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Taking a Closer Look at the Sunrise Movement’s Shady Financials

Social change doesn’t come cheap. It costs time, sweat, will, and of course, money. We live in a society now that is rapidly evolving; voices are being amplified, movements are building — and none of these are more prevalent than the ones regarding the topic of climate change. Since 2016, the subject of what our species is doing (or not doing) to mitigate the damage we inevitably cause to our planet has become front and center in the minds of many.

While environmentalists have long since dominated their own corner of the lobbying universe, there has been another battle cry being sung— this time centering around the “Green New Deal”, a legislative proposal that many environmental groups — and voters — have embraced as a gold standard of sorts. One of the most prominent faces of this issue is The Sunrise Movement.

The Sunrise Movement describes themselves as a grassroots organization “building an army of young people to stop climate change”. On top of a national office, they have set up branches in states across the country, and one would think that this “movement”, as large as it is becoming, is stunningly natural. They’ve organized marches, massive protests, and even sit-ins in the name of climate change. A truly grassroots movement, one that is wholly organic, is one of the greatest signals of a societal sea change. However, philosophical problems can arise when it comes to the issues of funding — more specifically, the organizations writing the checks and their reasoning for doing so. In order to understand the present, we first must take a look at the organization’s past.

The Sunrise Movement’s origin is a bit of a complicated tale, and one that has been documented before. Evan Weber, Matthew Lichtash, and Michael Dorsey, (who at the time was a Director at The Sierra Club) joined forces with Sara Blazevic and Varshini Prakash, two young, promising activists, and The Sunrise Movement was launched in 2017, as a 501(c)(4). Sunrise also has a 501(c)(3) and a Political Action Committee, which was started before Sunrise officially incorporated into the entity they are now. Dorsey, one of the founders of Sunrise, came over with The Sierra Club’s influence, brand recognition, and their money. In fact, The Sunrise Movement got their first big break when they received a reported $30,000 grant from The Sierra Club in 2017, along with office space that belonged to the grantors (which Sunrise still uses). This is where the questions begin.

Sierra Club has many organizations and nonprofits under its umbrella, but one of its main organization’s function is as a 501(c)(4), which means as long as they spend less than 50% of their expenditures on political activities, they don’t have to disclose their donors. According to tax documents filed for 2017, Sierra Club reported over $126 million in contributions; and while they disclosed the amounts of 295 donations (some in the millions), not only do they not equal the sum reported, no information whatsoever was disclosed about the individuals donating.

What is interesting is the other form of contributions Sierra Club received: stock options. Oddly enough — at least for an environmental group — are the companies with which these contributed shares belonged to, such as $11,000 worth of Lockheed Martin stock, $20,000 in BP stock and over $50,000 worth of Southwest Airlines shares.

Sierra Club took $397,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as well. RBF, which draws contributions from David Rockefeller Sr. himself, funds dozens of organizations in the U.S. and abroad (such as Center for American Progress, Demos, Media Matters, and Tides Center), and has hundreds of millions of dollars in the stock market — with a fair amount invested in big oil. Hopefully, you can see how this isn’t exactly the best look.

Sierra Club has also had the backing of the enigmatic billionaire donor network Democracy Alliance, which was founded by the granddaddy of Democratic mega-donors, George Soros. As I’ve touched on in a previous article, Democracy Alliance’s primary function is to basically put together a political investment plan for various nonprofits — mostly 501(c)(4)s — and have the mostly anonymous network of elites help those organizations meet and exceed their budgets. With Sierra Club’s track record of secrecy in regards to their donors, there is no concrete way of knowing how much money has been injected into their coffers from Democracy Alliance affiliates — and Sierra Club is far from the only group associated with the Sunrise Movement that can be financially traced to the dark money super network.

