Who does La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt really represent: Taxpayers or environmental activists?
The question has lingered ever since Lachelt – a longtime activist with the national anti-fracking group Earthworks – was elected to office in November 2012. But it recently took on new urgency after a curious political contribution was discovered in the Colorado Secretary of State’s campaign finance database.
Lachelt, a Democrat who is running for reelection this year, listed Earthworks as her employer while reporting a September 2015 donation to her own campaign. It was puzzling, because Lachelt supposedly quit her career in activism to become a county commissioner. Could she really have been working as an environmental activist, as well as a public official, all this time?
Intrigued, I decided to review her track record, starting with out-of-state speaking engagements. In December 2013, for example, Lachelt toured Virginia and North Carolina with a number of environmental activist groups. At a series of events, she spoke both as a county commissioner from Colorado and as the founder of the Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project, according to press accounts. One of the organizers went further, calling Lachelt the “founder and director” of the Earthworks anti-drilling program alongside her elected role.
According to a local newspaper, The Caroline Progress, Lachelt’s presentation included claims of falling property values, and she also called the industry “self-policing” when it comes to environmental regulation. “What I say everywhere I go is: take a deep breath, and never, ever, ever sign the documents that the landman gives you,” Lachelt said, referring to representatives from oil and gas companies who negotiate leases with landowners.
Lachelt’s speaking tour was organized by the Southern Environmental Law Center, a group that’s received more than $800,000 in funding from the anti-fracking Park Foundation. With assets of more than $400 million, the Park Foundation finances “the rock stars of the anti-drilling movement,” according to E&E News, and led the campaign to ban shale gas development in New York. Not surprisingly, Earthworks is also a major recipient of anti-fracking grants from the Park Foundation.
Closer to home, Lachelt has also maintained ties to activist groups since becoming a county commissioner. In 2014 – two years after her election – she still served on the board of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, which has called the campaign against drilling a “bar fight,” “street fight” and “back-alley fight.” Lachelt even served as the group’s spokesperson to the The Denver Post after her connection to the group became an issue in the 2014 gubernatorial race between Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez (R).
Hickenlooper appointed Lachelt as the co-chairman of a special task force on oil and gas development in a deal that kept two anti-fracking measures off the statewide ballot in 2014. At the first meeting, Lachelt was visibly annoyed when most of the speakers during the public comment period were pro-industry, and tried to limit their participation, according to The Daily Caller. “[I]f you agree with what someone has already said, please just briefly state that so we can get through everybody tonight by six,” Lachelt said.
I remember the moment well, because I was one of those tiresome pro-industry voices, speaking on behalf of Energy In Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Later, after the task force rejected a number of anti-industry proposals, Lachelt joined activists in dismissing its work. “It’s just a really big disappointment,” she told Colorado Public Radio, setting the stage for the return of anti-fracking ballot measures in 2016.
More recently, in the wake of the 2015 Gold King mine spill, Lachelt used a New York Times op-ed to promote Earthworks and lobby for a mining bill the group wants to get through Congress. She has also worked closely with environmental activists to sell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory agenda to the public. In May, for example, a Conservation Colorado press release on new EPA oil and gas regulations hailed Lachelt as an “environmental leader” and even listed her as a press contact. Lachelt also served on the host committee for Conservation Colorado’s annual awards dinner – Rebel With a Cause – held this month in Denver.
Now, in fairness, as a recovering news reporter and an advocate for limited government, I have a natural suspicion of the environmental left and their allies in government. I have also taken Lachelt to task before through my work with Energy in Depth. But even so, it’s still hard to ignore the time and effort this county commissioner has devoted to environmental activism since taking office.
So I asked Lachelt to explain what’s going on.
“I’m not an employee of Earthworks,” Lachelt replied in an e-mail. “I’ve received no compensation from Earthworks since 2012.” She suggested there must have been a mistake when the campaign contribution was entered. “I will double check my employer in the database and make any necessary corrections,” Lachelt said.
Fair enough. But when I asked if “compensation” included travel expenses, either directly covered or reimbursed, I got no reply. Likewise, when I asked about any income and travel expenses from other environmental groups – like the ones who sponsored her speaking tour in Virginia and North Carolina – Lachelt declined to comment.
I also asked her about her trip in late April to Washington, D.C. where she testified at a hearing of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. Lachelt, in her official capacity as a county commissioner, spoke in favor of another set of proposed regulations from the Obama administration targeting oil and gas development. How much did the trip cost and who paid for it? Again, Lachelt declined to comment.
I have since learned, by means of a public records request, that La Plata County did not pay for Lachelt’s trip to Washington to testify in favor of those Obama administration rules. So who did? Lachelt herself or someone else?
And there’s something else, too: The online version of Lachelt’s truth-in-testimony form blacks out her contact information, but the unredacted version shows a personal e-mail address, not her official government account. Why was that necessary?
Putting aside the accuracy of Lachelt’s campaign finance reports, it’s clear she has made time to pursue her old job – environmental activism – while serving in her new job. Maybe that’s what taxpayers expected when she took office almost four years ago. Maybe it isn’t. But either way, the taxpayers deserve a full accounting of whose time and money was spent in the process.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.