Just two months after President Donald Trump’s administration ended, the Institute For Citizen Focused Service (ICFS) registered as a corporation in Delaware.
The IRS gave it a public charity designation. But a member of the public looking at its website would have been stymied.
ICFS’s website shows images of happy children and non-specific philanthropic projects. The images turn out to be stock photos. It provides no way for someone wanting to use their services to contact anyone, names no staffers, and allows no links to donate.
The website makes no mention of Trump or his administration. But tax records reveal that ICFS is staffed by a former cabinet member and other prominent members of Trump’s Interior Department, including his last secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt; the assistant secretary for insular affairs, Doug Domenech; and former counselor to the secretary, Hubbel Relat.
The website also makes no mention of fossil fuels. However, most of these men have ties to the Koch brothers network that funds fossil fuel advocacy. A couple have been, or remain, fossil fuel lobbyists.
ICFS tax records from 2021 reveal a payment of $187,500 to Pipeline Advisors, LLC for “public relations.” It further describes this expense as promoting “federal government news, press releases [etc.],” filed under “advertising and promotion.”
Those descriptions dance around but never quite hit the mark: Pipeline Advisors is part of a network of “pay-to-play” media companies that run news websites designed to look independent, but which promote special interests without revealing their financial support from PACs and dark money groups.
Pipeline Advisors is officially listed as a private equity firm based in Texas, headed by businessmen Brian Timpone and Bradley Cameron.
In a series of articles, the Tow Center at the Columbia Journalism Review revealed that Timpone and Cameron own several media companies—Pipeline Advisors being one of them—that publish more than 1,200 news websites. Many of these masquerade as local news. Some are styled as wire services for federal agencies.
The Tow Center calls it “pink slime,” advocacy masquerading as journalism, a term first used by freelance journalist Ryan Smith to compare the output to filler that is added to ground beef.
“[T]he web of companies behind the network make it more difficult to track the money behind the sites,” the New York Times wrote, calling it a “pay-to-play” network.
Researchers have so far discovered only a few payments to Pipeline Advisors’ pink slime operation. Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a key driver of the far-right agenda in the state of Texas, gave $57,075 to Pipeline Advisors in 2021 for “advertising expenses.”
Billionaire Richard Uihlein’s group Restoration PAC paid Pipeline Advisors over $1.5 million for management and media consulting. According to its website, this PAC was formed to advocate for conservative candidates and principles, and to oppose the leftist and “woke” agenda.
ICFS’s payment of $187,500 for “public relations” in 2021 is the third-known source of funding for this firm.
There is a mystery at the heart of ICFS’s payment to Pipeline Advisors. As a secretive group that avoids drawing attention to itself, it has no use for public relations or advertising. Indeed, none of the websites that run under the Pipeline Advisors umbrella have ever mentioned ICFS by name.
One organization that Pipeline Advisors websites do appear to hype is the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). From 2021, two websites that claim to belong to Pipeline Advisors—Austin Journal and Houston Daily—began to heavily promote TPPF and the causes they support.
Domenech, ICFS’s chairman, ran TPPF’s Fueling Freedom Project for years.
Acting almost as PR shops, these news websites ran multiple stories promoting TPPF’s agenda, from property tax relief to support for fossil fuels.
The Houston Daily has almost 30 stories specifically tagged TPPF. The site has bashed renewable energy and published numerous stories claiming critical race theory “threatens” America. It routinely hypes lower property taxes, defended the Texas energy grid despite its massive failures, advocated for employer-run healthcare, and said Biden has “destroyed” the border.
The Austin Journal has almost 60 stories tagged TPPF.
TPPF is known to be at the heart of Koch influence in Texas as part of the State Policy Network.
First uncovered by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, the sprawling Koch network of nonprofits was set up by billionaire businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David. Through these nonprofits, the two have spent billions over the last two decades on influence operations: steering elections rightward, promoting carbon deregulation, and pushing other libertarian causes.
When Mayer reported on the Koch “war against Obama,” the group she identified as the center of operations was Americans for Prosperity (AFP), created in 2004. The managing director of AFP at the time was Hubbel Relat—now listed as the executive director at ICFS.
Most of the officials involved with ICFS have spent their careers at one of the corners of this nebulous energy policy triangle: within the Koch network, as lobbyists, or inside of the Interior Department, which is in charge of husbanding America’s natural resources.
As the Trump administration was ending, Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt produced a report touting its accomplishments. It highlighted domestic fossil fuel extraction and weakening environmental regulations.
“Oil production revenues in FY 2019 reached an all-time high, with more than 1 billion barrels being produced on Federal lands,” the report said. Under Bernhardt’s leadership, the department pushed to open up Arctic Alaska to oil drilling, rolled back methane production rules, weakened fracking regulations, and removed the moratorium on coal leasing.
Bernhardt’s name and address appear as the main contact for ICFS in an obscure IRS downloadable file that lists total 2021 revenues for tax-exempt organizations in the state of Virginia.
Bernhardt’s nomination, both as deputy secretary in 2017 and then as the secretary in 2019, raised eyebrows due to his excessive closeness with the fossil fuel industry. He was an energy lobbyist before joining the Trump administration. According to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, his former clients spent close to $30 million lobbying the administration while he led the Interior.
Another ICFS official, Relat, had a role in smoothing Bernhardt’s ascent to secretary. In 2019, then counselor to the secretary at the Interior Department, Relat gave an order to hold back certain responsive documents to do with Bernhardt from a FOIA production. Democrats decried this as a cover-up.
Relat is listed as the executive director at ICFS, drawing a salary of over $100,000. He previously held positions at a number of Koch-funded groups, including Fueling US Forward and Americans for Prosperity.
The Interior Department under Trump was plagued by accusations of ethics lapses. An interior official was found to have violated federal ethics regulations by meeting with his former employer, TPPF, about issues that were then under litigation between TPPF and the Interior Department.
In April 2017, while Domenech held the position of senior advisor to the former secretary Ryan Zinke, he held a meeting with an attorney from TPPF to discuss a long-running border dispute between the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners along the Texas-Oklahoma border, known as the Red River case, where TPPF represented private interests. Six months after the meeting, the government withdrew its claim to the disputed land and settled the case on terms TPPF hailed as a “major win.”
Now, it seems a different kind of influence is at play.
Correction: This post originally misstated that Bernhardt returned to lobbying after he left the Trump administration. He rejoined the firm he previously worked at, but did not re-register as a lobbyist.