
Congressional investigations that focus on the foreign ties of nonprofit advocacy groups, as well as the litigation and regulation they advance at the expense of U.S. oil and gas projects, would contrast sharply with recent House hearings targeting American energy companies, Cohen suggested in an interview.
Cohen is particularly critical of Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee for pushing a climate change agenda that he calls “detached from scientific facts,” “offensive to First Amendment freedoms,” and laced with “directives from special interests.”
The committee’s hearing last October, called “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Exposing Big Oil’s Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action,” became the subject of litigation from a nonprofit, public interest law firm that alleges violations of House ethics rules.
Rob Schilling, a Virginia talk radio host, filed the suit in January, naming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a defendant along with the House’s clerk and its chief administrative officer. Schilling seeks House records pertinent to his allegations that lawmakers got help from privately funded outside staff to steer their investigations, in violation of House rules.
Chris Horner, a lawyer who represents Schilling in his suit as well as the nonprofit group Government Accountability & Oversight, says he would like to see lawmakers uphold House ethics rules and federal laws that preclude them from using privately funded, outside activists to perform congressional duties.
“At no point did the House Ethics Committee say it was OK to do this,” Horner told The Daily Signal. “In fact, there’s an ethics opinion that specifically says it’s not OK to do this.”
After the House’s top staff lawyer insisted that the Oversight and Reform Committee is the only custodian of records sought by Schilling, the talk show host amended his suit earlier this month to name both the committee and the House as a whole.
‘No Legitimate Purpose’
A second Oversight and Reform Committee hearing Feb. 8, called “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Examining Big Oil’s Climate Pledges,” also pushed what Cohen, of the National Center for Public Policy Research, calls an “America last” energy policy.
Democrats on the committee, in online statements, depicted the effort as an ongoing “investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s long-running campaign to spread disinformation about climate change and greenwash its role in causing global warming.”
Committee Democrats teased a third hearing in March that would feature “members of the boards of directors of four fossil fuel companies.”
“We launched this investigation to get to the bottom of Big Oil’s role in contributing to climate change, and we will get to the truth about these pledges,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in her opening statement at the February hearing, referring to oil companies’ pledges to reduce carbon emissions.
“We intend to hold another hearing with board members in March to answer questions about the pledges,” Maloney said. “If they do not agree to appear, the committee will use every tool at its disposal to get the information we need.”
That hearing, however, didn’t occur.
Schilling filed his amended complaint May 5, expanding on his previous allegations and naming more defendants. His revised lawsuit continues to allege that the Oversight and Reform Committee used former House staff members to help organize investigations and hearings targeting American energy companies.
Schilling’s suit also claims:
there is no legitimate legislative purpose or legislative activity at play in the committee’s decision to bring in-house outside parties who provide congressional offices with ‘consulting services’ underwritten by activist donors who desire the pursuit of certain congressional oversight, and in certain ways. …
Similarly, there is no legitimate legislative purpose or activity when a committee takes those services, and takes affirmative steps toward fulfilling those objectives. This is further still less a legitimate legislative pursuit when, as appears to be the case here, those uses of House resources are to assist third-party litigants, and the executive branch in fulfilling a political vow.
The general counsel for the House of Representatives filed a motion May 19 to dismiss Schilling’s lawsuit.
Enforcing Law on Foreign Agents
In 2018, former Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, then chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., then chairman of its oversight and investigations subcommittee, sent letters to environmental advocacy groups to inquire about their relationships with China.
The letters from Bishop and Westerman highlighted several examples of where the environmental groups’ policies appeared to benefit China while undercutting the U.S. The lawmakers asked whether the groups complied with the Foreign Agents Registration Act and could document their registration as foreign agents.
The letters went to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the World Resources Institute. Each group denied operating as foreign agents of China.
Things changed after Democrats regained the majority, though. Upon assuming the chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee in 2019, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., halted the investigations.
Environmental activists now are waging a multilayered assault against U.S. energy policies that goes “far beyond” potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and involves “interlocking relationships” at home and abroad, Cohen told The Daily Signal in an email.
“Having enthusiastically embraced an ‘America last’ policy on energy, the green left and its allies on Capitol Hill and [in] the Biden White House are showing where their sympathies lie,” the National Center for Public Policy Research’s Cohen said, adding:
Their collective disdain for the people who will bear the burden of energy poverty is matched by their complete indifference to the geopolitical consequences of their actions. As evidence surfaced a few years ago of cozy relationships between American environmental groups and foreign powers, notably China and Russia, that stood to benefit from ‘keep it in the ground’ policies in the U.S., the House launched investigations into this under-the-radar collusion.
Those investigations, which were bearing fruit, came to a screeching halt after Democrats took power in the House in January 2019. In light of soaring energy prices in the U.S. (and elsewhere in the world), those investigations should be reopened if the House changes hands in January.
