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Meet Kevin Connor: Change Agent

(Photos by Ryan Delmar)
PAI's Gin Armstrong, Whitney Yax, and Kevin Connor.

One headline at a time, Public Accountability Initiative exposes the powers-that-be

When I first returned to Buffalo from Washington DC, I could count the number of people I knew on one hand. Kevin Connor was among the first new people I met. I can’t recall the details of our meeting, but like many interactions to follow, I’m sure it entailed talk of community economic development, of politics smattered with local folklore.

Kevin reminded me of local qualities that I had long since forgotten living inside the Beltway. He is honest, humble, and hardworking. It is evident to all that his organization—the Public Accountability Initiative, or PAI—and its success are borne of sweat equity and sheer determination. The mark of Buffalo’s own. Or, in his case, of an adopted Bostonian son.

Kevin’s knack for asking the right questions is unparalleled, and the sincerity with which he asks them can disarm even the most guarded. His sincerity is well reflected in his professional and personal relationships, where he is highly regarded for both the integrity of his work and his character.

A friend recently summed up PAI’s work like this: “They are doing the important work of sussing out the connections that are hidden in plain sight.” In a week when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down limits on federal campaign contributions, reifying the role of money in the our political process and reinforcing a pay-to-play system that is antithetical to the democratic ideals our country claims to be founded upon, modern-day muckrakers like PAI are vital.

PAI’s mission is to produce thoughtful, proactive analysis that holds the powers-that-be accountable to the people. Given their track record, they can certainly claim to be accomplishing that mission, one headline at a time.

• • •

AV: How was PAI conceived?

Connor: PAI was founded by a group of activists, academics, public interest lawyers, and technologists concerned about the inordinate political influence of large corporations and the various consequences of that influence, such as deepening economic inequality and environmental destruction. We saw modern-day muckraking as a way to bring transparency to the role corporate power plays in shaping policy, and also as a way to challenge that dominance. On the one hand, we did not see traditional media outlets doing enough of that work; on the other hand, the internet had given us access to databases and publishing platforms that make it much easier to find and share this kind of information. PAI was set up to fill that need and take advantage of that opportunity. We do some of this watchdog research ourselves, releasing reports and publishing articles that expose undue influence and corruption around a whole range of issues. We also work to facilitate similar research by activists and journalists, primarily through LittleSis.org.

AV: How does PAI choose its targets and what is worth the time and resources to investigate?

Connor: Everything we do starts with a power analysis. We try to follow the money not only in our research, but also in how we pick our topics and targets. So we focus on issues like fracking, anything related to Wall Street and debt, war and surveillance, the privatization of public assets—these are areas where the money and power in our economy is concentrated, and where policies are being shaped in ways that favor corporate profits over the public interest.

Another factor is the news cycle. We try to pick topics and targets that are in the news in some way, so that there is a hook for covering our work. We also try to work on issues where there is already some kind of grassroots engagement and momentum, which improves our chances of having an impact and finding an audience.

AV: Outline the prototypical process that researchers at PAI use when investigating the rich and powerful.

Connor: We use a methodology inspired by the muckrakers of the early 20th century and the power structure researchers of the 1960s and 1970s, which is focused on documenting the relationships of the powerful people and organizations we are investigating. The kinds of relationships we look at range from political donations and board seats to investments and social ties. By mapping these connections, we are able to develop a better understanding of who we are looking at and what their interests are, and it lays the groundwork for finding conflicts of interest and other potential corruption.

AV: In the past year, PAI has had a number of stories that have made national headlines. Give us a few examples.

Connor: During the debate over war with Syria last fall we put out a report on talking heads in the media who have defense industry ties. It was a case study in how public debates around important policy issues can often be dominated and corrupted by so-called experts who actually have financial stakes in how the debates turn out. We identified nearly two dozen pundits with undisclosed industry ties and highlighted one, former national security advisor Stephen Hadley, who was very active in promoting war with Syria in cable news appearances and in an op-ed in the Washington Post. He is also a board member of Raytheon, which makes the Tomahawk missiles that would have been used in Syria, and is chair of its public affairs committee. The Washington Post covered our report prominently and the paper’s own editorial chair, Fred Hiatt, was forced to defend his decision to give Hadley space without disclosing his Raytheon role.

