The Empowerment Alliance, a dark-money group aligned with the gas industry, is behind the mysterious Affordable Energy Fund PAC that spent over $1 million dollars on election mailers and digital ads supporting Republican candidates in Ohio over the last two months.
The Empowerment Alliance (TEA) took credit for “establishing the Affordable Energy Fund as a political action committee” in a “Year in Review 2021” report. The Energy and Policy Institute obtained a copy of the report, which has not previously been made public, via a public records request filed with the Auglaize County Commissioners, who met in September with TEA’s then-executive director Matthew Hammond.
The Affordable Energy Fund PAC (AEF PAC) has paid more than $1 million to the political consulting firm Majority Strategies for direct mail and digital ad campaigns since the start of September, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports the Super PAC filed in October. Hammond joined TEA as its new executive director in January, after previously working as president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and a lobbyist for Chesapeake Energy. Hammond also began a new job as an associate vice president at Majority Strategies in January, according to his LinkedIn profile. He left TEA and Majority Strategies sometime in October and now works for the lobbying firm Orion Strategies.
“We can run a digital, mail, or door-to-door campaign to any universe of Affordable Energy Voters,” TEA said in a guide on “How to Run on Energy” included in recent installments of its weekly e-newsletter.
“Republicans have a once in a generation chance to reshape the electoral landscape,” TEA said in the election guide. “Dissatisfaction with Biden and democrats’ anti-energy energy policies have led to increased prices across the board, which has created a new universe of voters – Affordable Energy Voters.”
On October 28, the AEF PAC reported to the FEC that it paid Majority Strategies nearly $225,000 for direct mailers supporting J.D. Vance, the Republican who is running against Democrat Tim Ryan for Ohio’s open seat in the U.S. Senate. The Super PAC previously reported that it paid Majority Strategies approximately $650,000 in September and $150,000 in October for “State IE” [state independent expenditures] digital advertising and direct mail campaigns.
A sparse website for the AEF PAC says the Super PAC supports “pro-Ohio energy” candidates. The website links to YouTube videos about gasoline prices and home heating costs supporting Republican state senate candidates in Ohio, including Nathan Manning, Michael Rulli, Kristina Roegner, and Michele Reynolds. The videos supporting Manning and Reynolds appeared in Google ads paid for by the Affordable Energy Fund LLC, and the Reynolds video is also featured in a Facebook ad paid for by the AEF PAC.
The AEF PAC registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in July of 2021 as an independent expenditure-only Super PAC with an address in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside D.C. There is no mention of The Empowerment Alliance in the AEF PAC’s FEC filings; the Super PAC has instead reported contributions from three anonymously-funded sources, including the American Exceptionalism Institute Inc., Prosperity Alliance Inc., and Affordable Energy LLC.
The AEF PAC reported that it paid a total of $15,000 to JSN Associates, LLC for advertising and grassroots consulting since June of this year. The Dayton address listed for the LCC is the address of James S. Nathanson, the Ohio-based GOP political operative who served as TEA’s first executive director after TEA’s launch in 2019.
The Empowerment Alliance is directly targeting swing-state voters with election ads
The Empowerment Alliance’s “Year in Review 2021” report said the Affordable Energy Fund PAC “would run parallel to the education and advocacy efforts of TEA.” The report identified key 2022 and 2024 election swing states as new TEA targets, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
TEA’s own election-related ads on Facebook have recently targeted voters in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The ads focus on gasoline prices and link to a page on TEA’s website that says voters need to vote for candidates who are for the “AVERAGE JOE” not “OUT OF TOUCH JOE” with President Biden pictured below.
TEA supports increasing exports of methane gas, also known as natural gas, the driving factor in the rising costs of gas used for home heating and generating electricity in the U.S.
Overreliance on methane gas has left states like Ohio exposed to price volatility, a risk that experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists warned about in a 2013 report that recommended Ohio support alternatives through investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. In 2019, Ohio enacted House Bill 6, the corruption scandal-tainted law that rolled back the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for electric utilities.
TEA, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads since its launch in 2019, regularly attacks renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
A TEA ad on Facebook from earlier this year
TEA last year posted a Tweet in support of Ohio Senate Bill 52, which was later signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine. The 2021 law allows Ohio counties to largely ban new wind and solar farm development, without imposing those same new limits on oil and gas extraction.
The Empowerment Alliance attacks wind and solar power projects while its Super PAC pays for misleading election ads that claim methane gas is “clean” and ”green”
Before he left TEA, Hammond met with commissioners in Auglaize and Crawford counties, two Ohio counties that have adopted S.B. 52 bans. Voters in Crawford County will vote in November on a local referendum that will determine the fate of a wind farm planned before new wind turbines were banned from most of the county.
TEA’s “How to Run On Energy” election guide includes a “Guide to Understanding the Impacts of Wind and Solar Projects” that is clearly aimed at stoking opposition to renewable energy projects. The election guide also includes numerous bullet points with anti-renewables messages, some citing special interest groups like the Heartland Institute that have received funding from the fossil fuel industry and long opposed wind power in Ohio.