This should go far beyond violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The entire network of interlocking relationships involving environmental groups, purveyors of renewable energy, foreign powers, woke corporations pushing ESG [environmental, social, and governance] agendas, and Wall Street firms seeking to redirect capital from fossil-fuel producers to taxpayer-subsidized wind and solar power in which they are heavily invested needs to be exposed.
‘Bullying by Way of Inquisition’
Staffers for the Natural Resources Committee recently told The Daily Signal that Westerman and other lawmakers are keen on the idea of reopening investigations into U.S.-based environmental groups that appear to operate as foreign agents.
Westerman and other committee Republicans “continue to be concerned about undue foreign influence on domestic environmental organizations, and we may see some more investigations materialize in the next few months,” a staffer who requested anonymity said in an email to the Daily Signal.
“Certainly, we will keep up this drumbeat if we take back the House in November as well,” the staffer added, “particularly given these organizations’ general opposition to American energy independence.”
In September, Maloney, chair of the Oversight and Reform Committee, joined with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., chair of its environment subcommittee, to announce what they called an investigation of the fossil fuel industry’s “disinformation” on the “climate crisis.”
This probe featured hearings in December and February in which Democrats accused fossil fuel companies of working to “prevent meaningful action on climate change” and “spread disinformation about climate change.”
“What I witnessed at that hearing in February was eye-opening,” Tubb told The Daily Signal. “Oil companies are legal companies engaged in legal activities, and yet here were elected officials bullying by way of inquisition—unwilling to go the legitimate route of banning the oil industry by way of legislation.”
“They were blatantly telling these companies not to be oil companies anymore, but ‘energy’ companies committed to renewable energy,” Tubb said of the Democrat lawmakers. “Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot —bullying a renewable energy company to mine for coal would be anathema to these inquisitors. No politician should have that kind of power outside of the process outlined in the Constitution for a representative government.”
Who Finances Climate Agenda
At issue in Schilling’s lawsuit is the role of a nonprofit group, Co-Equal, sponsored by the Washington-based consulting firm Arabella Advisors.
Arabella Advisors guides a megadonor network that “manages four nonprofits that serve as incubators and accelerators for a range of other left-of-center nonprofits,” according to the website Influence Watch, which tracks organizations on the left and is run by the Capital Research Center. Those nonprofits are the New Venture Fund, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the Hopewell Fund, and the Windward Fund.
As The Daily Signal previously reported, Co-Equal’s website discloses that it is a project of the Hopewell Fund and that its sister group Co-Equal Action is a project of the Sixteen Thirty Fund. Arabella Advisors is a fiscal sponsor of both those nonprofits.
Co-Equal was founded by Phil Barnett and Phil Schiliro, who were staffers to then-Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., during the congressional tobacco hearings of the 1990s. Barnett and Schiliro also served in the Obama White House.
“I’m old enough to remember when Democrats assured us that a nonprofit providing its people to perform work typically performed by congressional staff portended the end of the republic,” Horner, the lawyer who represents Schilling, said in an email to The Daily Signal. “That was far more basic work, while this involves guiding a congressional investigation, of political opponents no less. Apparently yet again we need to understand that ‘This is different.’”
Remarkably, so far, this has not only been free from scrutiny, but the subject of a fawning, and of course, thoroughly uncritical puff-piece rollout in The New York Times boasting of the [Co-Equal] group’s widespread and profound influence filling perceived staffing gaps.
An obvious question for that or any reporter about what the Times admitted was a ‘unique approach’ would have been, ‘So, is it OK for Republicans to bring in additional privately funded staffers from industry groups? Or how about if outside staff was provided by the NRA or a pro-life group?’
Barnett and Schiliro, the former House staffers, both have told reporters that whatever advice they offered to guide House investigations of U.S. energy companies was while wearing a “different hat,” separate from their roles at Co-Equal, according to Schilling’s suit.
But Khanna, chair of the House environment subcommittee, told The Hill in September that his panel enlisted help from “a lot of people” who planned the hearings looking into the tobacco companies.
That comment “plainly describes” Barnett and Schiliro, Horner said in the email to The Daily Signal, adding:
There is a clear prohibition under House rules of an outside group providing services that are typically provided by congressional staff. So, [Barnett and Schiliro] weren’t there as the guys in The New York Times story lauding how they offer precisely such in-kind services to congressional offices, through a group which they founded for this purpose. No, this time, they just happened to be there as someone else.
The sheer implausibility, and apparent lack of any agreement memorializing the claim [that Barnett and Schiliro didn’t represent Co-Equal], suggests an effort to redirect scrutiny from the Arabella network and financiers who clearly, specifically boasted their funding was to assist congressional investigations (Soros, Omidyar groups). Of course, this claim does nothing to bail out the committee and any of the apparently numerous other offices that have accepted these donor-provided services.
