The free-market Civitas Institute filed a complaint with the N.C. Board of Elections on Thursday alleging environmental organizations broke the law with a series of TV ads they ran attacking a handful of state legislators for supporting fracking earlier this year.
Civitas claims that the North Carolina Environmental Partnership, which the commercials identify as the sponsors, is a shell entity that doesn’t legally exist. Funding for the ads comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which Civitas calls “out-of-state, extremist environmental groups.”
“Millions of dollars are being spent in this state by groups that refuse to identify their funding sources,” Civitas president Francis De Luca said. “They are willfully trying to hide from the general public who is paying and sponsoring the ads.”
Both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center are tax-exempt charitable organizations and not required to disclose their donors. In June, The News & Observer reported that the two groups spent more than $600,000 on the TV campaign, with the NRDC picking up the bulk of the tab. Civitas’ investigation found more than $2 million was spent on the ads.
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Civitas’ complaint asks the elections board to investigate and, if it determines there was a violation of law, turn the matter over to the Wake County district attorney for prosecution on criminal misdemeanor charges.
Those two groups and six other environmental organizations banded together this spring to push back against the General Assembly’s support of fracking and other issues. They sent out a news release March and set up a website identifying all the partner groups.
Civitas contends the coalition is trying to defeat the six Republican legislators who are running for re-election and were targeted in the ad, and so must file reports with the Board of Elections. Civitas also says the NRDC must file with the Secretary of State as a lobbying organization. SELC, which employs lobbyists, has been registered with the state for about 25 years.
The SELC and the NRDC contend they do not have to register with state regulators, but they have filed reports with the elections board to be transparent.
The SELC’s Mary Maclean Asbill called the complaint “baseless.” She said the partnership has publicized its member groups, and that all of them are either based in North Carolina or have members who live here.
“Our campaign is in full compliance with the law and is a non-political, policy and issue-focused effort to hold legislators accountable for pro-polluter votes that weaken environmental protections and public health safeguards,” Asbill said in a statement. “All of our advertising makes clear the ads are sponsored by the coalition, as federal law requires.”
She added that state law requires the entities that pay for the ads file with the state, which they have.
Joshua Lawson, a spokesman for the Board of Elections, said registration and disclosure requirements vary depending on the nature of the ad, an organization’s primary purpose and the proximity to an election. That’s what the board will have to determine, he said.