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Rainforest Action Network Targeted in Congressional Probe

by Ellen Komp, CLMP

April 16, 2004 -- The environmental group Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has been subpoenaed by the House Ways and Means Committee for all records relating to their civil disobedience actions for the past 10 years. Other progressive groups and foundations have been similarly targeted in what appears to be a far-reaching and partisan probe.

According to Michael Brune, who took over as RAN Executive Director in April 2003, informal and somewhat sneaky phone calls began last spring to RAN offices from members of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, asking how RAN organized their demonstrations and about their internal structure. Finally, Brune asked for the Committee's questions to be submitted in writing and in December of last year, that happened in the form of the subpoena.

RAN, which was founded in 1985, originally contested the subpoena on freedom of assembly grounds, then made decision to comply, but redacted the names and addresses of volunteers. "We don't feel have anything to hide," said Brune. "Nonviolent direct action is in RAN's mission statement. We decided it wasn't effective to fight the subpoena and are anxious to make our case that civil disobedience should be embraced as a vital part of a democratic society." RAN released emails, newspaper articles, board minutes, website entries, and press releases, much of which were already public. Brune says that some staff members of the Ways and Means committee "may be upset" that names were redacted from the documents and there have been "some mutterings about public hearings in the spring." According to Brune, both Greenpeace and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have also been subjected to the same informal questioning from the W&M Committee and may be on the same track as RAN.

Who is behind these investigations? A January 16 letter to Brune from Bill Thomas (CA), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, states, "The Subcommittee has received reports of tax-preferred organizations that may be operating beyond the scope of their charitable status." Right-wing groups such as Frontiers for Freedom (FFF) and Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE) have publicly asked for an IRS review of RAN since 2001 when RAN launched a campaign against Boise Cascade, a contributor to the senate campaigns of Malcom Wallop (R-WY), FFF's founder. Wallop is famous for the states-rights "Wallop amendment" to the 1980 Clean Water Act and was instrumental in cutting inheritance taxes and Carter's windfall profits tax. He is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation (along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld). Thomas is a Republican congressman from Bakersfield, home to Occidental Petroleum, another of RAN's targets.

FFF's stated agenda includes "preservation of property rights and reform of the Endangered Species Act." FFF's website (www.fff.org) has posted a press release (3/15/04) applauding the capture of Earth Liberation Front activist Michael Scarpitti, who is wanted for setting fire to several logging trucks to protest a timber sale on Mount Hood, Oregon. The release states, "Frontiers has long held that groups like the ELF, the Animal Liberation League (ALF), EarthFirst, and the Rainforest Action League [sic] should be treated as sisters of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and other well-known terrorists groups around the world." It claims that ELF is the FBI's top domestic terrorism priority.

Brune says he is not aware of anything in the tax code that precludes civil disobedience actions by non-profit organizations. "If Martin Luther King was subject to this kind of scrutiny, the government would have shut down churches engaging in civil disobedience during the civil rights movement," he said.

"Civil disobedience has helped to make the world a better place for all, helping to end slavery and child labor, and in giving women the right to vote," said Brune. "For much of the progressive movement, civil disobedience is an opportunity to be creative and peacefully grab the attention of society, focusing it on important issues of the day."

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