Horner was referring to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, whose Democracy Fund Voice provided $282,000 to Co-Equal in 2019 via the Sixteen Thirty Fund, according to Influence Watch.
George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire who donates to left-of-center causes, finances the Open Society Policy Center. Open Society earmarked $300,000 for the Co-Equal Action Fund in a donation to the Sixteen Thirty Fund, according to the center’s fourth-quarter 2018 report.
Horner said Co-Equal activists and House committee leaders might mount a defense based on the possibility that Khanna created a “member advisory group,” which is permissible under certain circumstances. That would be supported with documents if true, Horner said.
But even if this were the case, the lawyer said, House members are prohibited from accepting “in kind” services, or nonmonetary gifts.
Targeting ‘Opponents of Climate Agenda’
The Biden-Harris campaign pledged to direct the U.S. attorney general to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation” as part of an “environmental justice” agenda.
In his lawsuit, Schilling points to “a series of public-private collaborations” designed “to deploy judicial or quasi-judicial functions of government against political opponents of the climate agenda.”
The most high-profile of these collaborations was former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s move to provide lawyers to the offices of progressive state attorneys general to pursue Bloomberg’s climate agenda, including assisting third-party lawsuits against energy companies.
The House’s climate investigation last fall is the latest manifestation of this collaborative effort, according to Schilling’s lawsuit.
The radio host claims in the suit that an Oct. 31, 2020, email obtained through California’s Public Records Act bolsters his argument of an overarching purpose behind the House committee’s “engagement of outside parties” to help make a referral to the Justice Department.
Barnett, the former Waxman and Obama White House staffer turned Co-Equal activist, sent the email to Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA who is currently on leave to join the Biden administration as chief counsel to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“If Tuesday [Nov. 3, 2020] goes well we should find time to talk so I can give you an update on some recent positive developments,” Barnett wrote Carlson three days before the 2020 general election in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump.
According to Schilling’s suit, Barnett was referring to plans for one or more congressional investigations.
In an email Wednesday, Schilling told The Daily Signal:
As we note in the amended complaint, based on what we know, it is a reasonable conclusion that Barnett was referencing plans for this congressional investigation into the litigation targets of Prof. Carlson’s legal team, which he was going to, and we now know did, help guide in the event Democrats maintained their congressional majority.
Request for Documents Denied
One plausible objective of the House committee hearings, Schilling’s suit says, was to generate referrals to the Justice Department that would result in climate litigation in line with the Biden administration’s goals.
The suit notes that lawyer Margaret Goodlander was Co-Equal’s legal counsel at the time but later took a job in the Biden Justice Department as counsel to Attorney General Merrick Garland, where “she likely would receive any referral to the department from the [House] Oversight Committee.”
Schilling filed his amended complaint May 5 in response to correspondence April 18 from Douglas Letter, general counsel for the House of Representatives. In it, on behalf of the Oversight and Reform Committee and its environment subcommittee, Letter rejected the talk show host’s request for information.
Letter wrote that no video recordings exist related to Schilling’s request, but he didn’t admit or deny the existence of other records requested by the talk show host. The House’s general counsel wrote that Schilling wasn’t entitled to emails under the “common law right of access” and that “no materials will be produced.”
Schilling’s amended complaint names as defendants the House of Representatives and its Oversight and Reform Committee in addition to Pelosi and other senior House officers named earlier. The talk show host reiterates his request for email communications and video recordings pertaining to the House committee’s alleged use of donor-provided consultants.
Schilling’s suit cites House Rule 24 and federal law prohibiting use of outside private donations and in-kind goods or services. Because Congress exempts itself from the Freedom of Information Act, his suit invokes “common law” precedent for accessing public records.
The Daily Signal emailed the media contact for the House Oversight and Reform Committee, asking questions about Schilling’s allegations in the suit.
Specifically, The Daily Signal asked what the committee did to ensure it didn’t break House Rule 24 while enlisting the aid of “a lot of people,” as subcommittee chair Khanna referred to former House staff members involved in the tobacco hearings of the 1990s.
The Daily Signal also asked whether the committee formed a member advisory group that included Co-Equal’s Barnett and Schiliro, how it documented that process, and the names of others in the group.
These same questions were directed to Khanna and his staff.
The Daily Signal also asked whether either the full committee or the subcommittee asked for an advisory opinion from the House Ethics Committee on using privately funded staff.
At publication time for this report, no one had acknowledged or responded to the inquiries.
The Daily Signal asked the Office of Congressional Ethics whether it provided an advisory opinion to Khanna, his subcommittee, or the full committee. The office acknowledged the inquiry, but did not provide an answer.
However, Karen Lightfoot, a spokesperson for Co-Equal, again denied the nonprofit’s involvement in her response to an inquiry from The Daily Signal.
“Co-Equal was not involved in the hearing or investigation you are asking about,” Lightfoot said in an email.
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