Top Democrats and environmental groups connected to left-wing activist and former Bernie Sanders adviser Tara Houska are keeping silent following revelations that a bail fund she founded has not accounted for millions in contributions.
The Freshet Collective, which provided legal support for Dakota Access Pipeline protesters, had just over $2 million in net assets at the end of the 2017 fiscal year. Four years on, however, it's not clear what became of those funds, a Washington Free Beacon review found. A nonprofit charity watchdog told the Free Beacon that Freshet has a duty to be forthcoming about its finances and identified other operational deficiencies.
Houska is a progressive darling who advised Sen. Sanders's (I., Vt.) 2016 Democratic presidential campaign and is connected to members of the House's so-called Squad. The environmental group ecoAmerica this year awarded Houska its 2021 American Climate Leadership Award.
Of late, Houska has focused on stopping the ongoing renovation of Line 3, a crude oil pipeline that connects extraction sites in Canada with refinement facilities in the United States. She appeared at an anti-Line 3 event on Sept. 4 in Minnesota with Democratic representatives and "Squad" members Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), and Cori Bush (Mo.).
W/ #thesquad @zhaabowekwe @GiniwCollective "So the pipeline is 90% done? Let’s send a message to the fossil fuel industry that you should have respected #climate science and #treatyrights …too bad about your investment, this is morally wrong." #StopLine3 @HonorTheEarth pic.twitter.com/KfsV3zrisP
— Kevin Whelan (@KwhelanMpls) September 4, 2021
Neither the lawmakers nor ecoAmerica responded to questions from the Free Beacon on whether they will press Houska to meet Freshet's disclosure obligations. Nor did Sanders aides respond to inquiries about Freshet and Houska's role on the 2016 campaign. Houska is identified in various sources as a "Native American adviser," but the Free Beacon was unable to identify the precise nature of her role.
EcoAmerica recognized Houska for her work with a separate nonprofit, which she also founded, called the Giniw Collective. The award offers money, support, and recognition to those "building political resolve for climate action," particularly if they emphasize diversity.
"The finalists exemplify outstanding climate initiatives which give change agents and the public inspiration to model and replicate for continued climate action across the nation," ecoAmerica's website says of Houska and the other 2021 recipients.
Freshet was founded in 2016, purportedly to disperse legal defense funds to demonstrators arrested at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Beginning in August 2016, it raised just over $3 million on the crowdsourcing platform FundRazr. The group pledged to cover bail, fines, vehicle impoundment, and attorneys fees for defendants arrested at the pipeline protests.
The only federal tax filing available from the group indicates it had $2 million left unspent at the end of the 2017 fiscal year. No other federal filings are available.
"The nonprofit's donors and the general public need to know what happened to these funds," CharityWatch executive director Laurie Styron told the Free Beacon. "It spent only about one third of the $3 million it raised in fiscal 2017. If the nonprofit solicited funds from donors with the promise that donations would be used to provide legal defense and other assistance to individuals arrested for their involvement in social justice direct actions, then that's what the money needs to be used for."
Freshet did not list any full-time employees on its filing and named only three members on its board of directors. Styron told the Free Beacon that presents a governance problem.
"This raises an additional concern as to whether the board was large enough to ensure that decisions for the organization were being made independently and in the best interest of the nonprofit, and that the funds raised in support of its mission were spent for their intended purposes," Styron said. "Two million doesn't vanish into thin air. It went somewhere."
Freshet's financial statements were not audited, according to its 2017 tax filing. Styron said that is unusual for a nonprofit of Freshet’s size.
The group was incorporated in Minnesota, which requires charities that raise money in the state to register with the attorney general. Charities with more than $750,000 are required to submit audited financial statements on an annual basis. Freshet's legally required registration statement does not appear anywhere in the database maintained by the attorney general's office, nor do any of the mandated financial statements appear.
A spokesman for Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison (D.) declined to answer specific questions about Houska and Freshet.
"The Minnesota Attorney General's Office generally does not confirm or deny the existence of confidential investigations prior to public action," spokesman John Stiles told the Free Beacon. "We take complaints of misuse of charitable assets or other violations of the law seriously and investigate them as appropriate."