Richmond nonprofit's aid seen as front for Chevron
Published 7:45 pm, Sunday, November 10, 2013
Melissa Caine-Huckabay, project director of the West Contra Costa County Family Justice Center, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom attend a groundbreaking ceremony. The nonprofit 4Richmond helped pull together community partners to support the project. Photo: Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle
In a city where 17 percent of residents live in poverty, any nonprofit that suddenly started spreading around $100,000 to needy causes would ordinarily attract a large fan club.
But when the city is Richmond and the nonprofit's chief benefactor is Chevron - and the other funders don't have to reveal themselves - it's not surprising that there's some skepticism about what's behind the good deeds.
The year-old nonprofit is called 4Richmond, and it bills itself as a coalition of labor unions, local nonprofits and corporations dedicated to creating a "more prosperous Richmond."
But critics says the organization is just a political front group for Chevron, the nation's second-largest oil company, which has a fractious history with the East Bay city that is home to one of its refineries. They worry that because 4Richmond doesn't have to reveal its donors, the organization could have an outsize effect on the city's bare-knuckled political world - something the group's backers insist won't happen.
The organization was formed shortly before the August 2012 fire at the refinery that prompted 15,000 people in and around the city to seek treatment at hospitals. Chevron, whose 2012 earnings were $26.2 billion, has paid $3 million in criminal and civil fines in connection with the fire, and still faces at least three civil lawsuits, including one by the city of Richmond.
Given that latest chapter in the Richmond-Chevron relationship, the motives of 4Richmond's backers are drawing increasing scrutiny in a city where politics are so tough, the mayor's political opponents in 2010 revealed details about her battle with depression.
In the dark
The scrutiny is a sign of concerns about how new campaign finance laws that have reshaped national politics - particularly those that involve "dark money" groups that aren't required to reveal donors - are trickling down to midsize cities.
Richmond's mayor and a longtime councilman are concerned because 4Richmond is organized as a 501(c)(4) group, named after a section of the tax code. Bottom line: It means the group doesn't have to say where its money comes from.
Even though 4Richmond has donated only to small community groups and local projects and has not engaged in political activity, it organized itself as an advocacy group. That means it could get involved in city election issues next year.
Longtime City Councilman Tom Butt noted that 4Richmond's steering committee includes many of the same political allies who opposed a soda tax in Richmond in 2012 - a campaign that saw a record $2.7 million pour into the city of 106,000 to defeat the measure.
Butt, a frequent Chevron critic, said many of the members of 4Richmond's steering committee appear to be "Chevron-friendly." He also notes that the group has hired A-list San Francisco political and public relations consultants Alex Tourk and Sam Singer.
Still, Butt acknowledged the dilemma 4Richmond presents to skeptics. He's wary of what the group might do down the road, but he loves that it's raising money for Richmond's struggling schools and community groups.
"We'll take all the money they want to give us," Butt said. "But people should know what this is. I think it is about Chevron wanting to create warm and fuzzies around town.
"Later, how hard is it going to be for one of these groups that took money from 4Richmond to say no to them?" Butt said.
This month, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Police Chief Chris Magnus appeared at the groundbreaking for an expansion of the West Contra Costa Family Justice Center, a multiservice center for victims of domestic violence. Magnus praised 4Richmond for pulling together community partners behind the project.
McLaughlin, however, was cautious about the organization.
"All I'd like to see is some transparency here," said McLaughlin, a Green Party member who has tangled both with Chevron and some members of 4Richmond's steering committee.
But a 501(c)(4) organization doesn't have to provide much transparency.
"The organization 4Richmond is not a political action committee," City Clerk Diane Holmes noted, "and is not required to file any documents in my office. They are a nonprofit organization."
Although representatives of several labor unions, community organizations and Coca-Cola are listed as members of the organization, Chevron is supplying the $100,000 that will be distributed this year as well as $500,000 in startup costs to hire staff and find office space, said Joe Lorenz, the refinery's public affairs representative. He is also a member of 4Richmond's steering committee.
Lorenz said Chevron is the organization's only donor so far, and that it will continue to make its donations to the group public. He said he hoped any other 4Richmond donors would be as transparent, but acknowledged they weren't legally obligated to be.
Lorenz stressed that the organization is not intended to be political. Chevron wanted to find a way to stitch together community nonprofits in the city into a single powerful voice, he said.
"This organization is not about politics," Lorenz said. "The people involved have made that very clear to us that they don't want it to be."
That includes Don Lau, executive director of the West Contra Costa YMCA in Richmond and chairman of 4Richmond's steering committee.
"Whoever is willing to spread warm and fuzzies around Richmond - I'm OK with that," Lau said. "Now if that comes with a price I'm not willing to pay, I'm not OK with that.
"We have made it very clear from the beginning that this is not a political organization," Lau said. "This is about helping Richmond."
Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance expert and law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles, said Richmond voters need to be diligent about advocacy groups that don't have to reveal their donors.
"It's great that this group seems to be doing good things now," Levinson said. "But that doesn't mean that people shouldn't stay alert and ask tough questions of them."
Joe Garofoli is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @joegarofoli