Sacramento Bee: Conservative group paid for pro-fur testimony at the Capitol, California activists charge

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Sacramento Bee: Conservative group paid for pro-fur testimony at the Capitol, California activists charge

Originally published in the Sacramento Bee >>>

A bill to outlaw the sale and manufacture of fur products drew few opponents in its early hearings at the California Capitol.

That changed on June 25, when animal rights advocates supporting the measure noticed there were more critics in the room.

“In previous hearings, it was less than five people,” said Matt Johnson, press coordinator for Direct Action Everywhere, a group that says it is seeking “revolutionary social and political change for animals.”

“Now it’s suddenly 30 people showing up to oppose the bill.”

The group is convinced that people were paid for their testimony against Assembly Bill 44, which would make California the first state in the nation with a fur ban. Cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Berkeley have already implemented fur bans in the last couple of years.

The sudden increase in opponents motivated activists to investigate who those people were. By re-watching the Senate Natural Resources and Water public hearing, they were able to record the names of the people who spoke in opposition and search for them on social media.

Most of those listed as opponents of the bill are furriers. But Direct Action Everywhere found Facebook posts from three young men who spoke in opposition asking others to join them for money. All three have leadership roles in Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student activism organization, according its website and their Facebook profiles.

“Anyone in LA down to make an easy $100 this Tuesday in Sacramento and fight tyranny?” Andrew Auguero wrote on Facebook two days before the first Senate committee hearing. Auguero is the state chair of Young Americans for Liberty, according to his Facebook profile.

Andrew DiGiovanna commented that he was interested and can be seen speaking in opposition in the June 25 hearing. Auguero is also Facebook friends with five others who can be seen registering their opposition at the hearing..

“Looking for 5-10 people to help me out for just a couple of hours in Sacramento this Tuesday. Will pay, dm me for details,” Issac Edikauskas, the West Coast Regional Director of Young Americans for Liberty, wrote on Facebook three days before the June 25 hearing. Auguero was also tagged in this post.

None of those who wrote about the effort on Facebook responded to messages from The Sacramento Bee.

Four days before the July 9 Senate committee hearing, Andrew DiGiovanna posted on Facebook, “Got another chance to make easy $ fighting tyranny in Cali. Interested?” He is the west coast field coordinator for Young Americans for Liberty.

The animal rights activists then dug deeper.

A volunteer, posing as an opponent of the fur ban bill, reached out to Andrew Aguero via Facebook messenger and then got connected with DiGiovanna. In these exchanges, DiGiovanna sent a contract with Mobilize the Message, an LLC owned by Cliff Maloney, who is also the president of Young Americans for Liberty.

“You will be compensated $175 total for the program,” the contract says. “You agree to not speak publicly about internal operations before, during, or after the operation,” is written in the non-disclosure section.

“The main guy organizing this is YAL’s head of our political campaign work that has gotten 40 state reps elected in a year. You’re in good hands!” DiGiovanna said in Facebook exchanges with the animal rights volunteer. “I’ve worked with YAL for 3 years, and we even just did something like this a week ago. We all got paid in less than a week.”

Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian youth organization that has chapters on college campuses across the country, has been funded by groups that include the Charles Koch Foundation.

Reed Cooley, the director of public relations for Young Americans for Liberty, said the group was not involved in the effort. Cliff Maloney, the president of YAL and owner of Mobilize the Message, did not respond to a request for comment.

Mobilize the Message issued a statement saying it is a grassroots firm that is committed to free markets and works with groups and individuals who want to advance liberty.

“Not everyone can afford to travel to Sacramento to testify when their liberties are threatened. We’re proud to help make their voices heard,” Justin Greiss from Mobilize the Message wrote. Greiss is also the vice president of mobilization at YAL, according to YAL’s website.

It does not appear that those who testified violated the law even if they were paid. Lobbyists are prohibited from creating a “fictitious appearance of public favor or disfavor of any proposed legislative action,” but those who wrote about making money on Facebook are not registered as lobbyists.

The Fur Information Council of America has hired two lobbying firms: Cline & Duplissea and Advocacy & Consulting, but said that they are not familiar with Young Americans for Liberty and know nothing about the Facebook posts.

Whether it is ethical is another question, and Hana Callaghan, the director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics had this to say: “Creating a false sense of civic engagement is a problem for our democratic process. Any time you try to deceive it is unethical.”

The author of California’s bill said any such effort misleads public officials.

“California has fairly robust disclosure laws for lobbyists, but we also maintain an open door for everyone to voice their support or opposition to a measure in our hearing process,” Friedman said. “To learn that groups are taking advantage of the public hearing process in this way when so many individuals take time off of work and away from their daily lives to voluntarily advocate for or against any number of issues is disappointing because it doesn’t give policymakers an accurate impression of public opinion.”

The issue has also arisen in other states. Since New York City proposed a fur ban this year, the New York Times reported that the fur industry has been working with black pastors in Harlem to recruit members of the congregation to participate in protests against the ban. In one instance, Reverand Johnnie Green offered parishioners a “free field trip,” lunch and a raffle ticket for a $250 AMEX gift card to go to the City Hall and protest.

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