Mystery cloaks megaload opponents

Advocates for the West is not required to reveal the source of its funding because of its not-for-profit status

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Big Foot, Ted Turner or Sarah Palin could donate to Advocates for the West, but no one outside the organization or the IRS would necessarily know, because federal rules don’t require public disclosure of its contributors.

Advocates for the West, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, has been in the news in recent months, representing three opponents of proposed megaload truck traffic on U.S. Highway 12 – a case that went to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Laird Lucas, executive director of the Boise-based group, said the focus of the free legal aid they provide is protecting public lands as well as fish and wildlife, and supporting sustainable communities in the West.

Their latest litigation has succeeded in stalling the four ConocoPhillips loads bound for a Montana oil refinery since August. The cargo, which would take up both lanes of U.S. 12 as it goes from the Port of Lewiston to the Montana border, is delayed awaiting a Friday proceeding by the Idaho Transportation Department to determine if more public involvement is needed.

Advocates for the West has pushed ITD to be more open about its dealings with ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil. ExxonMobil/Imperial Oil wants to haul more than 200 oversized loads through Idaho on U.S. 12 on their way to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. ITD has made no decision on its request.

As a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, Advocates for the West is allowed privacy in a key area of its organization – where it gets the money to operate.

The IRS designation restricts it from donating to political campaigns or influencing legislation, but allows it to accept tax-free contributions, said Allen Madison, a visiting professor at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

If the contributors deduct the income from their taxes, it has to be itemized on their tax returns, but those are not public documents, Madison said.

Advocates for the West is among a category of 501(c)(3)s that provides free legal counsel for issues as diverse as individual property rights, the right to bear arms and the relationship between church and state, Lucas said.

Among its victories was a 2007 “landmark decision enjoining (the Bureau of Land Management) from gutting its Clinton-era regulations that provide for ecological protections and public involvement in grazing management on 160 million acres of public lands,” according IRS filings from 2008 obtained through the website GuideStar.

The group often responds in instances where it appears government officials are not enforcing their own rules, Lucas said. “We usually win because life is too short to bring losing lawsuits.”

The organization was asked to get involved in the megaloads issue by those who initiated the case that went to the state high court, Peter Grubb, Linwood Laughy and Karen Hendrickson, Lucas said. “We respond to requests for help. We have to say no a lot.”

Most of its donations come from individuals, including Laughy and Hendrickson, who appear on a list of more than 300 contributors that ran in a recent Advocates for the West newsletter.

Lucas referred the Tribune to the newsletter in response to questions about his organization’s donations. The list did not indicate the size of any contribution and also had organizations such as Idaho Rivers United and Sawtooth Group Sierra Club.

The executive director of the Idaho Conservation League and a former executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development in San Francisco are among the board members of Advocates for the West, according to the group’s website.

The work that Advocates for the West has done battling megaloads has been paid for out of the group’s regular annual budget of about $750,000, Lucas said. Advocates for the West has a staff of 10, including five attorneys, according to its website.

Advocates for the West is beginning to receive some financial support specifically for the megaloads, mostly from the Clearwater Valley, Lucas said. “We’re nowhere close to having the funding we need for all the time and effort we’ve put into this.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.