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4 Pinocchios for a misguided ‘big money’ coal attack by Alison Grimes

“What Mitch McConnell doesn’t want you to know is that he and his wife personally took $600,000 from anti-coal groups, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-coal foundation.”

— new television ad from Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes

In their nasty Senate battle, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R) and challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes have frequently traded charges over who is a bigger supporter of Kentucky’s beleaguered coal industry. This particular ad starts as a response to a McConnell ad, which claimed that Grimes “takes money from people who want to destroy coal.”

That ad did not provide any sources but, as a Democrat, Grimes did attend fundraisers and accept money from some people associated with environmental causes, according to campaign finance records (see page 28) and news accounts. No surprise there, but those activists would probably object to the idea that they seek to “destroy” coal.

In response, this ad tries to turn the tables on McConnell, asserting that he is the candidate in the race “pocketing big money from people who want to destroy coal.” Apologies for the fuzzy image quality; the ad has not been released on Grimes’s YouTube video channel, which is often a sign that a campaign wants to slip something under the radar.

How well does this claim stand up?

The Facts

The Grimes campaign largely bases its attack on information contained in an article that appeared on Yahoo, which was titled “Mitch McConnell’s wife sits on the board of a group working to kill the coal industry.” But there’s less to the article than the headline suggests.

McConnell’s wife, of course, is Elaine Chao, a former labor secretary, president of the United Way of America and Peace Corps director. Thus the attack on McConnell is indirect, except for the fact that her income is also reported on McConnell’s financial disclosure forms filed with the Senate. (Grimes previously has falsely accused McConnell of quadrupling his net worth on his Senate pay when that was actually a consequence of an inheritance by Chao.)

In this case, the group in question is Bloomberg Philanthropies, which in 2011 committed $50 million over four years for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, which aims to retire one-third of dirty coal plants by 2020, according to its Web site.

Chao joined Bloomberg Philanthropies’ advisory board in 2012, after the initiative was announced. Her pay? $9,400 a year, according the group’s 2012 financial filing.

“The decision to provide funding to Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative took place before Elaine Chao joined the board,” said spokeswoman Meghan Womack. “Bloomberg Philanthropies’ board members do not vote on individual initiatives or program spends.” (The Grimes campaign argues that it’s worse that she joined after the commitment was made, and payments have been made during her tenure.)

Womack disputed the ad’s description of Bloomberg as an anti-coal group. “The organization focuses on five key areas for creating lasting change: public health, environment, education, government innovation and the arts,” she said. “In 2013, Bloomberg Philanthropies distributed $452 million.”

Even if one were to accept that Chao had anything to do with the Beyond Coal Initiative — which the organizations denies — her pay of $9,400 is chump change compared to the $600,000 claimed by the ad. Where does the rest come from?

In this case, the ad is counting Chao’s compensation from serving on the board of directors of Wells Fargo, which totals nearly $685,000, according to the bank’s proxy statements in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Wait a second. Well Fargo is a bank. Why does the ad call it an “anti-coal group”? The Grimes campaign justifies this on the grounds that in a 2013 report Wells Fargo said that it had been curtailing its financing of “mountain top removal” (MTR) coal operations.

But Jennifer G. Dunn, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said Wells Fargo adopted this policy in 2006 — five years before Chao joined the board. It was just not formally mentioned in a Wells Fargo external document until 2013, she said.

“In 2006, Wells Fargo adopted a credit policy that provided guidance related to financing coal and metal mining,” Dunn said. “While we continue to finance coal companies, as a result of our deliberate approach and the broader movement of the industry toward other mining methods, our involvement with the practice of MTR is limited and declining.”

In any case, Dunn added, the policy was developed and implemented without any involvement by the Wells Fargo board of directors.

Dunn also disputed the assertion that the bank is an anti-coal group. “Given that we still finance coal companies, we would certainly not characterize ourselves as ‘anti-coal,’” she said.

The Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club and BankTrak in 2012 issued a report that ranked Wells Fargo as one of the top five worst banks on coal financing, with an overall grade of “D.” In 2013, Wells Fargo earned a “C” for mountaintop removal but retained a “D” for coal-fired power plants. And in 2014, its score for mountaintop removal improved to “B” — making it one of the first banks to earn such a rating– yet it still only earned a “D” for financing coal-fired plants.

The Pinocchio Test

This is a fairly misleading and flimsy ad. In both instances, policies were undertaken before Chao joined the respective boards — and in any case, the boards of directors had no input in developing those policies.

The Bloomberg organization has financed an initiative to phase out dirty coal plants, but Chao’s earnings are a pittance of the figure displayed in the ad. The Grimes campaign only reaches the $600,000 figure by counting Chao’s compensation from Wells Fargo, which under no definition is an “anti-coal group.” Instead, the bank continues to finance all but one segment of the coal industry.

Finally, what did McConnell have to do with of any of this? Nothing.

Four Pinocchios

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