Our Power, Our Choice

Sempra’s Misinformation Campaign (Part 2–Follow the Money)

In Part 2 of our summary of recent investigative journalism about Sempra’s misinformation campaign, we focus on two articles that report on the coalition of local organizations and businesses that Sempra Services put together to fight community choice, and how the money that SDG&E donates to, or spends with, these groups figures into their support.

In “Following The Money In San Diego’s Community Choice Debate,” Andrew Bowen reports for KPBS that many community choice skeptics have one thing in common: financial support from SDG&E, a company that has fought the expansion of community choice statewide.

Last month, several local organizations announced their formation of the "Clear the Air Coalition," a group seeking to slow down San Diego's exploration of community choice. The coalition includes Frank Urtasun, a vice president of Sempra Services, a marketing and lobbying district set up by SDG&E's parent company, and Lani Lutar, a lobbyist hired by Sempra Services. State law requires that SDG&E cannot lobby against CCE formation, hence the separate company. So SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao can make the statement: "SDG&E has no involvement in the Clear the Air Coalition.” They don’t have to, they have their parent looking out for their interests.

Ry Rivard filed a similar report for Voice of San Diego under the headline “Clear the Air Coalition's Ties to Sempra Aren’t Always Clear to the Public.” Clear the Air formed in mid-September to question and delay the city’s attempt to enter the energy market. And with it, the battle lines are set as both sides mobilize their networks of partners who are, to varying degrees, open about their economic interests.

Clear the Air has 14 inaugural members, most of whom are well-connected to SDG&E, which has a history of fending off similar challenges to its monopoly in the past. Three of them work for SDG&E or its parent company, Sempra Energy. In addition to Frank Urtasun and Lani Lutar, Dan Hom is the CEO of Focuscom, a public relations firm that does community outreach for SDG&E. Most other members come from or have deep ties to local business groups or nonprofits. Some of those groups, in turn, have significant financial connections to Sempra companies. Those connections are often not obvious to the public.

In total, Sempra companies gave $7.5 million to charity last year and spent another $3.2 million on other kinds of donations and membership dues, according to a financial disclosure document that Sempra files with the California Public Utility Commission. A spokeswoman for Sempra Services said the company does not attach strings to its charitable work. But several CCA supporters say they repeatedly run into nonprofit groups that take money from the company and then speak out in defense of SDG&E without disclosing the connections. CCA supporters and Sempra opponents say those connections can cloud people’s judgement.

“They get a dime, then they come in and say SDG&E should get dollars,” said Mike Aguirre, a former city attorney. Right now, Aguirre is fighting to prevent SDG&E from raising rates to pay for damage the company helped cause during the 2007 wildfires.

Tony Manolatos, spokesman for the Clear the Air coalition, said Sempra is “upfront about who our supporters are” – that’s true, but the group didn’t disclose that SDG&E is a supporter of many of its supporters.

Here is a summary, taken from both articles and the Clear the Air website, of members of the Clear the Air Coalition, their affiliated organization that the articles say have financial ties to Sempra Energy or SDG&E, and if stated, the dollar amounts the organization received in 2016:
  • Frank Urtasun, Vice President of Sempra Services
  • Lani Lutar, Responsible Solutions (lobbyist for Sempra Services)
  • Dan Hom, Focuscom (public relations for SDG&E)
  • Haney Hong, San Diego County Taxpayers Association ($27,500)
  • Ruben Barrales, Latino Leadership & Policy Forum ($20,000)
  • Rev. Gerald Brown, United African American Ministerial Action Council ($15,000)
  • Kris Mitchell, Downtown San Diego Partnership (Frank Urtasun is former chairman)
  • Jack Monger, Industrial Environmental Association (SDG&E is a member)
  • Earl Wong, Asian Business Association of San Diego (a client of Focuscom)
  • Jerry Sanders, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce
  • Stephen Cushman, The Jacobs and Cushman San Diego Food Bank

A few people have lined up on the pro side of the CCA debate despite potential financial disincentives not to. Bishop George Dallas McKinney is a board member of the SDG&E-backed United African American Ministerial Action Council (the same organization as Clear the Air member Rev. Gerald Brown) but is in favor of the switch to a CCA and has supported the Climate Action Campaign. And Voice of San Diego received $30,000 from SDG&E last year and has an SDG&E vice president on it’s board of directors, but still published the referenced article of investigative journalism.

The Clear the Air Coalition's top-heavy dominance of lobbying and public relations expertise raises a legitimate question that the group's sole purpose is a FUD ("Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt") campaign into which Sempra has drawn respecatble civic organizations. In Part 3 of our series, we will look in detail at the uncertainty this misinformation campaign is exploiting.