Kennedy Fails to Return Fossil Fuel Lobbyist Donations

The Joe Kennedy campaign told Sludge it would refund fossil fuel lobbyist donations that violate the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, which Kennedy signed, but it appears it did not follow through.

Kennedy Fails to Return Fossil Fuel Lobbyist Donations
Joe Kennedy III speaks onstage during the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Hosts 2019 Ripple Of Hope Gala & Auction In NYC on December 12, 2019 in New York City.

UPDATE, 8/24: The Kennedy campaign told No Fossil Fuel Money pledge organizers that a staff member “forgot to tell our treasurer to actually return the money after the violation came to [their] attention,” but on Saturday, the day after this report was published, it appears to have refunded fossil fuel lobbyist Tonio Burgos’ money. Original story is below.

Joe Kennedy’s campaign did not refund contributions it received from an oil and gas lobbyist in violation of the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge despite telling Sludge earlier this month it would do so, according to a recently filed Federal Election Commission report. 

The No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, which the Massachusetts Democrat signed in December 2018, is a commitment not to take contributions over $200 from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, and PACs. Kennedy received the legal maximum of $5,600 in campaign contributions from Tonio Burgos, a prominent fossil fuel lobbyist, over multiple donations made between March 2019 and February 2020, Sludge reported on August 6

After Sludge inquired on August 4, the Kennedy campaign said it hadn’t been aware of Burgos’ fossil fuel clients and that it would refund the contributions. A pre-primary campaign finance filing submitted to the FEC on August 20, which covers receipts and refunds from July 1 through August 12, did not show any refunds to Burgos. The Kennedy campaign did not respond to Sludge’s inquiry as to why it did not issue the refunds.

The No Fossil Fuel Money pledge says in its FAQ that campaigns have one week to make refunds when notified of a violation. Pledge organizers told Sludge they did not reach out to the Kennedy campaign because it had been prompt on compliance in the past and because it had told Sludge it would refund Burgos’ money. 

The pre-primary report is the final FEC filing disclosing refunds that the campaign is required to file before the election, which will be held on September 1. Kennedy is running a primary challenge against Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the lead Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution. Kennedy is a co-sponsor of the House version of the Green New Deal. 

Burgos lobbies in New Jersey for South Jersey Industries, an energy services holding company with subsidiaries including natural gas utility SJI Utilities and gas pipeline company SJI Midstream. He also lobbies in the state for Public Service Enterprise Group, a utility company that operates a fleet of natural gas, coal, and oil-fired power plants in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, as well as one in Hawaii. For more than a decade until 2018, Burgos lobbied in New York and federally for pipeline giant Williams Companies, which sought to build a fracked gas pipeline beneath Raritan Bay between New York and New Jersey. 

Burgos and Kennedy both serve on the board of directors for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a nonprofit that says it works for a more just and peaceful world. 

The No Fossil Fuel Money pledge is organized by several environmental groups, including some like Sunrise Movement and Daily Kos that have endorsed Markey. The purpose of the pledge is for politicians to show climate leadership by rejecting money from those in the fossil fuel industry who seek political influence. 

“Dirty fossil fuel money is corrupting our political system and blocking bold action on climate change,” the No Fossil Fuel Money website says. “Fossil fuel companies spent more than $260 million in campaign contributions and lobbying Congress in the 2016 cycle. In exchange for their cash, these companies continue to receive billions in subsidies and friendly laws that benefit polluters instead of people.”

As the Boston Globe reported, both Kennedy and Markey have had to refund contributions in order to stay in compliance with the pledge. Markey was slow to make his refunds in January, but was not removed from the pledge.

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