Meanwhile, TEA’s Super PAC paid for mailers supporting Republican candidates in Ohio described as supporting “clean, natural gas.”
Randi Clite, a Democrat and former Ohio state rep., and another voter from Columbus shared copies of one Affordable Energy Fund PAC mailer supporting Gail Pavliga, a Republican running for re-election to the Ohio House, with the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI).
Mailers supporting Jenn Giroux, another Republican candidate for state rep, were also shared with EPI by Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, which received copies from Ohioans who were sent the mailers.
Montgomery County Democrats posted images of another mailer supporting Ohio state rep. Andrea White, another Republican up for re-election, on Twitter.
“Natural gas is not renewable energy – and the candidates this dark-money PAC are supporting would actively work to stop Ohio’s growing clean energy economy,” Spencer Dirrig, director of the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, said in a statement.
In 2018, Ohio was the site of a blowout at a methane gas well owned by XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, that resulted in the evacuation of approximately 100 local residents. The leak went uncontrolled for 20 days and resulted in what satellite data later showed was a “super emitter” event that sent about 60,000 tons of methane pollution into the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and scientists warn that methane emissions are increasing at a time when reductions are needed to limit harmful climate change.
The XTO Energy well blowout and methane leak show why advertising claiming methane gas is clean or green is misleading.
The Empowerment Alliance’s known directors include political operatives who were involved with Generation Now, a separate group that pled guilty to racketeering in 2020
The Empowerment Alliance is registered with the IRS as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization and is not legally required to publicly disclose its donors.
TEA’s first annual report to the IRS, which covered the year 2019, identified longtime Ohio political fundraiser Brooke Bodney as the group’s president, and attorney Eric Lycan as its treasurer. TEA did not identify any other officers identified in its annual report.
Bodney and Lycan did not respond to a request for a copy of TEA’s annual report to the IRS for 2020.
In 2019, Lycan was also the treasurer of a separate 501(c)(4) called Generation Now Inc., which last year pleaded guilty to racketeering. Generation Now secretly received approximately $60 million in bribes paid by FirstEnergy to influence the now-indicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and secure lucrative ratepayer-funded bailouts for FirstEnergy through the enactment of House Bill 6. Generation Now’s president Jeff Longstreth pleaded guilty to racketeering in 2020.
Generation Now’s only publicly available annual report to the IRS, which covered the year 2017, listed Bodney as a fundraiser for the organization. Generation Now’s federal tax-exempt status was automatically revoked earlier this year for not filing a Form 990 for three consecutive years.
Lycan and Bodney have not been named or charged in the federal criminal investigation into House Bill 6.
“Central to FirstEnergy Corp.’s effort to influence the legislative process in Ohio was the use of 501(c)(4) corporate entities,” FirstEnergy said in a public statement required under a deferred prosecution agreement the utility company reached with federal prosecutors last summer. “FirstEnergy Corp. used the 501(c)(4) corporate form as a mechanism to conceal payments for the benefit of public officials and in return for official action.”
The National Review Institute called The Empowerment Alliance a project of Karen Buchwald Wright, whose family has long run the Ariel Corporation, a manufacturer of methane gas compressors
“NRI supporters Karen Buchwald Wright and Tim Rastin spoke with Charles C. W. Cooke about America’s energy independence and their new project The Empowerment Alliance,” the National Review Institute (NRI) said on the webpage for a virtual summit it hosted last year. Buchwald Wright and husband Rastin addressed the summit from an exclusive NRI donors conference held in May of 2021 at West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s Greenbrier resort.
Buchwald Wright was the CEO and President of the Ariel Corporation, a manufacturer of compressors for the methane gas industry, until July of 2021. Her sons Alex and Hunter now serve as the company’s CEO and president.
Ariel Corporation did not respond to an email from the Energy and Policy Institute seeking comment on the family’s ties to The Empowerment Alliance.
Buchwald Wright, a longtime member of the American Petroleum Institute’s board of directors, and Rastin are major Republican donors. Their names appeared on leaked internal documents from donor network meetings convened by billionaires Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries in 2010 and 2014, as first reported by Mother Jones.
American Gas Association documents identified the southern electric and gas utility Entergy as a supporter of The Empowerment Alliance
Documents from a 2020 meeting of the American Gas Association’s Executive Committee identified Entergy as an AGA member involved in The Empowerment Alliance. Entergy is an electric and gas utility that operates in parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
A map included in the documents identified Texas, where Entergy operates, as one of TEA’s target states.
Entergy was also a client of the lobbying firm HDMK until the end of 2018, according to federal lobbying reports. Terry Holt, a partner at HDMK, was the spokesperson for TEA when the group launched in 2019.
The Empowerment Alliance did not appear in Entergy’s corporate political contributions reports for 2019-2021, which are publicly posted online and include contributions to 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups.
