APS Foundation granted $181,100 to the Arizona State University Foundation in 2013. As is well known by now, later that same year, ASU Foundation donated $100,000 to Save Our Future Now, a dark money electoral group that was one of the largest contributors to the elections of Arizona Corporation Commissioners Doug Little and Tom Forese. Little and Forese have, since their election, supported APS in every matter that has come before the Commission.
Knowing this, we decided to investigate whether or not contributions to dark money electoral nonprofits were common by university foundations that year.
Peer Group Survey
A review of five peer institutions reveals that ASU Foundation’s donation to Save Our Future Now is irregular. We reviewed tax records for five similar foundations including University of Texas Foundation, University of Connecticut Foundation, University of Florida Foundation, University of Colorado Foundation and University of Oregon Foundation.
Like the Arizona State University Foundation, all five are 501(c)(3) non-profits associated with major, public research universities and control total assets in the range of $100 million or more.
Out of these five foundations, four of them only provided grants directly to their associated universities. The fifth, the University of Colorado Foundation, additionally granted $33k to Innovations in Aging Collaborative, which is a 501(c)(3) group that focuses on senior citizen’s issues. All other grants from the University of Colorado Foundation went to university programming.
None of these five foundations donated any money to a 501(c)(4) group involved in election funding like Save Our Future Now.
Reached for comment by a C&BP researcher, University of Texas Foundation’s Catherine Bigler stated that she had never heard of a university foundation passing money to a dark money electoral group. To her understanding, “this is not common practice and not something the UT Foundation does.”
Who Was the Decider?
If ASU Foundation was a pass-through vehicle for APS to provide support to Save Our Future Now and, ultimately, pro-utility candidates, now Corporation Commissioners Forese and Little, who asked for the contribution?
APS has a well-documented interest in limiting the deployment of rooftop solar in their service area.
During the 2014 Corporation Commission election, Save Our Future Now spent $2.4 million in negative ads targeting pro-solar candidates, which played an important role in helping pro-utility candidates Forese and Little get elected.
ASU Foundation’s Mission
While the $100,000 contribution to Save Our Future Now helped to advance APS’ interests, donating to Save Our Future Now obviously does not serve ASUF’s stated mission, which is “to ensure the success of Arizona State University as a New American University.”
In fact, it was counterproductive. Instead of providing scholarships for up to ten students, $100,000 was given to a pro-utility, dark-money electoral group. Undeniably, ASU Foundation’s retaining $81k of APS’ money, while helping it distribute $100,000 to Save Our Future Now, creates at least the appearance of an improper quid pro quo.
ASU Foundation Welcomes Scrutiny
In an email to Checks and Balances Project in response to an April 6, 2015, inquiry, ASU Foundation Vice President & Chief of Staff John Skinner wrote:
“At the time of the contribution, SOFN was deemed to provide an effective avenue for public outreach designed to inform Arizonans about the value and impact of higher education. We explicitly restricted our contribution to that specific purpose.
“While we never thought it possible that our contribution to SOFN could be used to call our pro-sustainability stance and APS’s longstanding support of higher education into question, we understand the scrutiny and welcome it.”
Despite Mr. Skinner’s claim of “explicitly restricting” the $100,000 contribution to informing Arizonans about “the value and impact of higher education,” neither the ASU Foundation nor Save Our Now have presented evidence of such a restriction.
On December 8, 2015, we contacted ASU Foundation Vice President of Communications Debra Williams and asked her to explain more about the restrictions that were put in place. She responded: “The ASU Foundation’s mission includes promoting ASU and education, and it is continually looking for ways to better inform Arizonans and others of the value and impact of higher education.”
That response fails to answer the basic question about how the gift to Save Our Future Now was “explicitly” restricted.
The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting catalogued SOFN’s expenditures and determined that, while it spent millions running ads in the Corporation Commission race, Save Our Future Now has no record of similar expenditures on any educational issues.
The ASU Foundation should explain more about its gift to Save Our Future now.
Who originated the request?
Who approved the request?
Who set the amount?
The public, the ASU Foundation board, potential donors, and every voter in Arizona deserves complete transparency and accountability around these actions to determine if these two organizations have a mutually beneficial relationship based around manipulating the Corporation Commission election to further APS’s business interests.
Evlondo Cooper is a senior fellow with Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from pro-clean energy philanthropies and donors.