Last week, this blog introduced you to Project Gulf Impact, an organization putatively set up to raise money for providing information about the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and humanitarian assistance to the spill’s victims. The group’s videos and interviews have become favorites of conspiracy theorists and they are exemplified by the story linked in my original post. The conspiracy nuts love PGI’s dispatches because they routinely suggest a massive coverup of environmental and health effects related to the spill. New evidence suggests that PGI may not be the humanitarian foundation its principals claim it to be. Instead, the evidence shows that the organization has strong left-wing and environmentalist ties and may not be a legitimate non-profit organization at all.
The principal director of the group was a featured speaker at Netroots Nation 2010 convention, is connected with a NOAA-funded climate change videographer, and is directly tied with a former Barack Obama political operative.
In last week’s post, I identified one of the organization’s founders as Gavin Garrison, a graduate student and filmmaker at the University of Southern California. Mr. Garrison was the individual who registered the organization’s domain name and established its website.
Mr. Garrison’s work includes a NOAA-sponsored film on the climate change debate, called Proof or Propaganda. Climate change skeptics should probably avoid watching it.
Additional research has revealed that the organization’s co-founders are Matt Smith, a 22-year old aspiring actor; and Richard Virgen, a self-described “freelance celebrity” (warning: obscene gesture imagery at the link). Virgen has also been listed as the “Producer” on a number of the organizations videos hosted on its site and at YouTube.
UPDATE: Independent investigation and subsequent corroboration have determined that Mr. Virgen is no longer associated with PGI.
Reading Mr. Smith’s blog indicates that his motives for beginning the organization were purely driven by concern over what he perceived as a human tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. It gives the distinct impression that Project Gulf Impact was formed as a noble and worthy humanitarian cause.
However, judging from the content and tone of his interviews with Intel Hub and the videos posted on his organization’s site, combined with his organization’s intense drive for contributions, it looks doubtful that humanitarian goodwill is the only motivation. Further, we could substantiate no information that confirms Project Gulf Impact is a legitimate non-profit organization, and the organization itself did not respond to a request for information regarding its status. Further still, we did substantiate the organization’s leftist ties.
The radio interviews, some conducted as late as September 20, make unsubstantiated claims that massive amounts of oil are still floating around in the Gulf of Mexico; that dispersant chemicals—including conspiracy theorist boogeyman Corexit 9500—are still being sprayed by BP and/or the United States Government; and that there are scores of people suffering from mysterious ailments.
These allegations are difficult to corroborate.
Spokesmen for the Unified Command Center in Mobile, AL and BP North America in Houston, TX both stated that for weeks they have received no reports of significant quantities of oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and that both aerial and subsurface applications of dispersant were halted weeks ago. The USCG official noted that the government was no longer publishing oil spill slick trajectory maps because no significant surface oil could be found just weeks after the successful July 15 capping of the well. Neither spokesman had heard reports of large-scale illnesses among Gulf Coast residents. Without prompting, both spokesmen provided hotline numbers for anyone to call and report such problems. For oil at sea or on land, people are encouraged to call 1-866-448-5816. For medical emergencies related to oil-related sickness or poison control, people are encouraged to call (800) 222-1222.
So why would Project Gulf Impact’s principals still be reporting that things are getting worse rather than better, and that people are still getting sick? Despite every credible and reasonable source stating unequivocally that the oil is virtually gone and that the Gulf’s healing is occurring more rapidly than expected, these people are still claiming that the disaster is getting worse. Why?
Could there be a financial motivation?
The organization’s website has a donation page, snapshot here:
The text from the page (emphasis mine):
Your contributions to Project Gulf Impact will help get back down to the Gulf to report the truth and get people out of the area to avoid the growing health risks.Project Gulf Impact is currently working under the CA non-profit organization status of “Law of the Oceans” as it files for its own non-profit corporation and for 501(c)(3) status. Currently, we are seeking a fiscal sponsor for the organization to ensure that donations are properly tax-exempt. This is a common situation for start up non-profits, especially one that’s genesis was under a month and a half ago.The funds will be going to two [sic] places:1) To get Project Gulf Impact back down to the Gulf in order to continue filming and updating the world on what is happening in the Gulf. The team has already received over 250,000 YouTube views and is focused on telling the truth and exposing the human health hazards in the area.2) The funding will also be used in relief efforts in the Gulf. The group is specifically focused on the human health hazards in the Gulf. They will be setting up a campaign headquarters to provide teach-ins and workshops on health-related issues, to act as a clearinghouse for information and resources in the Gulf (a huge missing piece of the relief efforts currently going on in the Gulf) and to provide aid in the way of supplies, gas cards and other necessary materials for Gulf residents. Health hazards and prevention will be the primary focus as many residents are currently breathing and being poisoned by toxic elements with no means of protecting themselves.3) The funding will also be used towards independent air and water testing.The team is connected with doctors and experts who are ready to chip in and start getting this going as soon as the team gets back down to the Gulf.Project Gulf Impact’s video page contains a variety of videos filmed by the team that are heartbreaking testaments to the health and financial troubles being faced by Gulf residents.
