Open Records Lawsuits Probe Into Russian Support for U.S. Green Groups

Treasury, State sued for documents pertaining to Russian funding of anti-fracking efforts

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December 19, 2018

The Treasury and State Departments have failed to respond to open records requests seeking "certain correspondence and related records discussing Russian funding of environmental pressure groups' advocacy in the United States," according to lawsuits filed today against Treasury and Monday against State.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and Rep. Randy Weber (R., Texas), chairman of its energy subcommittee, sent a letter dated June 29, 2017, to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asking him to "conduct a full and complete investigation" into allegations the Russian government has been funneling tens of millions of dollars into U.S. environmental groups to support misinformation campaigns aimed at suppressing U.S. natural gas development.

Smith's letter describes how the Russian government has "executed a political agenda with little or no paper trail" that allows funding to flow from Russia through a shell company into Bermuda and from there to U.S. environmental groups in the form of grants distributed through the San Francisco-based Sea Change Foundation. The "disinformation" efforts cited explicitly target the process of hydraulic fracturing, widely known as "fracking," which makes it possible to access large deposits of natural gas in shale formations throughout the U.S.

The Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that favors free market approaches to energy policy, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Treasury Department in October asking Treasury officials to provide records pertinent to Smith's letter, their response to the letter, and any other information providing insight into the allegations of Russian collusion with environmental groups. The deadline for Treasury to respond to the FOIA came and went on Nov. 23 without the release of any records responsive to IER's request.

"Any Russian interference in U.S. energy markets must be exposed and met with full consequences," IER president Tom Pyle said in a press release. "Why Treasury has failed to dignify either this FOIA request or the requests of House Committee Chairman Smith is unknown and gravely concerning. We hope Treasury corrects this matter immediately by providing the necessary records to document what has been happening behind the backs of the American people. Treasury must be clear: foreign meddling in U.S. energy policy or markets will not be tolerated under any circumstances."

Smith and other members of Congress have suggested that green groups working to influence U.S. energy policy on behalf of foreign governments could be operating in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 that requires "persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities," according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been working in partnership with Rep. Mike Johnson (R., La.) to amend the FARA law with stricter foreign agent registration requirements.

Congressional concerns over foreign influence are not limited to Russia. Rep. Rob Bishop (R., Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Rep. Bruce Westerman (R., Ark.), chairman of the oversight and investigations subcommittee, have sent letters to U.S. environmental groups inquiring about their close ties with the Chinese government while also asking them to provide documentation to ensure that they are in compliance with FARA requirements.

Chris Horner, the attorney who filed the suit for IER on behalf of the nonprofit public interest law firm Government Accountability & Oversight, said in a press release that Treasury was not likely to comply with the open records request in the absence of litigation.

"These issues are too important to face the typical bureaucratic runaround and delays," he said. "As IER noted, this request is made to inform the public about an issue of great public interest. Treasury failed to offer even the slightest indication it was in fact processing the request. As such, Treasury suggested this matter has been tossed on the pile of requests that are not likely to be satisfied without filing suit."

The FOIA lawsuit against Treasury follows a separate, but related, FOIA lawsuit IER filed against the U.S. State Department on Monday in which IER requested records of correspondence to or from department employees that involved Russia, hydraulic fracturing, environmental advocacy, and any records of correspondence related to Smith's inquiry.

The Free Beacon asked both the Treasury and State Departments if they had any comment on the litigation. State declined to comment; Treasury did not respond to a request for comment.