Democratic senator’s environmental bill could benefit his wife

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has introduced a bill that would give funds to environmental groups to study and restore U.S. oceans and coastlines. A major beneficiary of the law could be an environmental group with ties to Whitehouse’s wife.

In April, Whitehouse reintroduced the National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts, and Great Lakes Act, which would create a grant program for states, environmental groups and universities to study and restore oceans and coastlines across the country.

“This legislation will help preserve and restore the full range of economic, ecological, cultural, and recreational benefits our oceans and coasts provide,” Whitehouse said in a statement at the time. “The consequences of ocean acidification, dead zones, oil spills, and weakened natural defenses are being felt in coastal communities now, and we must act to reverse these trends.”

The legislation has been backed by the Ocean Conservatory, an environmental group, which could potentially benefit from the creation of a grant program for ocean conservation.

The Whitehouse bill would fund non-profit groups and governments that engage in what is called “Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning.” The Conservancy focuses on marine spatial planning.

The Conservancy has hired Whitehouse’s wife Sandra Whitehouse to work on the issue as an independent contractor in the past.

According to the group’s 990 forms for 2011, Sandra Whitehouse was paid $182,000 to work on “Marine Spatial Planning.”

Sandra Whitehouse is also listed on the Ocean Conservancy’s blog as a senior policy advisor for the group that focuses on “coastal and marine spatial planning and ocean acidification programs.” Her last blog post for the group was dated June 13, 2013.

“She is not an employee, manager or lobbyist within the organization,” Ocean Conservancy spokesman Bryan Buchanon told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “She advises our Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) program, and as needed, Dr. Whitehouse is a science advisor on other important ocean issues such as marine debris and ocean acidification. For our CMSP work, Dr. Whitehouse provides scientific and policy expertise and helps guide our team on local, state and regional stakeholder outreach.”

The Ocean Conservancy has heavily supported this bill. The group spent $223,793 on lobbying in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — including lobbying on the National Endowment for the Oceans.

“[National Endowment for the Ocean’s] investments would create jobs and support coastal economies. Emily Woglom, the group’s director of government relations wrote in a blog post. “They would also ensure that present and future generations benefit from the ecological, economic, educational, social, cultural, spiritual, nutritional and recreational resources of our ocean, coasts and Great Lakes.”

According to Whitehouse’s office, the current version of the bill would rely on funding from offshore energy development leases. The legislation dedicates 12.5 percent of these revenues to the endowment, which would then be used to fund coastal states and other groups.

“The Senator would have no role in determining which organizations receive grants,” Seth Larson, spokesman for Sen. Whitehouse, told TheDCNF. “To be clear, the Senator and his wife follow all applicable rules regarding the work of Members and their spouses. There are no conflicts of interest.”

“Senator Whitehouse literally represents the Ocean State,” Larson added. “From fishing to tourism and much more, Rhode Island’s economy is directly tied to our oceans. Advocating for strong ocean policies and programs is an essential part of representing Rhode Island in the Senate.”

“This competitive grant process would be overseen by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF),” Larson added. “It would be up to NFWF — not Congress — to decide which organizations ultimately receive grants. And, again, the proposal currently under consideration wouldn’t provide any funding, it would merely authorize the program. Funding would need to be secured later.”

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