The top brass at one of the nation’s largest environmental groups is in upheaval after one board member was linked to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and another hosted a controversial fundraiser for President Donald Trump.
The World Resources Institute quietly cut ties with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson after a young woman named the Democrat as one of the powerful men with whom Epstein, the accused pedophile who died Aug. 10 in an apparent suicide in jail, ordered her to have sex. After HuffPost sent questions to a spokesman, WRI emailed its staff late Monday announcing Richardson’s resignation from the board.
The nonprofit is also facing a staff rebellion over its handling of another board member, billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross, whose fundraiser for the president sparked a high-profile boycott against companies he’s invested in, including the luxury fitness chains Equinox and SoulCycle.
“Every healthy organization faces challenges from time to time,” Andrew Steer, WRI’s chief executive, said in an emailed statement. “The key is to use such events as an opportunity to improve the way we operate.”
The twin scandals highlight the growing tension between the work of big environmental groups and the donors whose celebrity or fortunes help fund it. At a moment when the climate crisis is rapidly worsening, the strife at WRI raises questions about what compromises are worth making in pursuit of new resources and expanded reach.
The problems started last month, when FBI agents arrested Epstein for allegedly sex trafficking dozens of minors in the early 2000s. The accusations put new scrutiny on the moguls and powerbrokers ― including Richardson, Trump and his predecessor Bill Clinton ― previously accused of raping underage girls provided by the multimillionaire. In court documents unsealed earlier this month, Virginia Giuffre, who accused Epstein of keeping her as a teenage sex slave, said she was directed to have sex with Richardson.
Richardson denied the allegation. Spokeswomen for the former governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Richardson’s name no longer appears on the WRI’s board. His profile on the WRI website now redirects to an error page. WRI declined to comment on the record about Richardson, but confirmed his departure from the 32-member board.
The WRI staff remains in upheaval over the political hobnobbing of Ross, who’s donated about $37 million to WRI, after he hosted a fundraiser earlier this month for Trump. Reelecting a president who’s crippling the U.S. effort to cut climate-changing emissions directly undermines the work WRI is doing, employees said.
Nearly five dozen staffers signed an internal petition, which HuffPost obtained, demanding WRI hold an open meeting with Ross and overhaul the way the nonprofit appoints board members.
“Mr. Ross’s actions pose a serious reputational risk to WRI and materially disadvantages our mission,” the petition reads. “How can we lead on ambitious climate action and work with the most climate-vulnerable communities if our Directors, and by extension our Institute, negate our efforts?”
The petition came after management held a meeting last Thursday with staffers to hear out concerns over Ross’s seat on the board. Employees sent the petition to their bosses on Friday and emailed the document to an all-staff listserv on Monday.
Besides calling for a town-hall-style meeting with Ross, the petition calls for the creation of a “Staff Association” to press for changes to the board, including more diversity and strict rules against acting “publicly in any way that is counter to” WRI’s core mission. The demands also include ending the practice of naming programs, prizes or rooms after benefactors and donors.
Ross’s fingerprints are most visible on WRI’s Cities program, which bears his name. The WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities bills itself as working “to make urban sustainability a reality,” with detailed research reports and data tools focused on tech-heavy, business-friendly policies to cut emissions and improve public health.
Each year, WRI grants a Ross Prize for Cities to a business, nonprofit or local government that brought “transformative change” to a “city’s economic vitality, resilience, environmental sustainability or quality of life.” The award includes a $250,000 prize ― the same amount Ross charged for a VIP ticket to his fundraiser for Trump in the Hamptons earlier this month.
A spokesperson for Ross did not immediately return a request for comment.
Juggling the interests of donors with the mission of the organization is a high-wire act for environmental groups. In 2012, the Sierra Club took heat for accepting nearly $26 million from the natural gas industry while advocating for the demise of coal, its biggest power sector rival. A year later, the Environmental Defense Fund started facing criticism for its close ties to the billionaire Walmart heirs.
Since then, the climate crisis has grown more urgent. Wildfires scorched the Arctic this summer, emitting more carbon dioxide in June alone than Sweden produces in a full year. An Indian metropolis of roughly 10 million is on the verge of running out of water. July was the hottest month ever recorded.
As their work becomes more relevant, environmental organizations need to step up vetting of board members, said Robert Brulle, a Brown University researcher who tracks climate denial and political influence at green groups.
“We need to put additional scrutiny on these board members to see if they are legitimately representing the public interest or if they’re on there to represent their own particular vested interests,” Brulle said by phone. “That’s the real question for these people.”
It’s a question WRI’s founder seems to have grappled with before. In a 2008 essay in The Nation, James Gustave Speth, the environmental lawyer who co-founded the group in 1982, inveighed against the wealthy class’s influence on politics and called for “we as citizens” to “mobilize our spiritual and political resources for transformative change.”
“We are seeing the emergence of a vicious circle: income disparities shift political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic process to act to correct the economic disparities,” he wrote, concluding: “Today’s politics will never deliver environmental sustainability.”