Complaint filed over anti-fracking ad

The free-market Civitas Institute has filed a complaint with the N.C. Board of Elections and the Secretary of State’s office alleging environmental organizations broke the law with a series of TV ads they ran attacking a handful of state legislators for supporting fracking this year.

Fracking involves pumping a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into deep shale formations, then fracturing the rock to release the gas.

Civitas claims that the North Carolina Environmental Partnership, which the commercials identify as the sponsors, is a shell entity that doesn’t legally exist. Funding for the ads comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, which Civitas calls “out-of-state, extremist environmental groups.”

“Millions of dollars are being spent in this state by groups that refuse to identify their funding sources,” Civitas President Francis De Luca said.

Both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center are tax-exempt charitable organizations that are not required to disclose their donors. In June, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that the two groups spent more than $600,000 on the TV campaign. Civitas says more than $2 million was spent on the ads.

The complaint asks the elections board to investigate and, if it determines there was a violation of law, turn the matter over to the Wake County district attorney for prosecution on criminal misdemeanor charges.

Those two groups and six other environmental organizations got together this spring to push back against the General Assembly’s support of fracking. They set up a website in March identifying all the partner groups.

Civitas contends the coalition is trying to defeat the six Republican legislators who are running for re-election and were targeted in the ads, and so must file reports with the Board of Elections.

Civitas also says the NRDC must file with the Secretary of State Office as a lobbying organization. SELC, which employs lobbyists, has been registered with the state for about 25 years.

The SELC and the NRDC contend they do not have to register with state regulators, but they have filed reports with the elections board to be transparent.

The SELC’s Mary Maclean Asbill called the complaint “baseless.” She said the partnership has publicized its member groups, and that all of them are either based in North Carolina or have members who live here.

“Our campaign is in full compliance with the law and is a non-political, policy and issue-focused effort to hold legislators accountable for pro-polluter votes that weaken environmental protections and public health safeguards,” Asbill said in a statement. “All of our advertising makes clear the ads are sponsored by the coalition, as federal law requires.”

Joshua Lawson, a spokesman for the Board of Elections, said registration and disclosure requirements vary depending on the nature of the ad, an organization’s primary purpose and the proximity to an election. That’s what the board will have to determine, he said.