Today, President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that Matthew G. Whitaker, who served as chief of staff for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would replace his boss. Sessions was forced from office a day after the midterm elections, which were rough for climate and anti-fracking measures around the country.
Whitaker was appointed as Session’s chief of staff on September 22, 2017. Before that, he served for three years as the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), which describes itself as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency in government and civic arenas.”
FACT has come under fire for its own lack of transparency, with the Center for Responsive Politics calling attention to FACT’s funding, which in some years came entirely from DonorsTrust, an organization also known as the “Dark Money ATM of the Conservative Movement” and whose own donors include the notorious funders of climate denial, Charles and David Koch.
We are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well….— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
“In other words, an organization ‘dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency’ gets 100 percent of its funds from a group that exists mainly as a vehicle for donors to elude transparency,” the Center for Responsive Politics wrote in 2016.
In 2014, FACT received $600,000 from DonorsTrust — the only donation it reported that year, according to OpenSecrets.org. An additional $500,000 flowed from DonorsTrust to FACT in 2015. And in 2016, DonorsTrust gave $800,000 to FACT, tax records show, as well as two additional donations, one for $100,000 and another for $450,000. That $2.45 million represents virtually all of FACT's entire reported receipts for those years (except for a total of $456 from 2015 to 2016).
In 2016, Whitaker earned $402,000 as FACT’s director and president, according to the organization’s tax filings. That followed reported compensation from FACT for Whitaker of $63,000 in 2014, and $252,000 in 2015.
His work included advocacy for causes backed by the fossil fuel industry.
As FACT’s executive director, Whitaker sought documents from the Attorneys General United for Clean Power Coalition, alleging in a 2016 op-ed that the Coalition “launched a campaign to silence many public policy organizations and even individuals for their work challenging liberal views on climate change, as well as private companies like ExxonMobil.”
That coalition, representing attorneys general from 17 states, included Eric Schneiderman, then attorney general for New York state, Maura Healey of Massachusetts, and Claude Walker of the Virgin Islands, who were all reportedly investigating ExxonMobil for failing to disclose what it knew about climate change to its investors for decades.
Whitaker labeled the probe of ExxonMobil, which has funded climate denial efforts to the tune of at least $33 million, “both unconstitutional and unethical” — but it recently led to charges against the company.
Last month, following three years of investigation, Schneiderman’s successor Barbara Underwood filed a 91-page lawsuit alleging that ExxonMobil had engaged in four counts of fraud.
“Investors put their money and their trust in Exxon — which assured them of the long-term value of their shares, as the company claimed to be factoring the risk of increasing climate change regulation into its business decisions,” Underwood said in a statement, according to Courthouse News. “Instead, Exxon built a facade to deceive investors into believing that the company was managing the risks of climate change regulation to its business when, in fact, it was intentionally and systematically underestimating or ignoring them, contrary to its public representations.”
FACT has also come under fire for its right-wing partisan bent.
“It’s perhaps worth noting that although FACT describes itself as a ‘non-partisan ethics watchdog,’ its ethics complaints are targeted overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) at Democrats, and it is funded entirely by an anonymous trust fund (a so-called ‘pass-through) favored by ultra-wealthy conservative donors, including Charles Koch,” the Global Anti-Corruption Blog wrote in September of this year.
As Acting Attorney General, Whitaker will replace Jeff Sessions, described as a “climate change skeptic” by the Washington Post for saying on the floor of Congress in 2015 that “Carbon pollution is CO2, and that’s really not a pollutant; that’s a plant food, and it doesn’t harm anybody except that it might include temperature increases.”
The Department of Justice's Office of Public Affairs has not yet responded to questions about Whitaker and FACT sent by DeSmog.
In a New York Times op-ed pubished November 8, attorneys Neal K. Katyal and George T. Conway III, questioned whether the appointment of Whitaker as acting attorney general without the advice and consent of the Senate was constitutional.
“Because Mr. Whitaker has not undergone the process of Senate confirmation,” they wrote, “there has been no mechanism for scrutinizing whether he has the character and ability to evenhandedly enforce the law in such a position of grave responsibility. “
UPDATED 11/9/18: This report has been updated to reflect two additional 2016 contributions to FACT listed in DonorsTrust's 2016 tax filings, a request for comment to the Department of Justice, and the New York Times op-ed.
Main image: Matthew Whitaker in 2011 appearing on CSPAN. Credit: CSPAN screen shot