Warren Buffett-Funded Foundation Secretly Paid For Protest To Stop Construction Of A Highly Contentious Pipeline

(Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Drew Johnson Contributor
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Roughly 700 activists were arrested in 2016 for protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an underground oil pipeline connecting the Bakken shale oil fields in northwest North Dakota with a storage facility in Illinois.

Hundreds of those arrested were freed from jail by one man – an obscure 26-year-old from a small town in Oregon – who admits to paying more than $100,000 in cash bond payments.

The mysterious payments, obtained by the Daily Caller, appear to be linked to radical environmental groups funded, in part, by Warren Buffett, who had a personal financial stake in preventing the construction of the pipeline.

During its construction, thousands of activists converged on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, claiming it would pollute drinking water and desecrate tribal land.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a number of state and local environmental agencies conducted studies regarding the environmental impacts of Dakota Access. After meeting the requirements set forth in those reviews, construction of the pipeline was allowed to move forward in the face of escalating protests.

The protests became “more like a riot” on Sept. 3, 2016, according to Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier.

Activists broke down fences, then “crossed onto private property and accosted private security officers with wooden posts and flag poles,” Kirchmeier said.

One security guard was stabbed in the side with a wooden stake, then trampled. Others were threatened with knives and kicked by horses. Additionally, two dogs, including one that was injured when it was hit with a 2×4, were taken to an area veterinary clinic for treatment.

Over the following weeks, riots, property damage and violence continued in bursts, resulting in the arrests of hundreds of individuals – 93 percent of whom were from outside of North Dakota, according to local law enforcement officials.

Protesters chained themselves to heavy machinery and broke windows out of construction vehicles. Two men were charged with reckless endangerment for ramming a vehicle into a truck. One of those men’s sons later pled guilty to the felony kidnapping of a Native American woman he initially met at the Standing Rock protests. The woman said she was raped and beaten, threatened with a knife and strangled by the man when they met up in Minnesota on her way to another pipeline protest early the following year.

While those arrested at the pipeline protests sat in jail on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to inciting a riot at the Standing Rock reservation, a young man named Joseph Haythorn was handing over large amounts of cash to bail them out.

An analysis of about 125 bond disclosures from North Dakota indicate that Haythorn paid nearly $30,000 in bonds for about 80 Standing Rock protestors. That represents just a small portion of the number of bond payments Haythorn made.

Public records show that Haythorn’s name appears on bond documents associated with more than 500 arrests.

In total, Haythorn estimates he paid well into the six-figures freeing protesters from jail.

“In a single mass arrest on October 27, 2016, over 100 people were charged with felonies. Bonds were set at a minimum of $1,500 (some were $5,000),” Haythorn wrote in an email. He recalled paying more than $100,000 to free protestors arrested on that day alone.

“I kept cash on hand in case people were arrested after-hours or on the weekend, first in a lockbox, then in a locking zippered bag,” Haythorn said.

At the time, Haythorn was a 26-year-old working as an assistant computer tech for a temporary staffing firm, according to one of his social media profiles. During the protests, he camped out and relied on others to make ends meet.

“Individual lawyers sometimes took money out of their own pockets to sustain me between the camps and jails, others would occasionally buy me a meal at Prairie Knights,” Haythorn said. “My parents helped me financially and materially to maintain my presence.”

So how could an activist who relied on handouts in order to eat afford to bond more people out of jail than his hometown of Mosier, Oregon, has residents?

Haythorn was involved in an intricate network of nonprofits funded by a wide array of donors – including some of the richest individuals and foundations in the world.

Before he began posting bond for jailed activists, Haythorn was among the first 10 people arrested in connection with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. He was charged with disorderly conduct August 11, 2016, for breaking through law enforcement barriers and illegally entering a pipeline construction area.

Haythorn and other demonstrators were provided legal assistance by the Water Protector Legal Collective, according to The Bismarck Tribune.

The relationship between Haythorn and the Water Protector Legal Collective went far beyond that of an attorney and a client, or a protestor and a sympathetic charity.

In late September of 2016 – around the time he was making hundreds of bond payments on the behalf of arrested activists – Haythorn was listed as a contact for the Red Owl Legal Collective, an organization formed with support from the National Lawyers Guild to coordinate legal assistance for the opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A few weeks later, Red Owl Legal Collective changed its name to the Water Protector Legal Collective.

The Water Protector Legal Collective registered as a nonprofit corporation with the state of North Dakota on Oct. 25, 2016 — more than two months after initially providing legal assistance to Dakota Access protesters.

Water Protector Legal Collective, IRS, taxes

Haythorn’s name appeared as one of two contacts on a solidarity statement that promised the Water Protector Legal Collective would offer its services to “anyone arrested (at the Standing Rock Reservation) as part of the resistance to the pipeline.” Those services would be provided “without personal judgments about the quality, morality, or strategic wisdom of any action.”

