GOP-tied “green” group that tried to undermine climate legislation appears to have violated tax-exempt status in 2020
A little-known dark money group called United for Clean Power launched an ad campaign last summer that raised eyebrows among environmentalists for pushing progressive lawmakers to “kill” the Inflation Reduction Act, which was packed with clean energy incentives, unless it went even further to address climate change. Suspicions about the group’s true motive for dividing Democrats on climate legislation were only intensified by an investigation by Kyle Thwarp of FWIW and Judd Legum of Popular Information that revealed United for Clean Power’s deep ties to Republican operatives known for using secretly-funded nonprofit groups to influence elections.
The failed pressure campaign against the Inflation Reduction Act was not the first time United for Clean Power launched political attacks appealing to Democrats. In 2020, an entity controlled by United for Clean Power called OK Progress LLC paid more than $100,000 for independent expenditures in Oklahoma state legislative races that supported Democratic candidates, including in Democratic primaries.
OK Progress’s Oklahoma spending accounted for more than half of the nonprofit’s total expenditures in 2020, according to a tax return obtained by CREW. That could be a problem for the group’s tax-exempt status.
United for Clean Power is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which means it can spend money influencing elections without disclosing its donors but it cannot have politics as its primary activity. Although the IRS has not formally defined the “primary activity” standard, it is generally understood that groups like United for Clean Power may not dedicate more than 50% of their total spending to political activities.
On its 2020 tax return, United for Clean Power reported spending $211,076 total over the course of the year. It also disclosed that it spent $113,437 on direct and indirect political campaign activities. That means, by its own admission, political activity accounted for 53.7% of United for Clean Power’s total spending, suggesting that politics was its primary activity.
The tax return, which was not previously available online, also reveals for the first time that OK Progress is a type of related organization known as a “disregarded entity” that is directly controlled by United for Clean Power. Disregarded entities are basically wholly owned subsidiaries that are treated as part of the parent organization for tax purposes.
United for Clean Power’s “sole director,” Greg Finnerty, is also listed variously as president and director of OK Progress on its filings with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. In 2020, OK Progress reported spending a total of $113,436.56 on independent expenditures in Oklahoma, which, when rounded to the nearest dollar, equals the $113,437 United for Clean Power told the IRS it spent on political activity that year.
Despite apparently accurately reporting OK Progress’ political activity as its own, United for Clean Power’s description of OK Progress in the section of its tax return where the LLC is identified as one of the nonprofit’s subsidiaries appears to include incorrect information. For instance, United for Clean Power reported OK Progress’ total income as $10,570, which could not possibly account for the more than $100,000 the LLC reported spending in Oklahoma.
OK Progress is also listed as having its legal domicile in Ohio, but no records for OK Progress are found in a search of Ohio corporate records. Instead, an entity called OK Progress, LLC incorporated in Delaware on May 19, 2020, a little over a week before OK Progress paid for its first independent expenditure in Oklahoma.
2020 is not the first time United for Clean Power’s description of its related organizations has appeared to be inaccurate. In 2018 and 2019, United for Clean Power listed an entity on its tax returns called Ohioans for Efficient Government that it said was domiciled in Ohio. But Ohio corporate records show that in October 2018 Finnerty registered a nonprofit LLC with a slightly different name, Ohioans for Effective Government. The error appears to have been fixed on United for Clean Power’s 2020 return, which listed Ohioans for Effective Government with the same employer identification number that was previously listed for Ohioans for Efficient Government. Whether intentional or not, the initial discrepancy made it more difficult for observers to identify funds going into United for Clean Power.
It’s through Ohioans for Effective Government that two of United for Clean Power’s known contributors have now been identified. On its 2018 tax return, the Ohio Consumer Lenders Association, which represented payday lenders in the state, disclosed giving $40,000 to Ohioans for Effective Government.
The Ohio Capital Journal reported last year that the payday loan group said it gave the money to United for Clean Power, which paid for digital ads and direct mail that year attacking an Ohio legislator who sought to reform the industry, at the behest of the late lobbyist Neil Clark. Clark, who died by suicide in 2021, was charged in 2020 along with former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder in a dark money scandal that has been called “the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.” In March 2023, a jury found Householder guilty of a federal racketeering conspiracy involving approximately $60 million that an energy company paid to a dark money group Householder controlled in order to obtain a billion dollar bailout for its nuclear power plants.
The company at the center of the Householder case, FirstEnergy, which agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department, also appears to have contributed to United for Clean Power through a subsidiary. As Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute has pointed out, Potomac Edison, a FirstEnergy utility in Maryland, disclosed giving more than $6,000 to Ohioans for Effective Government during a Maryland Public Service Commission investigation.
United for Clean Power’s 2020 tax return also reveals for the first time a third subsidiary that the organization controls called Keep U.S. Green. In January 2020, a lawyer who has handled paperwork for multiple dark money entities incorporated Keep U.S. Green, LLC in Ohio. Around the same time, a super PAC with a similar name and a look-a-like website was registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), suggesting there may have been intentions to use Keep U.S. Green to influence elections. The super PAC, however, was administratively terminated by the FEC in July 2021 after failing to file any reports with the agency.
Further undermining the idea that United for Clean Power is a legitimate environmentalist organization, the messaging on the website for Keep U.S. Green directly clashes with United for Clean Power’s attacks on the Inflation Reduction Act as not doing enough to address climate change. While United for Clean Power called climate change a planetary “crisis” and declared that the “time to take action on real planet-saving climate change legislation is now,” Keep U.S. Green put scare quotes around the idea that climate change is an “existential threat,” suggesting such rhetoric was “ultimately disjointed from reality.”
CREW also obtained United for Clean Power’s 2021 tax return, which shows that the nonprofit essentially went dormant that year. After raising and spending more than $200,000 in 2020, United for Clean Power reported raising only $4,054 in 2021 and spending even less, just $740 on legal and office expenses. A similar fall-off occurred between 2018 and 2019, when United for Clean Power’s spending dropped from more than $200,000 to $2,635. The dramatically higher spending in election years further underscores the centrality of political activity for United for Clean Power.
Just as before, United for Clean Power didn’t stay dormant for long. According to an analysis by Heated’s Emily Atkin, the nonprofit spent more than $200,000 on its digital campaign in 2022 against the Inflation Reduction Act, which reached millions of people. OK Progress also reported spending more than $395,000 on independent expenditures in Oklahoma state elections in 2022.
How much United for Clean Power spent overall last year – and whether politics was its primary activity during it – almost certainly won’t be known for months as its 2022 tax return can be filed with the IRS as late as next November. Given that the IRS still hasn’t posted the group’s 2020 and 2021 returns online, the public will likely have to wait even longer to learn whether this apparently fake green group that spends secretly-sourced funds to influence policy and elections violated its tax-exempt status last year, as it apparently did in 2020.