America Votes, another 501(c)(4) that has for a long time been funded by dark money, is a Democracy Alliance preferred investment. The link spans over a decade. In fact, according to a 2007 memo written by John Podesta to George Soros and others, America Votes was described as:

“America Votes provides a clear mechanism for harnessing all of these independent efforts into a coordinated and strategic approach that avoids overlap,centralizes data collection and targeting, concentrates resources

on both mobilizing existing voters and finding new voters in previously hard-to-reach or overlooked areas, and encourages local

activism and leadership development to run future campaigns”.

Jumping ahead to 2017, America Votes received $400,000 from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, another Democracy Alliance sponsored dark money venture founded by former Clinton Global Initiative member Eric Kessler. Kessler, is also the founder of Arabella Advisors — a “philanthropic consultancy firm” that represents nonprofits like Sixteen Thirty and New Venture Fund, another dark money group founded by Kessler (one we’ll touch on in a bit). There is no telling how much dark money is passing between these groups, because they go out of their way to complicate their finances into obscurity.

For example, Sixteen Thirty gets funding from the Tides Foundation (another large dark money group), who in turn gets millions from George Soros’ Open Society Institute and several others. In 2017, Tides Foundation took in almost $290 million dollars in private contributions. Their 990 filed with the IRS does not disclose any specific donors or amounts. That isn’t to say it’s impossible to track down some of their donors, however. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund have given at least $735,000 to Tides Foundation, but that pales in comparison to The Foundation to Promote Open Society — they gave Tides’ 501(c)(4) $1.8 billion in 2017 alone.

At first, Sunrise PAC started out taking large donations from big time Hillary Clinton and Priorites USA donor Rosalie Danbury — which could have been a red flag in and of itself. Then again, being as she isn’t a nationally known public figure, no one would know the wiser if she threw in a few thousand dollars here and there.

The same goes for Florida businessman Ken Jones, who donated $7,500 to Sunrise PAC in August of this year. Jones, owner of Third Lake Capital (the investment arm of Ashley Furniture), served as counsel to President George W. Bush, and would go on to become President of the financial committee that brought the Republican National Convention to Tampa, FL in 2012. In fact, as recently as 2016, Jones donated over $200,000 to Donald Trump’s campaign — you know, the guy who pretty much gutted the EPA. It just doesn’t make sense.

Flash back to October 2017, while Sunrise was still in its infancy, America Votes donated $40,000 to their 527, Sunrise PAC; and they, in turn, funneled it to the Sunrise Movement proper. This isn’t the only case of Soros money trickling into the Sunrise Movement, either.

In 2018, George Soros donated a total of $530,000 to a Raleigh, NC based 527 organization — State Victory Action. SVA then proceeded to donate $150,000 to the PA Conservation Voters Fund. Continuing the trickle-down effect, PA-CVF donates $12,000 to Sunrise PAC, and before you know it, the Sunrise Movement have the money of billionaires in their pockets. A question you may be asking is: “why should we care if Sunrise is taking Soros money?”. Soros Fund Management, Soros’ private investment firm, maintains a portfolio of almost $3 billion, with a vast portion of the investments in oil & gas companies including (but not limited to) BP, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and Energy Transfer Partners — many of whom own stakes in the same pipelines that Sunrise has publicly chastised.

Another organization, the Movement Voter Project, donated $10,000 to Sunrise PAC in 2018. MVP is a fiscally sponsored project of Tides, and if you’ve stuck with me this far, you undoubtedly can see why there is a problem with where their money is coming from. This is our campaign finance system in a nutshell; an endless cycle of foundations that donate and recycle money through each other and back to themselves again. One begins to wonder if the term “grassroots” has any true meaning left in the context of our social movements.

Sadly, the Sunrise Movement’s association with big donor money, and Democracy Alliance in particular, persists to this day. Another one of their recommended investments, a dark money organization named New Media Ventures, lists the Sunrise Movement as a partner on their website — though it is unclear the extent of their working relationship. It is worth noting, however, that one of NMV’s board members is Julie Kohler, who is a long tenured employee of Democracy Alliance. The details of her job with DA describes her as “working closely” with the organizations funded by the network — in essence, she acts as a liaison of sorts.