The statement also promised the support of the Freshet Collective, an outfit committed to providing legal defense funds “to support any and every individual at the camps arrested in direct actions to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.” A radical encampment called the Red Warrior Camp was also praised in the declarations for “planning and executing direct actions to physically block pipeline construction.”

While none of the bond documents Haythorn filled out mention the Red Owl Legal Collective or the Water Protector Legal Collective, the phone number he provided on the forms matches a phone number listed on the solidarity statement.

When reached via email, Michelle Cook, the board chair of the Water Protector Legal Collective, refused to respond to questions concerning the organization’s funding or its association with Haythorn.

Emily Beck, a legal worker who provided services to protesters through the Water Protector Legal Collective, stated a group called the Freshet Collective paid bail for the protesters. Representatives of the Freshet Collective did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Haythorn, several people and organizations were involved in funding the bond payments, including actress and progressive activist Shailene Woodley. The Freshet Collective, however, provided more money than any other source to bond protesters out of jail.

In recounting the mass arrests of protesters Oct. 27, 2016, Haythorn said “Freshet disbursed over $100,000 in that event alone.”

The Freshet Collective did not appear in a recent search of the IRS’s list of tax exempt organizations and apparently hasn’t filed federal nonprofit paperwork with the IRS. The Freshet Collective did not respond to the Daily Caller’s inquiries for comment.

The Freshet Collective was registered as a nonprofit in Minnesota by two employees of Honor the Earth, an organization run by two-time Green Party vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke.

Honor the Earth regularly receives funding from the Tides Foundation, including a $63,000 gift specifically earmarked to support the Standing Rock Reservation protests.

The NoVo Foundation, an organization run by Warren Buffett’s youngest son, Peter, and Peter’s wife, Jennifer, also regularly contribute to Honor the Earth.

In addition to pocketing $944,000 from the National Lawyers Guild between 2016 and 2017, the Water Protector Legal Collective also received more than $1 million from the Novo Foundation.

One foundation watchdog is extremely troubled by the NoVo Foundation’s continued funding of the Water Protector Legal Collective after the group’s apparent show of support for their behavior during the pipeline protests via the bond payments.

“Beating animals and people and destroying property are not legitimate pursuits (the Novo Foundation) should be supporting,” said Hayden Ludwig, an investigative researcher at Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank that examines how foundations and charities spend their money.

“I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak to NoVo’s legal culpability in all of this; but it seems clear that, good intentions or not, NoVo should have immediately cut ties with Water Protector Legal Collective like any responsible organization would,” Ludwig said.

NoVo Foundation representatives did not condemn the sometimes illegal behavior the foundation helped to fund. On its website, the foundation boasts that its financial support of the Water Protector Legal Collective will be used “to leverage information and experience gained through litigation and advocacy at Standing Rock.”

The Buffett family’s interest in the fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline appears to go beyond environmental concerns or the desire to preserve tribal lands.

Buffett, who donated almost the entire $182 million in funding the NoVo Foundation received in 2018, is the chairman and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway. The holding company owns BNSF (formerly the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway), a railroad with existing infrastructure capable of delivering oil and natural gas from North Dakota to oil terminals in the Midwest.

If the Water Protector Legal Collective, the Freshet Collective, Honor the Earth and other environmental organizations funded by the NoVo Foundation succeeded in stopping the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Berkshire Hathaway would have been positioned to collect significant sums transporting oil from North Dakota.

The NoVo Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think that it’s fair to call NoVo a major part of Warren Buffett’s financial interests and not just a foundation associated with his family,” said Ludwig. “So it’s not surprising to see NoVo mixed up in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.”

“NoVo should have withdrawn funding to the anti-pipeline protests to avoid even the image of a conflict of interest,” according to Ludwig. “Supporting these protests was irresponsible.”

Despite substantial funding and criminal tactics resulting in hundreds of arrests by opponents, the Dakota Access Pipeline opened up to commercial activity June 1, 2017. Even though the pipeline was completed, Haythorn called the protests “greatly successful.”

“Delaying and increasing the cost of construction, even though the project was completed, will help disabuse potential investors in future fossil fuel infrastructure projects of any misconceptions they may have regarding the simplicity and economy of such investments,” Haythorn said.

During construction, the 1,172-mile pipeline created approximately 10,000 jobs. This year, the Dakota Access will pay an estimated $52 million in combined taxes to state and local governments.

A lawsuit brought by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmental activists demanding the pipeline temporarily shut down is currently moving through federal courts.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would perform a new environmental analysis of the Dakota Access Pipeline to examine remaining concerns environmentalists and Native American tribes have regarding the pipeline.

The review is expected to take more than a year.

Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway did not respond to the Caller’s requests for comment at time of publication.

Drew Johnson is an investigative reporter and government watchdog.