The Heartland Institute's board of directors was not consulted before the group launched an explosive billboard campaign last week, resulting in the resignation of one director and dismaying others, sources said.
According to three people with knowledge of Heartland's campaign, the surprise ad comparing Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to advocates of reducing greenhouse gases prompted a sudden conference call last Friday between the board and the group's president, Joe Bast. The call occurred hours after the electronic billboard became active Thursday afternoon. The ad was canceled before rush hour Friday.
One director on the 14-member board disassociated himself from the failed campaign when asked whether he was comfortable with the message of the highway advertisement.
"Well, I just learned about it after the fact," said the board member, who asked not to be identified.
The board appears to have pushed back on Bast's failure to disclose the campaign to its directors, who oversee the libertarian organization that raised $4.6 million in 2011.
"Since the billboard thing happened, we're on the same page moving forward," said the board member. "Whatever Heartland is saying at this point, I think we're all in concert with."
Another director, Robert Lamendola, resigned last Friday because of the ad, according to sources. He's a senior adviser for Renaissance Reinsurance, which terminated its relationship with Heartland over the billboard after giving the organization $407,000 during the past two years.
Every other insurance company and trade group supporting Heartland also cut ties with the group, after Eli Lehrer told his sponsors that he and his team were leaving Heartland's Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate in Washington. Lehrer helped to raise more than $1 million from six insurers over the last two years for the Heartland center.
The United Services Automobile Association, an insurer that donated $45,000 to Heartland last year, verified its departure from the organization yesterday. "In light of recent personnel departures at Heartland, we decided to end our support for the organization," the company said in a statement.
The flight of donors follows disappointing fundraising efforts in 2011, when Heartland saw its revenues drop $1.5 million from its catch of $6 million in 2010. Heartland has had other troubles, including the release of private documents in February to climate scientist Peter Gleick, who impersonated a board member, and now the billboard campaign.
'Not that type of guy'
Dan Hales, who has been a director on Heartland's board for about 20 years, said his counterparts continue to hold Bast in high regard. Hales wasn't on the conference call last Friday, and he said earlier this week that he's not familiar enough with the billboard campaign to have an opinion on it.
"I think he's well-respected," Hales said of Bast. "I take it the billboard's a hot issue, because it's created some sort of controversy. But, you know, that's fine."
But a former board member thought it was peculiar that Bast had not consulted his directors about a campaign conveying such a strong statement. It was routine for Bast to proceed cautiously on even small decisions when William Higginson was on the board for about six years, beginning in 2001.
"I'm surprised to hear, if indeed it's a fact, the board didn't review the ad going out," Higginson said. "That surprises me."
Higginson, the former president of a Chicago equity fund that finances affordable housing projects in Illinois, remembers sitting impatiently in board meetings as Bast lingered over details, pursuing "a very exacting sort of approval process."
"I can say this with a real sense of conviction: That does not sound like the Joe Bast I know at Heartland," Higginson said. "He's not that type of guy."
The campaign also struck others as out of character. Ross McKitrick, an economics professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, lamented in a letter to Bast last week that Heartland was "venting" its frustrations during a difficult year. He threatened to cancel his speaking engagement at Heartland's annual climate change conference later this month if the ad wasn't canceled.
The reverberations of the campaign promise to be felt for some time. The collapse of Heartland's Washington office ends an important stream of revenue that its Chicago headquarters had sought to expand.
And the Smarter Safer coalition, which advocates for government reform on federal insurance issues, has canceled Heartland's membership. Lehrer, however, could perhaps rejoin the coalition representing a new or existing group.
"I think Eli Lehrer is a real talent, and replacing him anywhere is going to be a challenge," Joshua Saks, legislative director at the National Wildlife Federation and an active member in the coalition, said of Lehrer's departure from Heartland.
Hales, of Heartland's board, expressed confidence that the lost funding from the defunct Washington office could be replaced. But he's not sure how.
"If it creates a hole -- fill the hole," he said. "Something will happen."