I read with interest Matt Dempsey’s column (Herald, Oct. 28) attacking La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and misconstruing as an apology her well-reasoned explanation of her nonprofit work (Herald, Oct. 14).
Dempsey, the opinion editor of Western Energy Alliance’s “Western Wire,” condemns Lachelt’s dual role as public official and executive director of the nonprofit Western Leaders Network.
Masquerading as the ethics police, Dempsey demands the network disclose the source of its funding. As a nonprofit organization, the organization is legally required by the IRS to annually and publicly disclose its funding.
Yet Dempsey’s moral code does not seem to apply to Western Energy Alliance. For example, the Alliance invited a rather unique Washington political consultant, Richard Berman, to speak at its 2014 annual meeting. Berman’s signature move is to launch smear campaigns against his clients’ opponents – such as environmentalists – through nonprofit front groups that are insulated from having to disclose donors.
Dempsey also lauds Western Wire for “hard-nosed, investigative journalism” and accuses Lachelt of trying to hide her role at the network. Perhaps Dempsey’s definition of “investigative journalism” means “doing a Google search?” That information is and has been readily available on the nonprofit’s website. Moreover, the news media has quoted Lachelt as the organization’s founder and executive director since its inception early this year.
Dempsey’s inaccuracies and hypocrisies aside, the broader and more troubling issue remains: Why is big oil and gas money infiltrating La Plata County to attack and attempt to undermine our local elected officials?
Let’s again consider Western Energy Alliance, founded more than 40 years ago to advocate for fossil fuel extraction. The organization is a vocal and well-financed opponent of industry regulation and represents more than 300 oil and gas companies with development interests across the West, including Koch Exploration Company, the fracking arm of billionaires Charles and David Koch’s expansive energy business.
Outside energy interests meddling in local politics is not exclusive to our community or our state, as media reports in just the past few months have shown. Western Energy Alliance and DC-based political strategists have spread false information stating that Broomfield City Councilman Kevin Kreeger, a critic of fracking near residential areas, supports violence against industry employees.
In New Mexico, an oil executive and major political donor was linked to attack ads against Albuquerque mayoral candidate and clean energy proponent, Tim Keller. And the pro-oil and gas nonprofit “Vital for Colorado” has funneled more than $300,000 to industry-friendly municipal campaigns in Greeley, Thornton, Aurora, Broomfield and Loveland. The organizers behind Vital for Colorado have clear ties to the Koch brothers’ right-wing political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, which is a national leader in fighting public oversight of industry.
It’s worth noting that in August, Americans for Prosperity quietly hired a Western Slope field director, based in Durango, marking the organization’s first-ever presence in this part of Colorado. What that means for the future of local elections in La Plata County is not certain, but it would be naive to think Americans for Prosperity is here arbitrarily or without targeted goals for our community and the Western Slope.
The oil and gas industry and its lobbyists have waged a longstanding crusade against those they perceive as enemies. As a longtime proponent of responsible fossil fuel production – who made no bones about that fact during both her successful bids for county office in 2012 and 2016 – it’s no surprise that Lachelt is in their crosshairs. But Dempsey’s hit piece is more than one attack on one local official. Powerful players with huge holdings in oil and gas are making a concerted effort to influence local elections by undermining leaders like Lachelt under the guise of moral principle.
We must remember to make our own decisions when it comes to our leadership and governance and reject outside influences with deep pockets telling us how or what we should think. Their goal is to serve themselves, not the people of La Plata County.
Ken Francis, a fourth generation Coloradoan raised in Durango, is currently retired from the Office of Community Services and Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. He has 35 years experience working with communities throughout Southwest Colorado in community development, land conservation and historic preservation, Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org