CPV: A Private Equity Fracking Play

Competitive Power Ventures (CPV), an energy company behind nine planned or operational natural gas power plants across the US and Canada, has faced strident local opposition to several of its east coast projects. Proposed plants in New York and Connecticut have highlighted how CPV uses political influence, including the hiring of well-connected lobbyists and political operators, to override opposition to the projects. In New York, construction of CPV’s Valley natural gas plant continues, though Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered state agencies to suspend all communication and regulatory proceedings with CPV amid a federal law enforcement investigation of the company’s dealings with a top Cuomo aide.

Behind CPV are Wall Street interests – including alumni of Credit Suisse and General Electric – that have invested in the company through a private equity firm called Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP). This post highlights the private equity backers seeking profit from CPV’s business. Future posts will explore how CPV has pushed its gas projects forward, even in the face of grassroots protest and carbon reduction goals.

Continue reading CPV: A Private Equity Fracking Play

Who’s profiting from drilling Los Angeles?

by Rob Galbraith and Gin Armstrong

Freeport-McMoRan is far and away the largest oil and gas producer in Los Angeles, with 1,311 active wells in Los Angeles County according California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. The corporation, a multinational mining giant, acquired most of its Los Angeles wells in its 2012 purchase of Plains Exploration and Production, which brought the Inglewood oil field, the largest urban oilfield in the United States, into Freeport-McMoRan’s portfolio. The Inglewood oil field is home to 911 wells, 16% of all wells in Los Angeles County.

At Freeport’s annual meeting on June 8, the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow introduced a resolution requesting that the company report on its enhanced oil recovery operations, including steps it is taking to mitigate negative environmental and health effects. The proposal noted that “oil operations have the potential to contaminate water supplies, release toxic fumes, and harm communities.”

The board of directors urged shareholders to vote against the resolution.

Freeport’s board – primarily wealthy white men – are unlikely to directly face the health impacts of their company’s drilling. A 2014 Natural Resources Defense Council report found that the impacts of drilling in California are disproportionately visited upon low-income communities and communities of color and that in Los Angeles County, 78% of the people living within a quarter mile of a gas well were black or Latino.

Continue reading Who’s profiting from drilling Los Angeles?

SUNY Poly administrator who evaluated developer bids worked for decades at CHA

An engineering firm targeted in federal investigations of potential bid-rigging in New York State enjoyed an especially cozy relationship with one of the state officials who evaluated some Buffalo Billion developer bids, LittleSis has learned.

The firm, CHA (formerly known as Clough Harbour & Associates), was in the news last month because it paid consulting fees to a top aide to Governor Cuomo, Joe Percoco, and also received contracts through the Buffalo Billion, Cuomo’s signature economic initiative in western New York. Additionally, CHA has donated over $200,000 to Cuomo and his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul.

What hasn’t been reported: CHA also has strong ties to an official at SUNY Polytechnic who was directly engaged in evaluating Buffalo Billion developer proposals.

The official, Thomas O’Brien, joined SUNY Poly in 2013 after a 30-year career at CHA, most recently as a senior vice president and group manager. He is also tied to the company through his family: his daughter, a college student, indicates that she is an intern at CHA on her social media accounts.

Continue reading SUNY Poly administrator who evaluated developer bids worked for decades at CHA

Hochul raised $35k from Buffalo Billion contractors now under investigation

Campaign finance records show that in early August 2014 Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul brought in more than $35,000 from at least eight people and businesses named in subpoenas in the investigation into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative. The donations coincide with a private fundraiser Hochul held at a Buffalo law firm, suggesting that numerous beneficiaries of the Buffalo Billion program all gathered with Hochul in Buffalo to donate to her and Cuomo’s campaign.

On August 4, 2014, Hochul told a central New York newspaper that she was going to make economic development a major focus of her campaign as Cuomo’s running mate. “I have a good handle on economic development issues for sure from my time in Congress, so we’ll be laser focused on that issue,” Hochul told Canandaigua’s Daily Messenger.

