Single-use plastic bags, found at nearly every retail, grocery and convenience store in the nation, are now the latest target of environmentalists, as well as by state and local lawmakers.
However, in the case of the leading nonprofit behind Florida’s growing “ban the bag” movement, something is not quite right.
The Surfrider Foundation, headquartered in San Clemente, began as a small environmental organization to “champion surf and sand” of California beaches. Thirty years later, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit has evolved into a multimillion dollar nationwide concern, claiming to be “dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans and beaches through a powerful activist network” and focusing on such hot-button environmental issues like climate change.
Having a growing presence — 11 chapters in Florida — Surfrider is working to ban not only plastic bags but also polystyrene, balloons, plastic water bottles, plastic drinking straws and the like.
But through financial secrecy, open politicking and skirting state and federal lobbying rules, Surfrider seems to be expending a lot of energy to “ban the bag” — while spending next to nothing to get it done. A closer look at the Surfrider network reveals a dubious lack of spending on lobbying efforts, clearly disproportionate to its actual activities.
Steven Allen writes in The Orange County Register: “According to the group’s Form 990, Surfrider generates $6.7 million in annual revenue, supposedly to combat climate change, but claims to spend minimal sums on political advocacy and lobbying. From 2010 to 2014, the group’s total lobbying limit, given its 501(c)(3) status, was roughly $2.3 million, yet Surfrider reported less than $70,000 in lobbying expenditures — 3 percent of the total limit.”
“During that period,” Allen notes, “Surfrider’s total grassroots lobbying limit was about $600,000, yet the group only spent a reported $24,909 on grassroots lobbying — 4 percent of its limit.”
Surfrider — which sends groups to lobby legislators in Washington D.C. — primarily targets local ordinances, as they seek to block or undermine statewide measures for uniformity of commerce (as described by Surfrider CEO Chad Nelson).
The group urges cities to mount legal challenges in parts of the county (such as Florida) where the regulatory authority to tax and single-use plastic bag bans is reserved exclusively for the state.
As part of its campaign, Surfrider has become a regular fixture at legislative lobby days and fly-ins, most recently in support of legislation that would authorize localities to enact pilot ordinances to ban or tax plastic bags.
Pushing its legislative agenda in Tallahassee, Surfrider helped write the statewide “ban the bag” bill sponsored in 2017 by Miami Beach Democrat David Richardson. HB 93 would allow water-adjacent municipalities of less than 100,000 residents to pass pilot programs banning single-use plastic bags. The Senate companion (SB 162), is now in the Community Affairs Committee.
In addition to its statewide campaign, Surfrider’s most recent local victory was in Coral Gables, which became the first city in Florida to move toward a total ban on the single-use plastic bag.
On March 14, the Coral Gables City Council gave the OK to a preliminary ordinance prohibiting plastic bags used by retailers or at special events. A vote May 8 could make the ban permanent.
Coral Gables represents a key part of Surfrider’s strategy. All they need is a single city to contradict state policy, provoking a lawsuit and giving the group an opportunity to legally challenge the entire state law. For this, Surfrider is willing to pay for the fight.
That enthusiasm to provide financial support to a range of political, legal and legislative battles raise a number of red flags.
For example, Surfrider’s spending irregularities have caught the attention of the Capital Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based investigative think tank.
In February, the CRC published an extensive examination of the Surfrider Foundation’s activist history as a 501(c)(3) organization, which included several examples of financial filing discrepancies, potential political underreporting and activist training. Soon after, the group issued a shorter synopsis following up on Surfrider’s possible abuses of nonprofit status.
As a nonprofit, tax-exempt public service organization, federal rules prohibit Surfrider Foundation from engaging in direct action politics. To most taxpayers, it is straightforward — tax-exempt, nonprofit service organizations should not be in the business of politics.
In stark comparison, Surfrider wears its political activates like a badge of honor — claiming more than 400 campaign victories since 2006, and an activist campaign school for members (even offering courses such as Advocacy 101, Campaigns 101 and Lobbying 101 courses).
An egregious case of this gray area between nonprofit and active politicking is demonstrated in a YouTube video posted June 2016 — “How Political Hardball Can Save Our Oceans and Coast” — which features a Surfrider attorney openly colluding with candidates and talking strategy of using PACs and fundraising.
The video brings up an interesting issue: a lawyer for a 501(c)(3), onstage with a c(4) director and a candidate for public office, holding a panel with the theme “politics and grassroots DO mix.”
As part of the Environmental Media Association Speaker Series, the conversation also preceded a candidate fundraiser — with suggested donations to said candidate — something undoubtedly troublesome in light of candidate prohibitions for (c)(3)s. Flyers promoting the forum, and a fundraiser for Salud Carbajal running for California’s 24th Congressional District, were at the same address, with overlapping times.
It is also somewhat unwise for a candidate to speak openly about how a (c)(3) works in concert with a (c)(4), acknowledging that specific political issues/candidates/ballot discussions are being raised in (c)(3) chapter meetings.
What’s more, financial records show Surfrider claimed to spend no more than $25,000 on political activities since 2012 — well below its legal caps. That alone is improbable, given the degree they have been active in Florida and nationwide: lobbying Tallahassee this year, as well as its actions in Coral Gables and helping craft bills such as Richardson’s HB 93.
The fundamental question is this: How can a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) get away with open politicking, claiming political activities nationwide and “hundreds” of victories, all while spending practically nothing on the politics and lobbying to do so?