Environmental activists push findings of professor without disclosing paid relationship to media

by | Jun 11, 2021

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a response from the Sierra Club. We attempted to contact the organization prior to publication but used an incorrect email address. We regret the error.

An environmental group with financial ties to the Everglades Foundation hired an out-of-state professor to conduct a narrowly focused environmental impact study. The professor then made at least one media appearance on the matter before the report and the paid nature of the work was made public.

According to documents obtained by The Capitolist, the Sierra Club paid $4,200 to University of Miami (Ohio) professor Dr. Jessica McCarty to produce specific “deliverables” in a report looking at the “impacts of sugarcane burning on air quality in South Florida, particularly for predominantly Black and Latino communities.” The Sierra Club also asked the professor to include “a critique of the US Sugar Air Report from 2019,” among other specific requests.

McCarty was also asked to craft a portion of the report using previously “existing studies and Environmental Protection Agency data” apparently to counteract real-world data from an existing air quality monitor in Belle Glade, Florida, seemingly because that particular data didn’t advance the Sierra Club’s desired narrative.

While a press release sent in May, and a subsequent appearance by McCarty did include a disclosure that McCarty’s study had been “commissioned” by the Sierra Club, neither the release nor McCarty disclosed how much the professor was paid, nor the parameters for the final report that were requested in advance by the Sierra Club.

However, the May press release and media appearance wasn’t the first time McCarty was promoted as a subject matter expert to Florida media outlets like Tallahassee’s local NPR affiliate, WFSU, and other outlets. In April, when writing about McCarty, those outlets never mentioned the paid nature of the relationship between the Sierra Club and the professor, describing her only as:

“…an assistant professor at the Miami University of Ohio. She’s an expert in satellite data analysis for mapping fires, air pollutants, emissions that impact climate change, and agriculture and food security.”

According to documents obtained by The CapitolistMcCarty requested permission from her employer to accept a Sierra Club contract in November of last year. The documents show the contract required work for the Sierra Club between December 11th, 2020, through January 22nd, 2021. One document also lists June 2nd as the end date for the work.

Though the Sierra Club-funded study wasn’t made public until May 20th, 2021, McCarty made at least one media appearance a month earlier where she discussed precisely the same topics covered by the paid contract. She appeared alongside Sierra Club endorsed elected officials, including Democratic state representatives Anna Eskamani and Omari Hardy. McCarty and both elected officials were listed in a press release sent to The Capitolist on April 5th. The WFSU story was published a day after the event. Neither the press release nor the media stories disclosed the work-for-hire relationship.

In the same press release promoting the event, a Black Lives Matter representative was also listed as a guest, consistent with the Sierra Club’s initial work-for-hire project parameters dictated to McCarty, requiring her to produce a report that focused on the “impacts of sugarcane burning on air quality in South Florida, particularly for predominantly Black and Latino communities.”

Social media messages by the Sierra Club later thanked all involved for their appearances.

McCarty told The Capitolist she first worked with the Sierra Club as early as 2018, when she assisted the group with data analysis as part of a publicly-funded project. But she expressed frustration with the lack of disclosure surrounding the April 6th media event.

“It was my understanding that this relationship, at the time an ongoing collaboration with the Sierra Club, was disclosed during the April 6th press conference,” McCarty said. “I am surprised to hear that it was not. It should have been and I asked the organizers to make that clear.”

But the Sierra Club denied any involvement with the April 6th event, saying it wasn’t organized by their group.

“The referenced April 6th press conference was not organized by the Sierra Club nor was it about the unpublished report,” said Patrick Ferguson, a spokesman for the Sierra Club. “Upon the release of the report, the relationship was announced in the media advisory, during the press conference, made clear in the press release, and is noted on the front page of the report.
“We would have preferred to release the report earlier in the year, but were unfortunately too busy fighting Big Sugar’s attack on the rights of the people to challenge the toxic smoke and ash via the courts,” Ferguson said. “Once the legislative session was over, we organized our press conference.

At the second event on May 20th, when the Sierra Club study was unveiled, McCarty took a brief moment to make the work-for-hire relationship clear for the first time.

The study marks the second time in the last several years that environmental groups affiliated with the Everglades Foundation have been exposed by The Capitolist after media outlets were provided with narratives backed by studies that later turned out to have been funded in advance by environmental groups with a specific agenda.

In 2017, the Everglades Foundation falsely claimed that Clemson University was behind an economic study, when in fact that study was produced by a professor, acting independently, in exchange for cash from the Everglades Foundation. But that didn’t stop the Everglades Foundation from trying to pass it off as a “Clemson University” study, complete with the school’s iconic “tiger paw” logo.

Clemson distanced themselves from the study when they learned of it.

“Just from a cursory look, it seems like the Everglades Foundation would know more than we do,” said Clinton Colmenares, a spokesman for the school, said at the time. “The contract was between the researcher and the foundation, so we do not know details.”

A previous version of this story indicated that the Sierra Club did not respond to a request for comment. However, our message was sent to an incorrect email address. We have since corrected the error and will update this story if we receive a response.


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