AZ “Dark money” critic Energy & Policy Institute faces multistate probes

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FBI agent carry a box of evidence from Solyndra headquarters in Fremont, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. The FBI are executing search warrants at the headquarters of California solar firm Solyndra that received a $535 million loan from the federal government. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

The Energy and Policy Institute (EPI), a California based group, has been active around the nation for years with staff wearing multiple hats and operating under multiple group names in Arizona in particular. For years, EPI staff has weighed in on state policy-setting meetings, submitted public record requests then used those records to make broad assumptions about their findings, often targeting conservative members including those of the Arizona Corporation Commission. A review of their website and previously published news stories, in and about the state, shows Arizona is one of the most active states this self-proclaimed watchdog for “transparency and accountability” has focused on. Now questions have been raised; questions around the group’s legality after multiple inquiries have found that the organization doesn’t appear to exist in any official state or federal records.

Former Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump tweeted in response to a story on the investigation, “A group deliberately secret about its donors complains endlessly about deliberately secret donors. The hypocrisy is rich.” 

The story Stump tweeted about was related to the news that last week, Jobkeeper Alliance filed an ethics complaint in Florida against Alissa Jean Schafer for receiving income from the Energy and Policy Institute. Schafer is the Seat 4 Supervisor of the Broward Soil and Water Conservation District as well as a Research and Communications Specialist for EPI.

Public officials in Florida must disclose where their income comes from so that the public is informed if there is a conflict of interest. Schafer has included income received from EPI in her financial disclosure report. But Jobkeeper Alliance believes this is a violation considering there are no records of EPI having any business or non-profit status in any state. JobKeeper Alliance also points to the irony of a watchdog group that is itself funded by “dark money” to the extent that there is no record of them and points to their funding possibly coming from Chinese and US solar interests.

In addition to the Florida Ethics complain, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill also has inquired as to the legality of EPI’s business. Merrill’s office notes that to date there has been with no response from the group.

In April 2020, Merrill sent a letter to Daniel Tait, Research and Communication Manager for EPI, and David Pomerantz, another member of the group.  In the letter, Merrill questions the transparency and legal status of the group and who pays Tait. Merrill asks three specific questions of the group:

  1. What is the legal status of the Energy and Policy Institute?
  2. Who funds your organization’s work? If you are funded, as spokesperson David Pomerantz has said publicly, “by environmental foundations interested in addressing the threat posed by climate change,” who are those foundations and to whom are they giving their contributions?
  3. Who compensates the numerous individuals like Mr. Tait, who work for the Energy and Policy Institute, and who are listed on your group’s reports?

“The public deserves to know who pays the salaries of Alissa Schafer, Daniel Tait, and the many others who work under the name Energy and Policy Institute,” said Kimberly Adams, Executive Director of the Jobkeeper Alliance. “If the group really values transparency, it can start by answering the simplest of questions: who are they, and who pays for their work?”

Some answers may be tied back to Gabe Elsner, the founder of the EPI. Elsner is known to be involved with SolarCity Corp. It is a subsidiary of Tesla, Inc. that develops and sells solar panels and solar roof tiles. In a 2015, AZCentral article, SolarCity admitted to funding Checks and Balances a group that worked to discredit Arizona utility regulators, often related to their decisions about solar power. Elsner went on to start EPI.

These recent inquiries are not the beginning of the investigation into EPI. In 2017, the Campaign for Accountability wrote a report on the Energy and Policy group. According to the report, “EPI is a dark money group: it does not appear to have non-profit status, it is not registered with any relevant secretary of state, and no one admits to funding it. It appears that EPI may be simply the creation of a public relations firm.” The firm the report references, Tigercomm, represents some of the largest solar companies and manufacturers in the world, including the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer, China’s Trina Solar.

In an opinion piece the same year, Daniel Stevens stated, “Despite its opaque background, journalists tend to cover EPI’s findings and quote its employees as they would any non-profit. Popular Science, for example, recently interviewed EPI’s executive director about climate change in Dubai and referred to the organization as a watchdog group without further comment.”

According to the group’s website, EPI is a watchdog organization that “exposes attacks and deception by fossil fuel companies, utilities, their trade associations, and front groups through investigative research and analysis.” They claim to not receive any funding from corporations, trade associations, or governments. Their website goes on to list several employees, including Alissa Jean Shafer and Daniel Tait.

Tuesday, September 15 this reporter reached Schafer on her personal cell number to ask her about the ethics complaint. She asked that we email her our questions, which we obliged. When asked for her email, she provided an email address from the EPI. Below are the questions we posed so that she could clarify her involvement in this organization.

1. How long have you been associated with EPI, and how did you learn about the group?

2. Your financial disclosure references income from EPI. Are you a 1099 independent contractor for the organization or a full-time employee?

3. Our research, along with research from Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, indicates the organization has not filed as a legal business or non-profit entity in any state or federal database. Are you able to locate and provide a legal business address and EIN number for the organization that would appear on a paycheck or tax document?

4. If not paid directly from EPI, can you identify who has been paying you, and will you change your financial disclosure report to reflect that?

Ms. Schafer had not responded to the email inquiry or our follow-up text.