Tim Ryan may be removed from fossil fuel pledge

“There are multiple violations here,” a No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge organizer said.

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Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) speaks during the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention on September 7, 2019. Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images.

Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) will be removed from the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge if he does not return campaign donations he received from the scandal-plagued electric utility FirstEnergy, pledge organizers told HEATED on Wednesday.

“There are multiple violations here,” said Collin Rees, a senior campaigner with Oil Change U.S., the organization behind the increasingly popular climate pledge. Rees was referring to HEATED’s Tuesday article showing Ryan and his leadership PAC have taken a combined $27,500 from FirstEnergy’s corporate PAC and company executives during the 2020 election cycle.

Ryan’s campaign “will have one week to return or rectify the donations,” Rees said. “If they don’t, they’ll be removed from the pledge.”

Ryan’s office did not return a request for comment.

An increasingly important, but hard to enforce litmus test

The No Fossil Fuel Money pledge has increasingly become an important litmus test for Democratic politicians who want to prove they’re serious about tackling the climate crisis—especially as peer-reviewed research has shown that oil and gas companies donate more to politicians who support their agenda, which is overwhelmingly anti-climate.

To date, the pledge has been signed by more than 2,000 candidates and elected officials across the country, including more than 50 members of Congress and Joe Biden. With their signature, pledge-takers promise not to knowingly accept more than $200 from “PACs, lobbyists, or SEC-named executives of fossil fuel companies—companies whose primary business is the extraction, processing, distribution, or sale of oil, gas, or coal.”

The word “knowingly” is important, because sometimes campaigns receive checks from fossil fuel companies or executives that they didn’t ask for. Take, for example, Pennsylvania state Representative and pledge-signer Sara Innamorato. After HEATED published data on FirstEnergy’s PAC donations earlier this week, the Pittsburgh-area Democrat reached out to say she was surprised to see her name in the spreadsheet.

“I have been one of the most outspoken environmental justice representatives in our General Assembly and find myself often battling not only the reps on the other side of the aisle but my own party,” she wrote. She received an unsolicited $250 First Energy PAC check last year, she said—but she immediately returned it.

In addition, Rees acknowledged his organization doesn’t have the capacity to closely track every signatory. So ensuring accountability is often left up to citizens and journalists.

Forced removal from the pledge is rare—but it happens

When citizens and journalists do point out violations, though, Rees said the organization acts quickly. “We’ve contacted hundreds of signers over the years,” Rees said. Usually, those violations are just mistakes; checks were received that the candidate either didn’t ask for, or didn’t see. The checks are then returned. “The vast majority of signers remain in good standing,” Rees said.

However, sometimes pledge signers just blatantly break the promise not to accept fossil fuel money, and refuse to be held accountable for it.

Just last week, for example, Democratic Congressional candidate and pledge-signer Jake Auchincloss chose to attack the pledge’s credibility after a citizen pointed out that he had accepted a $2,800 donation from a huge fossil fuel supplier.

It was an unfortunate and unusual situation, Rees said. All Auchincloss had to do was return the money, and he could have remained in good standing. Instead, “He broke the pledge, showed no remorse, and refused to return the donations.” Auchincloss was then removed from the list.

“Tim Ryan really needs to rethink what he’s doing here.”

Since being called out for his violations on Tuesday, Ryan has also not yet shown remorse or promised to return the donations. He has, instead, remained silent.

For RL Miller, one of the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge coalition members, that lack of response isn’t a good sign. “This tells me that he lied when he signed that pledge,” she said. FirstEnergy, after all, has been a top donor of Ryan’s for his entire 17-year career in Congress. FirstEnergy is explicitly listed by the pledge as a prohibited fossil fuel company. And FirstEnergy’s PAC donations to Ryan were also not small; they constituted the maximum allowable money the company could give.

And then there’s the fact that FirstEnergy is currently at the center of a $61 million criminal conspiracy alleged by the FBI—a scandal prosecutors say is “likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.”

“Tim Ryan really needs to rethink what he’s doing here,” Miller said. “This looks to be the most corrupt, appalling utility I’ve ever seen.”

The fact that Ryan signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge makes his acceptance of FirstEnergy money particularly abominable, Miller said. But she’s also surprised any Democrat is still taking the utility’s money, given the FBI allegations centered upon it.

“The moment that story first blew up, every single Democrat who says they care about climate action needed to return that money. And they haven’t,” said Miller, who is also a member of the Democratic National Committee.

“It’s one thing for the Democratic Party to declare on its platform that we’re against fossil fuel subsidies,” she said. “It’s another thing for Democrats to be OK with fossil fuel fucking bribes.”

If Ryan or his Democrats colleagues do wind up returning FirstEnergy’s contributions, Miller said, she hopes they money goes “not back to the FirstEnergy, but to an environmental justice group in Cleveland or Columbus fighting for the right to breathe.”

A list of all FirstEnergy’s donations to the campaign committees of House Democrats this election cycle can be found below.

Click HERE to explore more of FirstEnergy’s PAC donations this election cycle.

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