Seattle lobbying firm now downplays role in What’s Upstream

A What's Upstream billboard shows cows in a stream. The lobbying firm that created the campaign says it was designed to educate lawmakers, not advocate for specific legislation.

A $655,000 campaign funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to impose mandatory buffers between farms and waterways generated 51 form letters to Washington state lawmakers, according to a lobbying firm executive.

Strategies 360 Vice President of Communications Jeff Reading told the state Public Disclosure Commission that even if more letters had been sent, they would not amount to lobbying because they didn’t advocate for a specific bill.

The letters sent through the What’s Upstream website were merely meant to make legislators “more aware of the issue.”

“Therefore there was nothing to report to the PDC,” he wrote.

The email sent Dec. 29 to the PDC responded to a complaint by Save Family Farming that What’s Upstream failed to register as a political organization.

The Swinomish Indian tribe used an EPA grant for Puget Sound restoration to hire Strategies 360. Over five years, the firm, tribe and environmental groups developed a media campaign charging farmers with being unregulated water polluters. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General is looking into whether the campaign violated federal laws against using public funds to lobby.

In earlier responses to the PDC, the tribe and EPA asserted the state agency has no jurisdiction over them.

Reading called the complaint “frivolous and retaliatory.”

The What’s Upstream website included a “take action” link urging lawmakers to consider mandatory 100-foot buffers. Environmental groups told supporters the letter was timed to influence the 2016 Legislature.

“They were very specific about the legislation they wanted to pass requiring mandatory buffers” Save Family Farming director Gerald Baron said Wednesday. “Is that not a specific change in state law?”

The PDC can issues fines of up to $10,000. It also can refer cases to the state Attorney General’s Office to seek stiffer penalties. The PDC has not announced whether it will take enforcement action. Save Family Farming was formed to push back against What’s Upstream.

Strategies 360 describes itself on its website as a “leader in grass-roots advocacy in the West and beyond.”

The firm once held up What’s Upstream as a “case study” to attract other clients. According to Strategies 360, it created advertising that drove more than 13,000 visitors to the What’s Upstream website in three months.

In his response to the PDC, Reading downplayed Strategies 360’s role, comparing it to a newspaper that runs a guest editorial urging readers to contact legislators.

“S360 merely provided a platform — in this case, a website — for the public to learn about an environmental issue …” he wrote.

Reading told the PDC that the firm polled voters in 2012 and 2014 to gauge public support for a statewide initiative to mandate buffers. He said the polls did not lead to an imitative.

Previously released EPA records show that the polls found that voters held farmers in high regard. To increase support for more restrictions on agriculture, the public would have to be persuaded water quality is actually a “growing and dangerous problem,” according to a post-survey report by Strategies 360.

The tribe subsequently reported to the EPA that Strategies 360 was developing a “more refined outreach program.”

Although the tribe didn’t sponsor an initiative, it continued with its partnership with Strategies 360 on a media campaign.

The “take action” link has been removed from the What’s Upstream website, which remains up though the EPA dropped funding when some federal lawmakers complained.

“Given that they spent $600,000 of the public’s money to create this outrage against farmers, the 51 letters indicates they did a pretty poor job,” Baron said. “I think the damage to farmers is more related to the false allegations having an effect on environmentally conscious people. Those people are very important to the future of farming.”

Efforts to reach Reading were unsuccessful.

Visitors to the What’s Upstream website could direct the form letter to their legislator by putting in their address. It’s unknown how many lawmakers received one of the 51 letters. There are 147 members in the House and Senate.

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