Photo via Giancarlo's Restaurant Instagram
Photo via Giancarlo’s Restaurant Instagram

The next day, Hochul held a fundraiser at the headquarters of Buffalo law firm Phillips Lytle LLP, and, over the following two days, Hochul’s fundraising committee reported $333,741 in donations, more than any other three-day stretch in her campaign. Tens of thousands of dollars of the contributions during that period came from people and businesses that had benefitted from Cuomo’s economic development programs, including the Buffalo Billion.

Continue reading Hochul raised $35k from Buffalo Billion contractors now under investigation

Mapping the players in the Peabody Energy bankruptcy

Peabody Energy – the world’s largest private sector coal corporation – filed for bankruptcy in April, the latest in a series of major coal company collapses. As Peabody’s bankruptcy hearings unfold, there is growing concern amongst environmental, labor, and indigenous justice groups that the company will use the bankruptcy process to pay back their big bank and hedge fund creditors and give bonuses to their white collar employees, but shirk financial responsibilities for environmental cleanups and pension and healthcare obligations to retired coal miners.

There are numerous stakeholders with competing interests involved in the Peabody bankruptcy, so some St. Louis activists used LittleSis to create a map detailing the players involved and their power networks.

Continue reading Mapping the players in the Peabody Energy bankruptcy

Buffalo Billion developer flouted New York State disclosure laws

Buffalo developer Paul Ciminelli was legally required to file annual financial disclosure statements with New York State during his four-year tenure on the public authority controlling Buffalo Billion spending, Empire State Development (ESD). But Ciminelli’s forms are extremely deficient for the first two years he served on the board and missing for the second two. And New York State’s ethics watchdog appears to have done nothing to compel Ciminelli to file an accurate statement.

The statements require disclosure of income, contracts, assets, and other financial interests and in Ciminelli’s case could have shed some light on the nature and scale of his interests – and conflicts of interest – as a major Buffalo developer and ESD board member. As we reported last week, Ciminelli has benefited significantly from the Buffalo Billion, which is now under federal investigation (LPCiminelli, run by his brother Louis, has received a subpoena in that investigation). In his position on ESD’s board, Ciminelli recused himself from Buffalo Billion funding votes but never disclosed the nature of his conflicts.

Continue reading Buffalo Billion developer flouted New York State disclosure laws

Paul Ciminelli and Ciminelli Real Estate’s conflicted Buffalo Billion roles

Though much of the reporting around Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion project has focused on Buffalo construction firm LPCiminelli, relatively little attention has been paid to another major beneficiary of Buffalo Billion spending: Ciminelli Real Estate.

Owned by Paul Ciminelli, the brother of LPCiminelli chairman & CEO Louis Ciminelli, Ciminelli Real Estate has been involved in four Buffalo Billion projects to date, three of which were awarded while its executives held governance positions at state agencies and donated generously to Governor Cuomo’s campaigns.

While these projects were procured by Fort Schuyler Management Corp (FSMC), a non-profit affiliate of SUNY Polytechnic, their funding came from Empire State Development. Ciminelli Real Estate’s president, CEO, and sole owner Paul Ciminelli sat on the Empire State Development board from 2010 through 2014. The land for the SolarCity project was sold to Fort Schuyler by the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, where Ciminelli Real Estate Executive Vice President Dennis Penman is vice chair.

Though Ciminelli recused himself from votes that benefitted his and his brother’s companies, he did not leave the room during the deliberation and voting process. Penman raised his affiliation with Ciminelli Real Estate, but was permitted to participate in voting and discussion without recusing.

Neither executive disclosed their participation in LPCiminelli’s bid to the boards they sat on as they were making decisions on the project.

Continue reading Paul Ciminelli and Ciminelli Real Estate’s conflicted Buffalo Billion roles

Republican Convention Host Committee Tied to Company Moving Jobs to Mexico

Yesterday, we looked at the host committee unfurling the carpet in Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention this summer, including three locals with a number of questionable associations. Now we’re examining the Republican National Convention’s host committee chairs, most of whom are connected to an electrical equipment and car parts manufacturer called Eaton Corporation.

Continue reading Republican Convention Host Committee Tied to Company Moving Jobs to Mexico

Republican or Democrat? Both parties’ convention host committees represent the 1%

The host committees for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions are composed of wealthy officials who spend their day-to-day lives representing the interests of health insurers, fracking companies, banks and other large corporations.

Host committees are comprised of locals picked by party elites to represent the cities hosting each convention. This year’s Democratic National Convention is in Philadelphia, and features prominent political and business people from the region; likewise, influential Clevelanders sit on the host committee of the Republican National Convention.

Democratic Convention Hosted by Republican Donors, Anti-Obamacare Lobbyists, and Fracking Advocates

As a recent article in The Intercept pointed out, several of this year’s host committee members are hardly Democratic Party devotees. In fact, Independence Blue Cross CEO Daniel Hilferty, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen have donated thousands of dollars to Republican presidential and congressional candidates this cycle and actively undermined and lobbied against progressive policies including fracking regulations, Obamacare, and net neutrality regulations.

Click through the map below for details on how this year’s DNC host committee members are donating thousands of dollars to Republicans and undermining progressive causes.

Keep your eyes open for our next blog post on the Republican Nation Convention Host Committee!

You are being followed: The business of social media surveillance

LittleSis is partnering with MuckRock to investigate how police across the country are monitoring, tracking, and archiving public social media posts. To plug into our work, follow this link to file a freedom of information request using MuckRock’s platform.

In keeping with our mission to monitor and track the powers that be, we at LittleSis turned the surveillance gaze back onto the local forces monitoring social media. We not only dug into the corporate profiles of some of the companies police contract to snoop on your Tweets and Facebook rants, we also filed freedom of information requests to twenty police departments across the country to find out how, when, and why they monitor social media.

Brightplanet Specializes in analyzing “deep web” content
Geofeedia Develops location-based social media surveillance software
ZeroFOX “The Social Risk Management Company”™
Intrado Develops “Beware” threat scoring software
LifeRaft Develops location-based social media surveillance software
Magnet Forensics Develops digital forensics software
Media Sonar Technologies Develops location-based social media surveillance software
Signal Corporation Limited Develops Microsoft-sourced, NZ-based social media monitoring software

Before we started receiving documents from the police, we probed the power behind these eight firms to unravel the social-media-monitoring complex; you can peruse our list, completed using publicly available information, to learn more about each company. However, one particularly well-connected firm that we believe is worth highlighting here is ZeroFOX, which actively monitored prominent Black Lives Matter protesters in Baltimore and labeled some of them, including former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson, “threat actors.”

The company reached out to Baltimore officials first, offering it services pro-bono, which ZeroFOX executives painted as a selfless gesture of civic responsibility. But city officials may have been especially receptive to ZeroFOX’s pitch because of the powerful names standing behind it. The company’s leadership includes former NSA Director Mike McConnell, who is the former vice chair and current senior executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Robert Rodriguez, who has ties to the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and a security firm started by top Bush-era security official Michael Chertoff.

In our information requests to police, we asked for contracts with the social media monitoring companies listed above, records of correspondence with these companies, documents containing social media monitoring policy, all records of archived social media postings, and more. We sent them out on January 28. As of May 17, we have received documents from five departments, including Austin, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, and Philadelphia police.

All of the contracts we’ve received so far mention a company called Geofeedia. Previous reports indicate that Geofeedia also has contracts with Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Because the company was such a common thread, we decided to focus our reporting on Geofeedia, which appears to be the hardest hustler in the social media surveillance game.

Geofeedia’s business grows “7-fold” between 2014 and 2015

Started in 2011 by Phil Harris, a businessperson with stints at Priceline and Match.com, Geofeedia allows users to target a geographic area on their computer and scoop up the public social media posts of everybody within the target range. The posts are harvested from the companies with which Geofeedia has patents, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa, Yik Yak, Seno-Weibo, and others. In addition to targeting a geographical region, users can also use Geofeedia to search social media posts based on people and keywords.

Geofeedia example

In an interview published on April 20, Harris claimed that his company invented “social media intelligence,” and that in the near future Geofeedia would continue to grow “extremely rapidly.” A year earlier, Harris said the company had 500 paying customers and had grown 7-fold since 2014. Its clients not only include law enforcement, but also news organizations like CNN, BBC, Fox and Mashable, as well as companies interested in gauging customers’ “brand experience” in real time.

Geofeedia is financed by the venture capital firms Silversmith Capital Partners and Hyde Park Venture Partners. Silversmith was launched in 2015 by alumni of Bain Capital, Bain Company and Spectrum Equity, while Hyde Park shares some alumni of the digital marketing company Salesforce.com with Geofeedia. In April 2016, The Intercept’s Lee Fang revealed that Geofeedia also received startup funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, and had a contract with the FBI.

In addition to touting its utility for for marketers as well emergency first responders, Harris also said in a radio interview that Geofeedia specialized in monitoring social movements like the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests in Greece. Company representatives also suggested that police testing out Geofeedia software use it to monitor protests in Ferguson, Missouri in November 2014. Another representative from the company confirmed to LittleSis that the software was used in 2014 and 2015 to monitor Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America, whose owner, Canada-based Triple Five Group, contracts with Geofeedia.

Police departments using Geofeedia to monitor social media

At press time we possessed dozens of documents from five police departments, and as more documents come in, we’ll run stories about what we receive. Here’s what we have so far:

Austin Police Department

We obtained three files from the Austin Police Department, including a copy of a contract between Geofeedia and APD, several emails between the company and the police department, and document acknowledging a pilot program in July 2014.

On June 24, 2015, the Austin PD signed a $9,500 contract with Geofeedia that gave an unlimited number of user licenses to the Austin Regional Intelligence Center. The contract, which spanned from June 24 to March 31, 2016, also included “ongoing priority support, one user-training session per month,” and unlimited alerts. It also included up to 200,000 of unspecified “items” of data a month. It is not known whether APD is pursuing a new contract with the firm.

Emails between Austin’s Financial Services Department and the Police Department also indicate that two other social media monitoring companies are registered vendors with the city. These include Motorola-partnered Intrado, which makes software that uses a person’s social media postings (among many other things) to assign a threat-level to them, and Brightplanet, which specializes in deep web data mining. Neither Intrado nor Brightplanet have ever signed contracts with the city of Austin, according to city emails.

Oakland Police Department

LittleSis received an invoice from 10/22/14 from the Oakland Police Department detailing a purchase from Geofeedia. It yields few details: the invoice was for a $8,500 annual subscription for “Geofeedia ‘Cloud’ based Social Media Platform.”

When we followed up, Oakland PD did not tell us whether or not it renewed its contract with Geofeedia after October 2015, but informed us that they were searching for more documents pertaining to our request.

San Diego Police Department

San Diego PD gave us a purchase order as well as an order form and a document indicating its justification for the purchase. The department bought an annual subscription for $18,000 that kicked in on July 1, 2015 and allows users to access “up to five real-time streams” that had the ability to track “influencers” — people on social media with particularly large followers and influence — and could translate social media postings from Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, and Sina Weibo.

In a “Business Case Concept” document, Assistant Police Chief Al Guaderrama acknowledges that SDPD has used information culled from social media sources “in conjunction with traditional investigative techniques,” and that Geofeedia would allow police to aggregate social media in a more effective way:

Analysts and investigators currently use free and basic tools similar to Geofeedia. However, these tools do not permit data collection, aggregation, downloading for analysis, or alerts. Additionally, limited access to the type of social media platforms and postings that are available only allow basic analysis of social media activities.

The document also says $25,000 was allocated to the police department for the Geofeedia purchase, although the subscription only cost the department $18,000. It also seems to indicate that a renewed Geofeedia subscription will be factored into the department’s budget in the future:

Annual renewal costs will be included in the Department’s Operating Budget.

San Jose Police Department

From the San Jose Police Department we obtained a purchase order form for Geofeedia services, a bidding contract, several emails between the police department and the office of the city management (all here), an investment proposal from the police department, and over one hundred pages of email between the police department, city officials, representatives from three social media monitoring firms, including Geofeedia.

The contract includes an annual subscription to Geofeedia services from 9/15/15 through 9/14/16 for the department’s special investigations unit. The services purchased are capable of storing up to 500,000 social media posts a month, gathered from a max search radius of 15 kilometers that gathers posts from Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, Picasa, YouTube, Facebook, Sina, Weibo, and VK.

The investment proposal, which states that SJPD investigators use Geofeedia software “almost daily,” reveals a number of startling ways San Jose police have used Geofeedia for noncriminal matters.

SJPD first put the software to use when protesters staged a die-in during a speech given by Indian Prime Minister Narendi Modi in September 2015, monitoring the social media postings of protesters to receive “real time updates on potential threats.” In another instance, SJPD used Geofeedia to manage its public image, after coming across a YouTube video revealing a police “use of force situation” against a citizen. The excerpt is worth quoting in its entirety:

In yet another example, on December 9, 2015, an SIU officer noticed someone posted a use of force situation on YouTube. No one from the Department was aware of the posting, which had a potential for unfavorable media scrutiny. Internal Affairs and the Media Relations Unit were immediately notified as was the Chief’s Office. Early warning notifications like this can assist the Department with messaging and transparency.

From the cache of emails we received, we learned that two other social media monitoring firms unsuccessfully vied for a contract with SJPD in 2015. These include LifeRaft and Media Sonar Technologies, which both specialize in location-based social media tracking software. Additionally, internal emails also indicate that Geofeedia software was used during Super Bowl 50 by SJPD’s “covert response unit.”

Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and the Santa Clara Police Department

In an email obtained from the San Jose Police Department and dated 9/1/2015, SJPD Lieutenant Michael Sullivan says that the Santa Clara Police Department had been using Geofeedia Services on loan from the local Northern California fusion center:

Santa Clara using Geofeedia

Philadelphia Police Department

From the Philadelphia Police Department we obtained a purchase order, a standard operating procedure for the department’s Social Media Investigative Support Team, and a dozen pages explaining why most of our open records request could not be fulfilled (all here).

PPD purchased an annual subscription from Geofeedia for $26,000 in February 2015, and the department told LittleSis it has not renewed the contract. Like Austin, PPD’s subscription included an unlimited number of user licenses for its local fusion center, the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center.

The police department’s standard operating procedure for social media, which appears to have been issued by the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, contains more information on how when Philadelphia surveil social media. For example, police can use social media to produce “assessment reports” about First Amendment protected activities.

Police also store information from social media in the form of screenshots, printouts of chat logs, and copies of URLs, and are expected to stay vigilant on social media even when they’re off the clock. But much still is left unsaid: Nearly 3 pages describing how police can mine public social media posts for intelligence was blacked out.

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Because social media incites within us a compulsion to share our thoughts, even potentially illegal ones, law enforcement sees it as a tool to preempt behavior that appears threatening to the status quo. We caught a glimpse of where this road could take us in Michigan, where the local news recently reported that a man calling for civil unrest on Facebook because of the Flint water crisis was nearly the target of a criminal investigation. At its worst, social media monitoring could create classes of “pre-criminals” apprehended before they commit crimes if police and prosecutors are able to argue that social media postings forecast intent. This is the predictive business model to which Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris aspires.

LittleSis is still waiting for documents from 16 other police departments, including Albuquerque, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, DC (Metropolitan Police), Minneapolis, Oakland (more), Phoenix, San Diego, San Antonio, Seattle, and St. Louis. Both Dallas and St. Louis have together demanded hundreds of dollars for documents, while Baltimore rejected our request and Chicago was unhelpful.

There’s a wealth of information out there that we can access, but getting it has to be a broad effort that includes everybody, including you. To that end, MuckRock is launching a crowdfunded, crowdsourced campaign to reveal how police across the country are using social media to monitor people and the events they attend.

Interested in following up on a request we’ve sent out, or filing a brand new one to a department we’ve yet to contact? Follow this link and file a request. You can use the template we used, or you can create your own.

Happy sleuthing!

Update, 5/18

The Boston Police Department also contracts with Geofeedia, according to publicly available records. The police department submitted a $6,700 check to the company on January 26, 2016. The records were surfaced and posted on privacysos.org by Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU – Massachusetts.