Some time back I discovered that several top officials from Trump’s interior department had started a secretive charity that pretends to be an anodyne philanthropic organization but, from its tax records, doesn’t spend a dime on philanthropy. Instead, what it does spend on is “pink slime” journalism — PR that is laundered to look like journalism.
I wrote about it for the Daily Dot. Please click on that link, but the basics about the Institute for Citizen Focused Service (ICFS) are these. It was formed in 2021. In that same year, it received $100K from the Conservative Partnership Institute, the Heritage splinter group where Mark Meadows has landed in his post-Trump career. It also received, in total, over $1.3 million from other unknown sources, including a big chunk of $900K.
As for what it spent on — the group’s only expense in 2021 apart from running of the group itself was $187.5K given to “Pipeline Advisors” for public relations. This is a Texas private equity firm, and not much about it is public; it does not have a public website, for instance. However, we know from a really in-depth series of researched articles by the Tow Center at CJR that Pipeline Advisors runs a number of “news” websites — that provide positive coverage for mostly right-wing special interests, while also being financially supported by those same special interests.
In short, ICFS, whose website has some generic text about helping philanthropists and some stock images of happy children, is basically a passthrough fund for buying positive coverage for right-wing special interests.
What special interests is ICFS paying for?
We don’t know for certain, because we don’t know what specifically the money ($187.5K) went to. But we do know who staffs the group, and what their backgrounds are.
Again, click on the Daily Dot link, where I lay out these men’s backgrounds in detail. Most held top positions in Trump’s interior department. Most have Koch network ties. Some have been fossil fuel lobbyists. Doug Domenech, who was assistant secretary for insular affairs under Trump, is the chairman of the group. Hubbel Relat, who became deputy solicitor in Trump’s interior department, is the executive director. Charles Rigler, who held a position in the Bush interior department, is a director.
All three, Domenech, Relat, and Rigler have spent years in the employment of Koch-allied groups: Texas Public Policy Foundation (Domenech), Americans For Prosperity (Relat), Stand Together (Rigler) as three examples.
Most people remember Trump’s interior department because of Ryan Zinke, the secretary who was forced to resign under a cloud of ethics investigations. Few remember his replacement, David Bernhardt. He was not honkingly corrupt, like his predecessor. But, as several watchdog groups pointed out, he had been a lobbyist for the energy industry, and his clients later had business with the interior department while he had an official role. Bernhardt is not listed on the tax documents for ICFS.
But he is listed on an IRS downloadable file as the custodian of records for this group in its Virginia registration. This file, known as IRS’s business master file, is a spreadsheet of the topline revenue and income figures for thousands of nonprofits.
Clearly, Bernhardt, former interior secretary, is involved in ICFS too.
Those are the basics. But there’s more.
Texas Public Policy Foundation and Tim Dunn
I mentioned above that Doug Domenech once worked for Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). As I lay out in the Daily Dot piece, he ran the Fueling Freedom Project there, which was formed to advocate against the Obama era Clean Power Plan. In fact, TPPF is the Texas branch of the Koch-funded State Policy Network.
Now, Domenech is chairman at the ICFS.
TPPF is not directly involved in ICFS. But like a furtive movement in your peripheral vision, it’s presence is felt just off to the side.
Let’s unpack that.
Tim Dunn, oil billionaire, is a huge figure in Texas. He has been singlehandedly responsible for moving Texas politics rightward in recent years on a range of issues, from school choice to border security. Texas Monthly called him “probably the most influential donor operating in Texas today,”
Highly ideological, pushing a particularly rigid form of evangelical Christianity, he enforces such strict discipline among the candidates he funds that even the far-right outlet Breitbart compared the regime imposed by his dollars to a Russian oligarchy.
Tim Dunn is the vice president at TPPF. It is one of the vehicles for his influence in Texas.
He was also the founder and main funder of the highly influential Empower Texans PAC before it was dissolved in 2020. For years, Empower Texans published Texas Scorecard, a news website formed to “disrupt statism.” When Empower dissolved, the news website spun off into its own nonprofit. Texas Scorecard is highly influential as a partisan news outlet in the state.
But Dunn’s relevance to us for this piece is that, as CJR discovered, he is a managing director at Pipeline Media, a media firm connected to Pipeline Advisors. Thus, “Dunn’s involvement in right-wing media has gone from arms-length funding to hands-on involvement,” says the Texas Observer.
CJR has drawn a useful distinction between partisan journalism, such as an outlet like Texas Scorecard embodies, and pink slime journalism, such as the websites that Pipeline Advisors runs. The distinction is that pink slime journalism outlets are not transparent about their funding, and have lower journalistic standards.
Dunn is clearly attuned to the power of news to shift public opinion towards his ends. As is clear, he has gotten his fingers in both styles of advocacy masquerading as news: partisan outlets, and pink slime outlets.
America First through Texas
Tim Dunn is very open about his alliance with several nonprofits. On his website, he recommends several: including TPPF, Convention of States, Ballotpedia (that he funds), and others.
Notably missing is any mention of America First Policy Institute (AFPI).
AFPI was covered widely when it was first formed from former Trump staffers after that administration ended. In fact it was the most prominent of such groups, explicitly formed to continue his legacy of “America First” policies. Its stable of former Trump staffers is vast: including prominent names such as Larry Kudlow, Chad Wolf, and Kellyanne Conway. Trump’s director of the domestic policy council, Brooke Rollins, is the president and CEO. With a revenue of over $14 million in 2021, it’s also the best funded of such Trump alumni groups. Bloomberg describes it as an “administration-in-waiting.”
