The Union of Concerned Scientists Quixotic, Relentless Campaign Against Transparency

Michael Halpern Evolves from Speaking Gibberish to Making Up Falsehoods

Last week, journalists and transparency advocates applauded when a judge tossed out a defamation case brought by University of Florida professor Kevin Folta against Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Eric Lipton of the New York Times. In his ruling, the judge stated that Folta’s assertion that his emails were not public records “borders on the nonsensical” and affirmed the “fair report” privilege of Lipton’s story that documented Folta’s cozy ties to Monsanto.

“Ostensibly, it’s a defamation case, but the court’s language on the public records law is hugely important and reinforces the public’s right of access and solidifies the importance of oversight and accountability,” said Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation. “The arguments raised by Professor Folta are typical of agency arguments used too frequently to frustrate access to basic email records and the Court saw through those arguments.”

This tactic of harnessing purportedly independent academics to act as industry spokesmen dates back to the 1950s when tobacco companies hired an extensive coterie of academics to downplay the dangers of smoking. But the day following the judge’s ruling, Michael Halpern with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) blogged about a proposed law in California, he was promoting, that is now pitting some scientists against journalists and transparency advocates.

“Corporations and activists from the left and the right are abusing open records laws to harass public university researchers,” Halpern alleged. “A growing body of analysis shows that these attacks are growing both in number and severity.”

Attempting to buttress this case, UCS has cited the extensive harassment and “bullying” of scientists such as Michael Mann and other climate researchers as well, as a handful of scientists who work in areas of public controversy. But in promoting the proposed California law, Halpern took direct aim at U.S. Right Know, a small nonprofit funded in part by organic consumers, that has been uncovering extensive ties between academics and the food industry. Attempting to thread the needle with his criticism, Halpern accused U.S. Right to Know of harassment when making public information requests, while praising Eric Lipton for making more “narrow” requests for information. This claim, however, is totally at odds with the facts.

Under oath during the lawsuit brought against him by Kevin Folta, Lipton testified that he based his article on Folta on documents given to him by U.S. Right to Know. After reading these emails, Lipton stated that he then asked Folta’s university to provide him copies of those same documents. This process of requesting documents already made public under a FOIA request is called “FOIAing the FOIA.”

“For UCS to vilify a request from an advocacy group as harassment and praise the identical request when coming from a journalist makes precisely zero sense,” says Charles Seife, professor of journalism at NYU. At best, UCS seems indifferent to how they’re undermining transparency laws and making it harder for journalists and public interest groups to uncover corruption in science. In a Boston Globe article, David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’s freedom of information committee, dismissed UCS’ attacks on public information requests as “gibberish.”

“It’s just gibberish to say these laws stifle research. These are government scientists funded by taxpayers, and the public is entitled to see what they’re working on.” David Cuillier, director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’s freedom of information committee.

Ironically, UCS has little problem with public information requests when they uncover corruption themselves, and then disseminate the findings for purposes of self-promotion. For example, the California law Halpern endorses would deny citizens the rights to see a professor’s calendar, even though UCS recently demanded and later cited a federal official’s calendar as evidence of purported collusion with the chemical industry.

“UCS’ attempts to strike a balance between transparency and preventing ‘bullying’ are not just unconvincing — they’re laughable,” Seife adds.

Gary Ruskin who runs U.S. Right to Know says he finds the whole thing baffling. His organization is funded in part by organic food consumers, leading to charges of bias. But emails show that UCS seems to have its own financial conflicts of interest on issues of food. When the group was approached to sign on to a campaign in favor of GMO labeling, a UCS employee emailed back that it would hinge on funding. “GMO labeling is a major issue for Andy Kimbrell, one of our funders, and doing something on it here might enhance the program’s prospects for getting funding from him,” the UCS employee wrote.

When Ruskin first started investigating the food industry, he asked UCS for advice on how to make public information requests that would not be perceived as harassment or bullying. In an email, UCS advised him to only ask for documents about a scientist’s funding, a suggestion that he promptly ignored. Documents his group gathered have led to stories in Bloomberg, the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Chicago Public Radio, BMJ, Mother Jones, Le Monde, The Nation, and The Intercept.

With each story, we’ve learned a little more about academics working behind the scenes to buttress viewpoints of food corporations, earning Ruskin’s group kudos from the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “Attempts by corporations and industries to block the release of public records about themselves are a threat to press freedom, whether they are deployed against newspapers, veteran journalists, or citizens,” the foundation wrote last year. U.S. Right to Know also received huge praise from the University of California at San Francisco which added 37,149 pagesthe group collected to their industry documents library.

But their work has been widely condemned by GMO researchers and groups affiliated with the agrichemical industry. Many of them began retweeting and promoting Halpern’s attack on U.S. Right to Know and his endorsement of the California law.

“I understand why corporations like Monsanto and the university professors who work for them want to hide their meetings from the public along with other facts,” says Lisa Graves,the co-director of the corporate watchdog group Documented, and former Chief Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Graves also serves on the board of U.S. Right to Know. “It’s no wonder that groups closely tied to Monsanto are celebrating this ‘strange bedfellows’ proposal. It would help cloak the role of Monsanto and other corporations in procuring industry friendly academics who are willing to mouth their talking points.”

When those friendly academics get caught secretly collaborating with corporations, the reflex of industry and their allies is to reduce transparency, a move that universities sometimes play along with. When the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported on documents that showed a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan was being coached by Monsanto on his academic writing, the university later held a secret forum set up and managed by Monsanto to deal with such public scrutiny. Several academics at the university have started an online campaign and are even suing their employer to make them release documents and information on its ties to the agribusiness giant.

In an email, UCS president Ken Kimmell reiterated his organization’s assertions that U.S. Right to Know’s requests for public information have been too broad and he denied that funding has biased his organization. He then pivoted into praising the New York Times for their use of documents uncovered by U.S. Right to Know. “We found the New York Times’ reporting to be fair and accurate and based on documents that should have been disclosed,” he wrote.

As we kick off a new legislative session, a House Democratic staffer who is leading committee investigations into scientific corruption by the Trump administration tells me that UCS has played a misguided role on the importance of freedom of information requests. For the last two years, Democrats have been stifled because they were in the minority and their requests for documents were treated just like any other person making a public information request. Why then is UCS unwittingly aiding the executive branch in shutting down transparency?

“They’ve become the opinion-makers by default because not many people are working in their lane,” said the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not authorized to speak to the media. “They have paid staff with phones and email addresses, so journalists call them to hear what they have to say. Balancing transparency and ethics is a big challenge, and more groups should put some resources into it.”

Besides positioning himself as an authority on public information requests (despite a lack of credentials or relevant background) several nonprofit advocates tell me that Halpern also fashions himself a specialist on inspectors general (IG). After attorneys at the Sierra Club asked the Environmental Protection Agency IG to examine several false statements made by the EPA administrator on climate change science, Halpern felt the need to jump in and criticize the group’s request as too broad.

When I ran the incident past Eric Feldman, former Inspector General of the National Reconnaissance Office and former Acting Deputy Director at the CIA, he said that Halpern’s kibitzing on the Sierra Club request was picking an unnecessary fight. “Of course [the IG] can look into false statements made by an agency director,” he told me. “It gets to the core mission of the EPA.”

Ruskin adds that while UCS has done great work in others areas, they seem to be targeting his group to try and define themselves as the clever kids on corporate corruption. “We’re a tiny organization,” says Ruskin. “It’s easy to pick on someone who’s tiny.”