Letters from the West

Freedom Foundation doesn’t pass Idaho Conservation League transparency test

Idaho Freedom Foundation director Wayne Hoffman speaks at a rally in 2014.
Idaho Freedom Foundation director Wayne Hoffman speaks at a rally in 2014. Statesman file

This week I got into a Facebook debate regarding my colleague Bill Dentzer’s excellent Sunday story, “Idaho conservative advocacy group draws fire for blurring lines.”

The story was about the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which is headed by one of my former colleagues, Wayne Hoffman. I can say without reserve that Hoffman has had a long history of fighting for government transparency as a reporter and as a member of the Idaho Press Club’s First Amendment Committee, and, to a certain degree, with the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

But Hoffman has never believed that nonprofit groups like his should provide the same transparency that government agencies face. He even makes his case on ethical terms.

“There is nothing unethical about protecting donors and their right to privacy and to freely associate,” Hoffman said in a Facebook exchange with me.

In Dentzer’s article and in his Facebook exchange, Hoffman asked us to hold “liberal” organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Idaho Conservation League and United Vision for Idaho to the same standard we do him.

I’ve spent a long time covering the Idaho Conservation League. Its transparency should be a model for Idaho nonprofits.

Don’t take my word. Charity Navigator gives ICL its four-star rating — its highest — meaning it carried out its mission in a cost-effective, open manner. See for yourself. The ICL publishes an annual report that lists its accomplishments as well as its donors who give more than $250.

The Idaho organization has been working for clean air and water, open space and wilderness in Idaho for more than 40 years. Its list of donors of more than $50,000 are familiar foundations, many of them regional, that support environmental and conservation groups, including The Brainerd Foundation, the Bullitt Foundation, the Wilburforce Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts.

The big donors also include board member Elaine French, who is a longtime supporter with her husband, John French. The Ketchum couple are ICL’s largest individual supporters. John retired from commercial real estate in California in 2001 and the couple have long ties to Idaho.

Most of ICL’s $2 million in annual revenue comes from individual donors.

“We’ve always recognized our supporters,” said Rick Johnson, executive director. “If we could, we’d put all our 25,000 members in there.”

The annual report shows the people who gave more than $10,000, $5,000, $1000, $500 and $250. A separate list shows the donors to the Idaho Conservation League’s capital campaign and, as you would expect, it’s loaded with board members and former board members, such a former Congressman Walt Minnick and his wife, AK Minnick, longtime supporters of the group.

The ICL does have some anonymous donors: one in the $10,000 list, two in the $1,000 list, four in the $500 list and three in the $250 list. One of the $50,000 donors to the capital campaign list is anonymous.

“We respect their right to anonymity,” Johnson said. “Often, it’s modesty.”

Some of the criticism the Idaho Freedom Foundation has taken has been that it is pushing the agenda of its big donors. Hoffman claims that’s not true. But since we don’t see his donor list, we can’t tell.

The Idaho Conservation League’s agenda is well known and the issues it works on range from land-use planning to protecting clean air, water, rivers, wilderness and wildlife, sometimes going to court. Perhaps less recognized is its collaborative efforts in places such as the Panhandle, where the federal forest timber harvest has been dramatically increased for real restoration projects that are producing hundreds of jobs. Its donors support that, too.

“They care about innovative work that gets real things done,” Johnson said.

After more than 30 years of advocacy, Johnson walked into the office of Democratic President Barack Obama alongside Republican Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho last August for the signing ceremony for the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill that got unanimous support from both houses of Congress.

I suspect his donors are proud to put their names, as well as their dollars, behind that effort.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker