Whether it involves advocating for repeal of the federal Jones Act on maritime law, opposing tax increases at the Hawaii Legislature or litigating against Native Hawaiian self governance, Kelii Akina, the president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is a familiar figure in print, online and on air.

When I write about those issue and others, Akina has on occasion emailed or called me whenever I refer to the group as “conservative,” “right-leaning” or “Libertarian.”

Akina will invariably (though always politely) insist that Grassroot is nonpartisan and imply that it has no political persuasion per se but rather a philosophical one — namely, devotion “to promoting the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited and accountable government throughout the state of Hawaii and the Pacific Rim,” as its own website states.

Lately, I have been writing that the institute “calls itself ‘an independent, free-market think tank,’” quote marks included.

Grassroots Institute of Hawaii President Kelii Akina testifying at the Hawaii Legislature.

Grassroot Institute of Hawaii President Kelii Akina testifying at the Hawaii Legislature.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Other local media, including the television news outlets and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, often use the words “watchdog,” “nonprofit,” “think tank” or “public policy think tank” to describe Grassroot. Sometimes the adjectives are dropped altogether.

But is that the right thing to do? Does Grassroot, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that cannot endorse political candidates, lean toward the right end of the political spectrum? And if it does, should local journalists acknowledge that?

A local source concerned about Grassroot directed me to the Center for Media and Democracy, which bills itself as “a national watchdog group,” publishes an online news journal, PRWatch, and what it calls “a specialized encyclopedia about corporations, their CEOs, and corporate-funded front groups,” known as SourceWatch.

The Center for Media and Democracy is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit, and recent contributors include the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation and dozens of other organizations. It is identified by several sources (warning to my editors: I am linking to Wikipedia) as a “liberal watchdog and advocacy organization based in Madison, Wis.”

Kelii Akina and attorney Michael Lilly outside District Court last fall, seeking to halt Nai Aupuni's election.

Kelii Akina and attorney Michael Lilly outside District Court last fall, seeking to halt Nai Aupuni’s election.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

SourceWatch ties Grassroot to groups that receive funding through State Policy Network, which is associated with Charles Koch, brother of David Koch. The Kansas billionaires are described as Libertarian, conservative or even right-wing. (The terms are not interchangeable, but there is a lot of overlap.)

So despised are the Koch brothers by liberals and Democrats that I think the description from Bernie Sander’s campaign website captures the sentiment well:

It is well known that the Koch brothers have provided the major source of funding to the Tea Party and want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. …

It is clear that the Koch brothers and other right wing billionaires are calling the shots and are pulling the strings of the Republican Party.

And because of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, they now have the power to spend an unlimited amount of money to buy the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the next President of the United States.

Meanwhile, here’s what SourceWatch says about State Policy Network:

Although SPN’s member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, an in-depth investigation reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders. The reports reveal some members abusing tax laws and masquerading as “think tanks” while really orchestrating extensive lobbying and political operations to peddle their legislative agenda to state legislators, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities.

I asked Kelii Akina about the reported connections between Grassroot and the Koches, and he emailed me the group’s standard reply regarding donors:

By policy, we do not respond to inquiries about the identities of our donors, respecting their legal right to privacy. The overwhelming majority of funding for the Grassroot Institute comes from local individuals and families. We are an independent think tank. That means, by design we do not receive funding from the government, the military, or political parties. When it comes to private donors, we receive funding from individuals with a broad diversity of viewpoints. While these donors support what we stand for, we do not necessarily identify ourselves with nor support the particular views of these donors.

Reached by phone, Akina said, “I just am not at liberty either to deny or confirm any donor as a matter of our general donor policy.”

‘No Story Here’

Pressed about the Koch brothers, Akina said Grassroot had “no affiliation” with them.

He then elaborated a bit.

“We are affiliated with organizations that receive donations from a broad variety of sources that could include the Koch brothers or any other billionaires,” he said. “But none of them determine our policy. We are completely independent. We are proud to be part of the State Policy Network but receive no funding or policy direction that they might have received from particularly large donors such as the Koch brothers.”

“We do not respond to inquiries about the identities of our donors, respecting their legal right to privacy.”—Kelii Akina

Akina said websites such as SourceWatch “use templates to critique any group affiliated with the State Policy Network,” even groups that might have “the smallest relationship with the groups that they are targeting. Frankly, there is no story here.”

Maybe.

But Grassroot has partnered with Judicial Watch in its legal challenge to the Nai Aupuni convention for Native Hawaiian self governance. Judicial Watch’s website calls itself “a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation,” while SourceWatch links the group to the late billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, identified as a contributor “to the Republican Party and right-wing think tanks, one of the most influential men behind the American conservative movement.”

I don’t think the Grassroot Institute should be shunned by the media. I think it contributes good arguments about important topics, whether I agree with them or not.

But I do think the media (including me) need to apply more scrutiny to how we describe groups that we report on.

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