The American Exceptionalism Institute Inc., a top donor to the Affordable Energy Fund PAC in 2022, received funding from the Southwest Gas PAC in 2020
The American Exceptionalism Institute Inc., another 501(c)(4) organization that doesn’t publicly disclose its donors, contributed $650,000 to the Affordable Energy Fund PAC last month.
Nevada-based SouthWest Gas’s PAC reported a $10,000 contribution to the American Exceptionalism Institute during the 2020 election, and campaign finance records show that the 501(c)(4) group has pumped $2 million into the Stronger Nevada and Better Nevada PACs since 2020.
During the current election cycle in Nevada, the Better Nevada PAC has been behind ads supporting the Republican candidate for governor Joe Lombardo and attacking the state’s current governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat who is seeking re-election.
The American Exceptionalism Institute, Inc. was incorporated as a non-profit corporation in Ohio in 2017 and reported raising $100,000 in its first annual Form 990 to the IRS, which covered the fiscal year May 2017 – April 2018.
The American Exceptionalism Institute’s revenue jumped to $13 million between May 2019 and April 2020, according to its 2019 Form 990. The Institute paid $11 million to other 501(c)(4) groups during that fiscal year, including $2 million to the Mitch McConnell-aligned group One Nation.
Prosperity Alliance Inc., which contributed $25K to the Affordable Energy Fund PAC in 2022, received money from trade unions involved in the gas industry in 2020 and 2021
Two trade unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO and involved in the methane gas industry have contributed money to Prosperity Alliance Inc., a 501(c)(4) that contributed $25,000 to the Affordable Energy Fund PAC in May.
The Oklahoma-based IBEW Local 1141 reported a total of $10,000 paid to the 501(c)(4) in 2020 and 2021 in annual reports to the Department of Labor. Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 344, also based in Oklahoma, contributed a total of $65,000 in 2020 and 2021.
Last year, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a supplement to a complaint filed earlier with the IRS that alleged Prosperity Alliance violated IRS limits on 501(c)(4)’s political activities, and pointed to the Alliance’s funding of a Super PAC that targeted races in Ohio and Oklahoma during the 2018 elections as evidence. The Oklahoma Ethics Commission filed a lawsuit against the Prosperity Alliance this summer.
One Ohio United, a 501(c)(4) that paid millions of dollars to The Empowerment Alliance in 2019 and 2020, received funding from American Electric Power and Duke Energy in 2011
Another Ohio-based 501(c)(4) called One Ohio United disclosed in an annual report to the IRS that it paid $527,177 in grant money to The Empowerment Alliance in 2019. TEA reported $552,177 in total revenue for 2019 on its own annual report to the IRS, but did not publicly disclose any of its donors.
One Ohio United also reported it paid The Empowerment Alliance $2.85 million in grant money in 2020.
One Ohio United was incorporated in Ohio in 2010, years before The Empowerment Alliance was launched in 2019.
Duke Energy Ohio reported $1 million in donations to “One Ohio United” on a 2011 annual Form 2 report to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that was later filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio as part of a gas rate case.
Duke Energy hasn’t reported any funding for One Ohio United or The Empowerment Alliance in more recent corporate political expenditure reports found on the company’s website. Those reports only recently began including contributions made to 501(c)(4) organizations for political purposes, in response to a 2021 shareholder resolution.
In 2019, The Empowerment Alliance’s spokesperson Terry Holt told reporters the group would not identify its funders in order to prevent its donors from facing protests. Holt pointed to a 2018 protest in the driveway of Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good’s home by citizens opposed to the now-canceled Atlantic Coast pipeline project as an example.
Amerian Electric Power (AEP) reported that it contributed at least $1 million to One Ohio United in 2011, which apparently represented only the “lobbying portion” of AEP’s annual dues paid to the group.
AEP did not report any contributions to One United Ohio or The Empowerment Alliance in more recent corporate political contribution reports for 2019-2021 posted on the company’s website. AEP announced it would expand its annual political contributions disclosures to include 501(c)(4)s in 2020, when the utility’s earlier contributions to a 501(c)(4) called Empowering Ohio’s Economy were exposed by reporting on the federal investigation into House Bill 6.
AEP’s former chairman Mike Morris chaired One Ohio United in 2011, when the group backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s proposed budget. One Ohio United publicly promoted Kasich’s proposal as the “Jobs Budget” that year.
Kasich’s budget slashed the budget for the Ohio Consumers Counsel, the state agency that represents the interests of utility ratepayers in rate cases and other proceedings before the PUCO.
The Columbus Dispatch reported in 2011 that Brooke Bodney raised money for One Ohio United.
One Ohio United has funneled money into a number of other murky 501(c)(4) groups over the years, including Citizens for a Working America in 2018, Balanced Budget Forever in 2015, and Restoring Ohio in 2012-2013. Copies of One Ohio United’s Form 990s for 2011-2020 can be found on ProPublica.