blockbuster story from the Colorado Sun has revealed that private donors are paying the salaries of several key government staff positions in Gov. Jared Polis’ administration in a controversial scheme that uses the power of state government to advance special interests:

“To deliver on his campaign promises and policy priorities, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is relying on wealthy donors and major advocacy organizations to pay the bill. The Democratic governor is accepting more than $1 million from donors, nonprofits and foundations to pay salaries and costs associated with six top policy positions, according to a review of financial records and other documents by The Colorado Sun in partnership with CBS4 Denver.” (emphasis added)

Typically, government workers are paid by public funds which helps ensure their sole loyalty is to taxpayers and not special interests. But with these staffers’ salaries paid for by private donors, it raises the question of whether their work is truly oriented in the public interest, rather than that of the donors.

“To critics, the practice represents government-for-hire, and the donor-funded initiatives are ripe for potential conflicts of interest. ‘The practice of allowing private interests to pay their way into positions of authority in state government offices does not serve the public interest,’ Tiger Joyce, the president of the American Tort Reform Association, said in a statement.” (emphasis added)

To make the situation even murkier, there is a lack of transparency about where exactly the donations are coming from.

“The donations operate outside the state budget with limited oversight and transparencyand continue a pattern from previous governors. At least three of the grants accepted by the governor’s office include confidentiality clauses that limit the information available, according to documents obtained by The Sun. And four donors funneled money for the grants through other organizations, hiding the true source.” (emphasis added)

Even a Denver-based philanthropic strategist who supports the arrangement called it a “quid pro quo” because as the Colorado Sun notes, “the advantages for donors are apparent: The money allows the advocates to give their issues a higher priority in the administration through a position that advises the governor.”

Climate and Energy a Top Priority

One of the privately funded staff positions is focused on climate and energy, a top priority for Polis who pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions and move the state to 100 percent renewable energy.

“The governor’s special adviser on climate change — tasked with moving Colorado to 100% renewable energy and hitting pollution reduction targets — is funded through the U.S. Climate Alliance with money from a foundation backed by the grandson of Walmart’s founder.”

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a group of governors aiming to uphold the goals of the Paris Agreement that uses private donors to pay for staff to work in their administrations, according to a report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The report shows that the Hewlett Foundation started this program with the help of former State Department Special Envoy for Climate Change Johnathan Pershing, who was given considerable authority over hiring decisions through the World Resources Institute. Chris Horner, the report’s author, explained how this practice is “government for rent.”

“This practice represents having outside parties hire staff members selected by governors for whom their legislatures have not authorized or have not appropriated funds. They use their office in service of the donors and of the advocacy groups’ and politicians’ aligned agenda.”

Additional open records requests from CEI show that that governors belonging to the U.S. Climate Alliance relied heavilyon communications and research work from private environmental activist organizations, including Climate Nexus, which is sponsored by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Similar to Polis, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has employed a staffer through the U.S. Climate Alliance and World Resource Institute. A Wall Street Journal editorial showed how this arrangement has led to the government performing work at the behest of private interests.

“A leading example is Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s office, which seems to have subcontracted some of its work and budget to two foundations pushing an activist climate agenda. An environmental nonprofit, the World Resources Institute, actually hired Washington’s state government as a contractor last July. Under this remarkable arrangement, the state agreed to perform a “scope of work” for the nonprofit that includes “activities and deliverables” to advance a green agenda. The special-interest tail is officially wagging the democratic dog, given that the contract provides the job framework for Mr. Inslee’s senior policy adviser for climate and sustainability, Reed Schuler.”

Furthermore, in March 2020, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund made a $100,000 grant to the United Nations Foundation for the U.S. Climate Alliance project. The Rockefellers have used their constellation of groups and various donations to advance a massive climate litigation campaign targeting American energy companies.

The U.S. Climate Alliance’s connection to the Rockefellers shouldn’t come as much of surprise considering the program’s similarity to another effort in the climate litigation campaign. Michael Bloomberg financed the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center (SEEIC) at the NYU Law School which sponsors a Fellows Program that places attorneys in state attorneys general offices for the specific purpose of assisting on climate lawsuits. And like the U.S. Climate Alliance, these Special Assistant Attorneys General (SAAG) have their salaries and expenses paid for by the SEEIC.

Happening Elsewhere Around the County?

Polis isn’t the only governor in America benefitting from privately paid staff. As the CEI report shows, the U.S. Climate Alliance has sponsored positions in California, New York, and Washington State. And there are at least ten state attorneys general offices that have employed SAAGs paid for by the SEEIC.

Yet, because these arrangements have been so controversial, the beneficiaries have been reluctant to talk about it. The Colorado Sun reported that “Polis declined repeated requests to discuss how his office is funded” and Inslee has receivedplenty of heat of his use of privately paid staff.

Meanwhile, state attorneys general are no longer touting their association with the SEEIC after unflattering press coverage. Several of those officials have even been sued for failing to comply with open records requests.

It’s clear that governors and attorneys general benefitting from private donors don’t want to talk about it very much, meaning this situation could be happening elsewhere around the country, waiting for the next intrepid reporter like the one for the Colorado Sun to uncover it all.

Originally appearing in the Colorado Sun