One of the Trump staffers who has a role here is David Bernhardt, the former interior secretary, who chairs their Center for American Freedom. He has recorded a soft-lit video introducing it, and his bio is prominently featured. As I noted above, he is also connected to ICFS.
No mention of Tim Dunn anywhere on its website, nor of TPPF.
But not only is Tim Dunn intimately involved with AFPI, he actually founded it.
Surprised? There has been very little mainstream coverage of Dunn’s involvement with AFPI. The only coverage I’ve seen is from David Armiak of Exposed By CMD. But, as a tax document filed during AFPI’s founding shows, the three founders were: Tim Dunn, Cody Campbell — another Texas oil billionaire, and Thomas Lyles. Dunn, of course, sits on the board of TPPF — but so do Campbell and Lyles. The Texas franchise registration of AFPI reveals another TPPF link: the signatory on that document is Gregory Sindelar, the CEO of TPPF.
Dunn and Campbell still sit on the board of AFPI. But, their role is not publicized on the website.
What this shows is that AFPI, while it is branded as a Trump-linked group, is better described as an offshoot of Texas-based TPPF going national. In fact, Rollins, who is now president and CEO at AFPI, headed TPPF for 15 years.
The point of raising these links between ICFS on the one side, and TPPF/AFPI on the other is to speculate on what coverage ICFS’s payment of $187.5K to Pipeline Advisors attains for them. Clearly, ICFS, being as secretive and anodyne as it is, has no need for coverage for itself.
But TPPF, AFPI, and other interests of Tim Dunn — who really is a key figure in the center of all this — are all interested in public advocacy, and are certainly potential beneficiaries of positive coverage from Pipeline Advisors “news” websites. Given that all the men involved with ICFS have ties to fossil fuel advocacy, that is another ripe area to look for positive coverage.
So, without claiming that I know what the $187.5K paid for, it would be helpful to lay out, on one side, the websites that fall under the Pipeline Advisors umbrella, and on the other, their coverage of TPPF, Tim Dunn-linked groups, AFPI, and fossil fuels in general.
Here are the websites I know for sure belong to Pipeline Advisors at this point in time, because their Terms of Service pages say so:
- The Federal Newswire
- New Mexico Sun
- Midland Times
- Houston Daily
- Globe Banner
- Coachella Valley Times
- Austin Journal
Now let’s look at what these outlets might have covered that count as positive coverage for TPPF, AFPI, other Tim Dunn endorsed groups, or fossil fuels in general. Again, I’m not claiming that ICFS “bought” any of this coverage, specifically. I don’t know. But it bought something, and the following is the sort of coverage it might have bought.
For this task, we can use this handy-dandy Google search engine that I customized to look for phrases only in those Pipeline Advisors websites. Plugging in “AFPI”, for instance, brings up 156 results, almost all from the Federal Newswire.
As to the inauthentic nature of this: the outlet, the Federal Newswire, purports to be a wire service for federal government news. There is no world in which the opinions of AFPI, as prominent as the group is, should carry this much weight in a federal news service. These news hits are clearly purpose-driven PR pieces in a news costume.
Plugging in “TPPF” brings up 72 results, mostly from Austin Journal: including “Texas Public Policy Foundation campaign director: Education Savings Accounts are ‘about the freedom for every single parent‘” and “‘Defend Texans from the unconstitutional, illegal, tyrannical overreach’: Roy challenges Americans to battle Biden, Washington.”
Looking over Tim Dunn’s website, we can find other organizations that he is allied with. One is Life:Powered, which is described as a “national initiative of [TPPF] to raise America’s energy IQ.” Plugging in “Life:Powered” into the handy-dandy Pipeline search engine brings up 29 results. Plugging in “Convention of States” brings up 46.
Fossil Fuel Advocacy
Now for the elephant in the room: fossil fuel advocacy. To quote the Daily Dot piece:
“Most of the officials involved with ICFS have spent their careers at one of the corners of this nebulous energy policy triangle: within the Koch network, as lobbyists, or inside of the Interior Department, which is in charge of husbanding America’s natural resources.”
Dunn himself is an oil billionaire, and the party lines of both TPPF and AFPI are clear: they prefer that Democratic administrations quit their meddling ways when it comes to freeing oil from the ground and burning it like God intended.
Such attitudes are hard to search for in our handy-dandy Google engine. But one can try. Plugging in “fossil fuels” for instance, brings up 158 hits. The tenor of the articles is clear. One in the Austin Journal berates the firm Blackrock for discriminating against fossil fuels. Another in the New Mexico Sun touts the benefits of oil and gas.
Overall, the tenor of Pipeline Advisors websites is clear. Fossil fuels good, renewables bad!
Behind a Wall of Irony
Perhaps the most ironic thing about this is that ICFS’s website pretends to be something entirely different. Prominently featured is an image of a windmill [archived]. They highlight “social entrepreneurial goals” and “charitable initiatives” [archived]. There are images of happy children in a forest and elephants lumbering in the wild. The images, it turns out, are stock images from Unsplashed, and the text is copied in spirit, if not verbatim, from the philanthropic organization Hopewell.
But if I’m a potential philanthropy-curious donor, enchanted by ICFS’s website, desirous of helping elephants in the wild, and windmills, and poor children finding joy despite their lack of material resources, I can find no link to click, no phone number to call, no button to donate to.
The web of relationships can get pretty confusing, so I created this diagram of people, nonprofits, and news orgs.
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