The nonprofit fundraising arm of Arizona State University gave $100,000 to a shadowy political group that spent at least $2.4 million on TV ads attacking state candidates who sided with the solar industry during last year’s election.
The Arizona State University Foundation raised more than $165 million in its 2014 fiscal year, and handed out $66 million in grants, nearly all of it to Arizona State University. The only grant the foundation made that year that didn’t go to a school or a charitable nonprofit was given to a “social welfare” nonprofit called “Save Our Future Now” — identified in the foundation’s tax forms only as “SOFN” — for $100,000.
Save Our Future Now was one of several groups that spent heavily on last year’s election to the Arizona Corporation Commission, which has jurisdiction over state utility rules. Though the groups attacking candidates aligned with the solar industry have never had to disclose their donors, it’s been widely assumed they were funded by power companies looking to keep cheap solar energy out of consumers’ hands in the sun-drenched state.
That narrative gained credence after leaders of the Salt River Project, which provides power to nearly a million customers in the Phoenix area, voted this January to raise electrical rates about $50 each month to solar users.
Tax documents newly unearthed by The Sunlight Foundation suggest that Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, often called just “APS,” left fingerprints on the money.
The ASU Foundation board is chaired by Bill Post, who retired as chairman and CEO of APS’ corporate parent in 2009 after 38 years there. Post has been on the ASU Foundation board since 2004. And APS’ own charitable foundation gave $181,000 to the ASU foundation according to its 2013 tax filings. APS did not return calls for comment.
The contribution from the ASU Foundation would appear to be most of Save Our Future Now’s seed money. The group raised a total of $126,190 in 2013 and had little public profile.
The ASU Foundation is a separate legal entity from the university. Located on University Drive on ASU’s Tempe campus, the foundation has a mission “to ensure the success of Arizona State University” with which it is deeply entwined. University president Michael Crow and General Counsel Jose Cardenas serve on the group’s board, which currently lists 22 members. Cardenas and Crow didn’t return calls; a university spokesman referred questions to the foundation.
Staff at the Arizona University Foundation wouldn’t talk on the phone, and refused to answer a series of emailed questions. John Skinner, the foundation’s chief of staff, wouldn’t say why the foundation gave money to Save Our Future Now or whether the board had voted on the contribution. Skinner’s entire explanation was that the university had given money to the dark money group “which, as part of its mission, helps generate public awareness of higher education issues and advances higher education in the State of Arizona.”
Save Our Future Now’s mission is unclear. Incorporated in 2012, the group didn’t raise enough money to file taxes until 2013. At that time, its mission focused on education entirely, but now the group’s web site lists a focus on “public policy issues related to business development, job creation, economic development, higher education, transparency in elections, election integrity, ballot access and other relevant topics.”
If Save Our Future Now has been advocating for public education on behalf of ASU, it hasn’t been very successful. Newly elected Governor Doug Ducey’s most recent budget would cut $75 million in state funding for the state’s university system, roughly 10 percent of its overall state money.
Last August, Sunlight identified Save Our Future Now’s president as Todd Bradford, a realtor at Homesmart who served on a local planning commission. Reached by phone this week, Bradford referred all questions to an unnamed spokesman reachable at a number he gave that belonged to the Phoenix political firm Coleman and Dahm.
Joyce Downey is listed as Save our Future Now’s vice president and answered the phone at Coleman and Dahm. Asked about the Arizona State University Foundation’s contribution, Downey’s only comment was: “I just don’t have anything to say about it at all.”
Vernon Parker, a Republican who says he was leading in the primary election for corporation commission until the outside groups mobilized against him, was critical of the effort. “It just shows how far-reaching dark money has gotten that our state’s largest corporation can utilize an organization whose purpose is to raise money for higher education — to go to these extents — to me its just kind of shocking.” But Parker, a former mayor of Paradise Valley, Ariz., said he’s worked with former APS CEO Bill Post in the past and can’t believe he would be involved.