The long-simmering stew between national environmental groups and Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, has spilled onto the powerful House committee chairman's Web site.
Environmentalists contend Pombo is improperly torching his political adversaries and spreading lies on the committee's taxpayer-funded Web pages.
Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) is a sixth-term Member of Congress, representing the 11th district of California. In 2003, he took over the chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, becoming the youngest chairman in the House, and winning the post over nine more senior Republicans with the strong backing of Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Rep. Pombo's ethics violations include: misuse of the franking privilege, accepting campaign contributions in return for legislative assistance, keeping family members on his campaign payroll, and misusing official resources.
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"Propaganda is legal," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, "but the taxpayers shouldn't be paying for it."
Pombo argues that his sites -- one titled "Earth Day" and a second focused on reforms of the Endangered Species Act -- shine light on eco-myths and the fund-raising machine behind a movement that spends millions of dollars to block environmental policy reforms.
"It's all part of the policy debate," Pombo said. "Hey, these groups can't scream that my site is political and turn around and say their stuff is educational. They can't have it both ways."
House rules bar the use of political material on its Web sites. But regulators typically define "political" as a plea for votes rather than contentious policy debates.
As long as the site doesn't use the magic words, "Vote for me," it's unlikely to run afoul of the law, said ethics expert Bob Stern at the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.
"I don't have a problem with him using his Web site to talk about the issues, even if those issues are central to his re-election campaign," Stern said. "It may be an unfair advantage but it's not unethical. It's one of the many perks of incumbency."
The war between Pombo and environmental activists is legitimate policy debate, but none can deny its political implications.
It's just weeks before the June 6 primary election, and national environmental groups are spending money in Pombo's district in an attempt to unseat him. Pombo has two primary opponents, and three Democrats are vying for the chance to run in November.
Pombo has called these nonprofit groups' involvement in the District 11 campaign into question, noting that federal law prohibits it.
But Pombo is only partially correct.
Nonprofit groups with tax-exempt status are not permitted under federal tax law to spend money on behalf of or in opposition to candidates, although they may conduct public education activities.
However, some nonprofit entities are not tax-exempt or they have formed affiliated political action committees that may legally campaign.
"We use our own resources to attack Pombo," said Center for Biological Diversity policy director Kieran Suckling. "Pombo is using the resources of the American people to attack environmentalists. That's just wrong."
The Web site grew out of Pombo's annual Earth Day news release, which usually counters some aspect of what the lawmaker calls the environmental groups' "sky is falling mentality."
House committee Web sites often contain strong language about the other party's views on everything from Social Security to mining safety reform, but in the sweeping indictment of environmentalists, Pombo appears to be the first committee chairman to devote a site to debunking an entire movement.
It contends the environment is in good shape and that environmentalists resort to scare tactics to line their own pockets.
It features details on Resources Committee bills and environmental success stories, such as dramatic improvements in the nation's water and air quality.
The more controversial pages paint environmental activists as "big business" money-grubbers who capitalize on public fear to line their own nests but do nothing concrete to improve the land and water, such as clean up a river or preserve habitat.
The site reports that major national environmental groups collect nearly $2 billion a year in revenue and lists the salaries of its executive directors. Pope, for example, earns $214,246 annually, while Suckling, of the Center for Biological Diversity, earns $50,000 a year.
Environmentalists take a dim view of the site and have challenged its author's ethics and accuracy.
On the page that talks about the nation's improved water and air quality, Sierra Club spokesman Eric Antebi said Pombo has repeatedly voted to weaken the very laws that produced the positive results.
For example, Antebi said, Pombo was a proponent of a 2005 energy bill that would have exempted oil and gas drilling activities from the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts.
"We don't dispute that there has been progress," Antebi said. "But Pombo, in general, wants to replace the clear, enforceable standards that have produced those results with voluntary measures that will be very easily exploited by special interests."
As for the pages that portray environmentalists as self-serving lobbyists, Antebi correctly notes that the major industries pushing for favorable federal legislation, such as oil and mining companies, have vastly superior financial resources.
For example, Exxon Mobil Corp. Chief Executive Lee Raymond received a $400 million retirement package earlier this year.
Among Antebi's other complaints, the site:
Falsely attributes to environmental groups statements such as "Economic growth harms the environment." Environmentalists have never made such an absurd claim, Antebi said.
Takes out of context a statement in a report by the National Environment Education and Training Foundation. The quote about how "mythology threatens to block progress on important environmental initiatives" refers, Antebi said, to basic science and environmental illiteracy, not the views purported by advocates.
Quotes Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace who left the organization and now leads a public relations campaign for new nuclear reactors.
Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy defends the site and his boss.
The lawmaker's vote related to the clean water acts, he said, involved disputes over whether to extend regulations to certain mining activities that federal analysts concluded were too costly for the minimal environmental benefits.
"These were amendments backed by environmental groups that were voted down because they imposed costly solutions to problems that didn't exist," Kennedy said. "These are perfect examples of what the so-called environmental community does to create conflict and then suggest that standards are being rolled back and that rampant pollution will poison our drinking water. It's just not true."
© 2006 ContraCostaTimes.com and wire service sources