March 2nd / 3rd, 2013
"Leaked ‘Memo’ Raises Concerns"
Last week, Jim Morrill of the Charlotte Observer uncovered a memo which he reported was written by Stephanie Bass, communications director for Raleigh-based Blueprint NC. The memo consisted of talking points which were circulated among Democratic politicians for use in attacking Governor McCrory and the GOP-controlled legislature. But Republicans issue talking points all the time, so what’s the big deal? First of all, the language in this memo was particularly incendiary.
The leaked talking points included a call to: “cripple [GOP] leaders, McCrory, Tillis, Berger, etc...,” and “Eviscerate the leadership and weaken their ability to govern,” and “Slam [McCrory] when he contradicts his promises.”
Cripple? Slam? Eviscerate? This was more like a primer for the Ultimate Fighting Championship than a guideline for political talking points. The language itself was disturbing, and the call for operatives to interfere with governance should concern every citizen in a state where leaders were democratically elected. But that’s just part of what bothers me about this covert directive.
Morrill also reported that Blueprint NC receives funding from the Winston-Salem-based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, one of the oldest and most highly respected charitable trusts in the nation. As soon as this story surfaced last Friday, I spoke with ZSR Executive Director Leslie Winner and Finance Director Terry Lockamy. Leslie confirmed that Blueprint had received funding from ZSR, and Lockamy gave me the exact figures, saying, “Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation approved a general operating support grant of $400,000 to Blueprint NC this past November for the year 2013. Blueprint’s total budget for 2013 is $1 million.”
I was dumbstruck. $400,000 is a huge sum of money... so huge that it comprised 40 percent of Blueprint NC’s entire budget. It is also significant because it’s coming from a foundation who thought they were giving money for a 501(c)3 to “strengthen democracy,” but instead awarded it to what appears to be an organization who engages in partisan politics.
Winner was understandably upset after reading the initial column in the Observer, and told me, “We want citizens to be more engaged, but distributing this memo does not further those purposes.... It’s bad judgement.... We do not support attacking people.... We are taking this matter seriously and will explore our options.... They [Blueprint NC] violated the spirit of our agreement.”
I then sent an e-mail to Sean Kosofsky, executive director of Blueprint NC, in which some of Winners’ remarks were included. Almost before I could hit “send,” he e-mailed me back a one-line message: “Can we talk right now?” His message had a sense of urgency about it, and why not? A story like this could possibly affect his relationship with an important cash cow.
When we spoke by phone, I again reminded him of the comments Winners had made, including that he “had used bad judgement.” Kosofsky first denied that anyone on his staff had written the so-called memo. “It was not a memo. It was a document that had been circulated at a meeting attended by a number of organizations to discuss strategy.... Later, [Communications Director] Stephanie [Bass] e-mailed some polling data, and the Observer simply mixed up the two things. We did not author that document.”
I then asked Kosofsky who did write the document, and he said, “I don’t know.” Funny thing, but if someone distributed a visceral, partisan document at a meeting which was attended by your organization, you’d think someone would know who handed out that document. Be that as it may, the more I questioned Kosofsky, the more insight I gained into his real feelings about GOP governance. “[Republican] lawmakers in Raleigh are pushing an agenda which is against the best interests of the people,” he told me in an animated and perturbed voice. Clearly, Kosofsky felt it was his duty to criticize and harass the Republican party. In fact, he unapologetically told me, “We didn’t write the talking points, but if we had, it would have been okay. But we didn’t do it.” It was like listening to OJ Simpson try and explain his book, If I Had Done It. Moreover, Kosofsky’s non-denial denial seemed to confirm for me that his organization’s beliefs and activities contradicted their own mission statement, which includes that, “All Blueprint NC activities will be strictly non-partisan.”
And that brings me back to the money. In order to apply for a grant, Blueprint NC would have had to transmit information about their mission. And if they received the $400,000 by mail or wire under false pretense, then that could possibly constitute mail fraud. Meanwhile, since Z. Smith Reynolds does not support partisan activities or attitudes, they should ask Blueprint to return the grant money.
Those funds could be put to better uses, like strengthening public education, protecting the environment and promoting economic development — all of which are part of ZSR’s stated mission. I only hope the foundation does something soon. Inaction could give the wrong impression, and that could be a blueprint for disaster.