To add to the questionable optics, this year, Sunrise Movement’s co-founder Varshini Prakash was a featured guest speaker at Democracy Alliance’s 2019 Spring conference. The contents of her speech will likely never be known, nor if she or Sunrise was compensated for the event. Regardless of that fact, the leader of a supposed “grassroots organization” sharing a stage with the President of Democracy Alliance at a private conference should raise questions as to the agenda and motive that lies at the heart of the relationship. The elites of this country have proven time and time again that they are not a Progressive’s ally — and they’ve got decades of receipts to prove it. In the quest to save our planet, it appears the course many have taken is to go into business with the ones who have made careers not only profiting from its demise, but in some cases, helped engineer it.

This year, Sunrise Movement was also awarded a $1 million grant from Wallace Global Fund, a massive and experienced private foundation who are staunch financial supporters of Democracy Alliance’s New Venture Fund (there’s that Kessler guy again), in addition to donating to the Tides Foundation and Sierra Club, among others. If you’ve noticed that the same names and foundations keep popping up, it’s for good reason. All of these entities are financially and rhetorically linked in a giant circle of collusion, and they have been for decades now.

This is why it is fundamentally important to pay attention, and even scrutinize, organizations who claim to be grassroots over where they get their money. Keeping these influencers honest is our job, because they’ve proven that they can’t be left to police themselves. This is why Sunrise’s lack of transparency is disheartening, to say the least.

Sunrise Movement to date has only filed taxes via 990EZ with the IRS, and the bare minimum is given in terms of financial information. Much like Sierra Club, the institution that helped spawn it, they not only keep their donors anonymous, but they also keep the amounts undisclosed as well. This is (unfortunately) standard operating procedure for 501(c)(4)s, and pretty much any organization who can get away with being as least transparent as legally possible; and make no mistake, it definitely is legal. However, this system leads to untold amounts of dark money being injected into our elections — either directly or indirectly. The Sunrise Movement appears to be no different, and we should presumably see their numbers for 2018 soon (most nonprofits ask for six month extensions on filing taxes, pushing their due date to November 15th).

If their trend continues, however, we likely won’t learn very much we don’t already know — or at the very least suspected. Through all the secrecy and convoluted finances, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: The Sunrise Movement is not purely a grassroots movement. When you are ingesting money from the Rockerfellers and the Soros’ of the world, you’re playing with the “big boys” now. Your support, at least on a financial level, is no longer rooted in the grass; it’s rooted in the Cayman Islands (Soros’ Open Society Institute has over $400 million parked in accounts there).

Dark money is bad. All of it. Every single penny. Our elections, our societal movements, are being manipulated; and it’s happening right here at home. While the mainstream media has you focus on the supposed threat Russia poses to our democratic process, they would have you ignore the billions of dollars being pumped into it by political nonprofits and action committees; a vast amount of which, cannot be traced back to the individual who hoped their money would buy the change they seek. In a best-case scenario, their motives and goals would be pure. We know for a fact, that many are not. It’s a simple proposition, really: If your intentions are good, why all the secrecy? Why all the workarounds and loopholes?

This is the conundrum of the Sunrise Movement. Make no mistake, the Green New Deal is worth fighting for. Trying to take better care of our planet and make it a better place is worth fighting for. It is the right thing to do. The question becomes: Can we do it without becoming compromised by the ruling class? Can we keep a movement from being coopted by special interests and billionaire elites? The Sunrise Movement, for whatever good they may or may not have done (or will do), should be transparent about their sources of funding. It isn’t always enough to do the right thing; it matters that you do it the right way. Succumbing to the same disease that infects organizations like Center for American Progress and Tides Foundation may move Sunrise in the direction they desire — they’ll just be walking backwards.

We need to keep our heads up and eyes forward. It matters how we get there.

Robbie Jaeger
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Robbie Jaeger

Robbie Jaeger is an independent investigative journalist and sociopolitical commentator based in North Carolina. Examining the links between government and corporations, and tracing their influence on each other, he follows the money down the rabbit hole and back again.
Robbie Jaeger
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