On its website, PGI lists Coffee Party USA as one if its partners. The Coffee Party is a cheap, astroturfed response to the Tea Party movement, a real grassroots organization that is still growing in influence and political punch. The Coffee Party founder, Annabel Park, is a former Barack Obama political operative with a specialty in documentary filmmaking.
Using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, Project Gulf Impact conducted an intense and coordinated fundraising effort through much of July and August.
Principals and activist volunteers furiously hammered out tweets and facebook messages requesting small donations. The organization’s website, twitterfeeds and facebook posts specifically mention plans for the organization to return to Louisiana.
That fundraising effort appears to have culminated with Smith’s speech to the Netroots Nation 2010 Convention. In his address, Smith lays the schmooze on hard and thick. In it, he says “people are dying.” That’s violin music to netroots’ ears.
There are no documents describing how much money was raised, but Mr. Garrison is a filmmaker and grad student at USC and Mr. Smith’s primary residence is in Hollywood’s backyard. Mr. Garrison has already made one left-leaning documentary, and Mr. Smith has already made two single-episode appearances in a pair of popular TV series. It’s fair to speculate that the pair’s Hollywood connections, the speech before the Netroots Nation Convention and the “partnership” with Coffee Party astroturfers makes for an attractive fundraising base.
But what would they do with the money?
Shortly after the netroots speech, the urgent requests for funding stopped and at some point in early September, the crew reassembled in Plaquemines Parish, ostensibly traveling using the charitable donations solicited by the group and raised during the June-August push.
However, research conducted in preparation for this story was unable to locate a non-profit or charitable organization registered in either the state of California or with the IRS. Initial research consisted of searches of the California Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trusts using various search terms, including Law of the Oceans; starts-with Law; starts-with Project; and includes Project Impact. The searches, conducted October 3 and 4, 2010, produced no filings consistent with Project Impact’s alleged founder in 2010 or putative status.
Additional research conducted on October 4 and 5, 2010 consisted of queries to the IRS’ Search for Charities database. Queries included search terms identical to the ones used on the California Attorney General’s website. The queries again produced no results consistent with the organization’s founders or putative status.
Similar queries were used on the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website, also with zero results.
Project Gulf Impact did not respond to an email request sent to the website’s contact address regarding the organization’s status.
Without access to these filings, and in the absence of financial reports detailing the organization’s sources and uses of funds, it is nearly impossible to determine whether Project Gulf Impact is honorably and legally conducting a charitable, humanitarian effort on the Gulf Coast. How does a donor know where their money is being spent? Is it on charitable, humanitarian efforts?
Do these efforts include a party and BBQ in Port Sulphur, LA? The snapshot on the right shows a public invitation on Facebook for an event that was held on September 10. The invitation page shows that as many as 43 people were in attendance. While a “potluck” party in Port Sulphur is certainly no gala extravagance, an event like that is still not free. One wonders if fresh Gulf Seafood was part of the menu. One also wonders whether well-meaning donors in faraway places like Ohio and Nevada would approve of their charitable donations being used to entertain a few dozen young adults on a Friday night.
During my online investigations and interviews with residents, officials and knowledgeable sources in the Gulf of Mexico area, including local government, law enforcement and military contacts in Port Sulphur, New Orleans, and Jesuit Bend in Louisiana; Mobile in Alabama and Pensacola/Gulf Breeze in Florida, two other names popped up in connection with Project Gulf Impact: Casey Nunez of New Orleans and Gregg Hall of Pensacola Beach. I can find no principal or financial connection between PGI and these two individuals. Though the two gentlemen were described to me as “colorful” and might be considered unconventional, they appear to be bit players or volunteers whose interests and circle of friends intersected coincidentally with those of PGI.
In fact, it appears that a lot of people have been caught up in a new truther conspiracy, cooked up by the usual conspiracy hawking suspects and perpetuated by a group of very slick, polished actors through the well-meaning largesse of charitable contributions from the public. PGI has strong left-leaning connections, including the Coffee Party and the Netroots organization.
It is very difficult to conclude that PGI is a non-partisan, non-political organization with purely humanitarian goals. Indeed, it appears to be another astroturfing effort organized by the environmental left, with questionable credentials as a non-profit organization.
Again, Project Gulf Impact was contacted prior to publication, and did not respond to a request for information regarding their charitable status.