Democratic Senate Candidate Michelle Nunn Oversaw Grants to Org Accused of Piracy

Points of Light Foundation facilitated grants to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society under Nunn's watch

Japanese whaling vessel
Japanese whaling vessel / AP

Under the leadership of Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn (D., Ga.), the Points of Light Foundation facilitated the transfer of over $30,000 in grants to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization known for using controversial tactics to stop whale hunters.

Nunn has come under fire for associations with questionable organizations through the Points of Light Foundation, and the ties to Sea Shepherd raise additional questions about the organization’s activities under Nunn’s leadership.

Sea Shepherd’s ties to Points of Light began in 1999 when the founder was awarded a "Daily Points of Light Award." However, a review of the foundation’s filings from 1998 to 2012, show that the organization did not receive any additional awards or monetary grants from the charity until Nunn became the CEO in 2007.

That year, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was awarded a grant for $2,089.78. The purpose of the grant was listed as "funding to promote effective volunteering."

The group received a cash grant in 2009 for $18,281, and received another one in 2010 for $11,458. The purpose of both grants was listed as "volunteer support."

Nunn is listed as the CEO on each of the tax forms.

Sea Shepherd is registered as a 501(c)(3) in the United States, but critics, including the FBI and a U.S. federal court, have questioned the legality of their anti-whaling and preservation efforts.

They are no longer considered a charity in Canada, where their founder Paul Watson is from, and Greenpeace, an organization Watson was an early member of, has disavowed the group’s activities. 

Founded in 1981, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has engaged in countless organized assaults on whaling and fishing ships, utilizing confrontational tactics that many consider extreme.

They intentionally ram their ships into other fishing and whaling vessels, throw "prop foulers" to break their propellers, and often pelt the ships with paintballs, water cannons, smoke bombs, and stink bombs.

In February of 2010, Japanese officials accused the group of "mildly" injuring three crewmembers of a Japanese whaling ship when they threw butyric acid. Sea Shepherd disputed the claim, calling it "Japanese spin," but stopped using the substance later that year.

Watson claims these kinds of actions have saved over 500 whales from what they say constitutes illegal hunting.

"Our intention," Watson told National Geographic, "is to stop the criminal whaling. We are not a protest organization. We are here to enforce international conservation law. We don't wave banners. We intervene."

The FBI singled out the group as one of the founders of eco-terrorism and described it as a precursor to more extremist organizations such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) during congressional testimony in 2002.

The ninth circuit court of appeals ruled in 2013 that the group was engaging in piracy and ordered that the Sea Shepherds stay at least 500 yards away from Japanese whaling ships.

"You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be," Chief Justice Alex Kozinski wrote in his opinion.

Sea Shepherd’s antics have resulted in Interpol issuing at least two red notices, or an "international wanted persons alert," for the prosecution of Watson in Japan and Costa Rica.

In many interviews, Watson asserts that his actions have cost the whaling industry millions of dollars, and in 2007 he told the New Yorker that he and his team were responsible for sinking "ten whaling vessels in port."

The grants from Points of Light were all awarded through a program called MissionFish where Points of Light acted as an intermediary between individual donors and various charities, according to a Points of Light spokesperson.

"From 2003 to 2011, MissionFish was a Points of Light business unit that allowed eBay sellers or buyers to direct all or part of the proceeds from a transaction to their favorite charity," spokesman Stefanie Weiss told the Washington Free Beacon in an email.

However, Sea Shepherd did not receive grants before 2007, the same year Nunn became the CEO of Points of Light.

When asked about the time gap, Points of Light said Sea Shepherd did not register with MissionFish until 2007.

Weiss explained that eBay users were able to "select from over 20,000 organizations" and that they were all registered as nonprofits, a 501 (c)(3) in the United States or a comparable designation if they were headquartered overseas.

"These nonprofits were vetted regularly to ensure tax-exempt status, good standing with the IRS, and exclusion from terrorist watch lists," Weiss said.

When asked if Points of Light used any additional criteria to vet the nonprofit beyond those three things, the spokesperson chose not to elaborate on the process. She also declined to answer when asked who had final say in approving the groups.

"As I said earlier, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an established, tax-exempt, non-profit organization under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code and remains an eBay Giving Works-approved charity."

The Nunn campaign did not return requests for comment.