We have also played a leading role in exposing “frackademia,” the national phenomenon of universities publishing flawed, pro-fracking academic research plagued by undisclosed oil and gas industry ties. We exposed egregious errors and conflicts of interest in studies put out by UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI), the University of Texas, and MIT. In each of those cases, our work was picked up by national outlets, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR. SRSI closed and UT retracted its report and revised its conflict of interest policy, but the author of the MIT study, which was a terrible piece of gas industry propaganda, is now the secretary of energy. So outcomes vary.

AV: One of your most recent victories involved Senator Charles Schumer and the Comcast-Time Warner merger. Explain.

Connor: When the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger was announced in February, Schumer was quick to send out a press release praising the deal, even though he was supposed to play an oversight role—he is on the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee and Time Warner Cable is based in his home state.

We were looking at some of the players involved in the deal and noticed that one of the key lawyers for Time Warner Cable was Robert Schumer—Chuck’s brother. We published a blog post that called attention to the conflict of interest, the story was picked up widely, and Schumer eventually recused himself, claiming he didn’t know about his brother’s role. His brother has been a key mergers lawyer for Time Warner Cable since 1989.

AV: Why don’t we see mainstream media outlets tackle the issues that PAI does—or not nearly as often as they should?

Connor: The mainstream media generally does not do a great job of monitoring and challenging power, though that is really what journalism should be all about. There are lots of reasons for it. Journalists often do not have the incentives or time to do the kind of investigative work that’s required. Many journalists also rely heavily on insider sources and are excessively concerned with maintaining access. Large media outlets are a part of the power structure, regionally and nationally, and so often push the narratives and frames favored by the power elite. Journalists can often encounter resistance when trying to do something that threatens the power elite. All that being said, there are plenty of good journalists at mainstream media outlets, and there is plenty of space to get these stories out there. It is important not to write it off, while still understanding the challenges.

AV: What local issues has PAI been directly involved with?

Connor: We released a report on Bass Pro that really changed the conversation about whether throwing $100 million in tax subsidies at an outdoor goods retail store and associated infrastructure was a good thing for Buffalo. Bass Pro was supposed to be this silver bullet economic development solution. It sounds absurd in retrospect, but local elites like Larry Quinn thought that putting this thing on the waterfront was the answer to all of Buffalo’s problems, that it would bring jobs, tourists, spinoff development. Our report looked at Bass Pro’s record of subsidized development in other communities and found that its stores were anchoring developments that were ghost towns, malls that were largely vacant, cities that were struggling to keep up with the debt they took on to bring Bass Pro to town.

The report got a lot of coverage and shifted the frame of the debate completely. People who already thought the whole thing was lunacy now had some evidence. Bass Pro pulled out of the deal less than two months after we released the report. That opened up a much more open and participatory process around waterfront development.

AV: Where does PAI get its funding from? How can people make a contribution?

Connor: We’re a nonprofit and receive funding from foundations, nonprofits, unions, and individuals from around the country. We’re especially grateful for the support (financial, moral, and otherwise) that we receive from Buffalonians, and we’re having our annual celebration and fundraiser, Pie for PAI, Thursday, April 17th at Allen Street Hardware Cafe beginning at 6pm. We provide the pie, you provide a donation. You can also donate online at our website: www.public-accountability.org.

AV: PAI could be headquartered anywhere in the country—why Buffalo?

Connor: I came here for a visit and fell in love with the city six years ago, and have been here ever since. That’s a big reason why we are here. It’s a beautiful, livable city and I’ve found an amazing community here. There’s a great sense of possibility, and lots of people are trying to make things happen, which is energizing. That kind of thing can get crowded out in other cities. The affordability and the underdog sensibility make it a great fit for us as an organization.

Buffalo has taught us a lot about how the global economy works, and I think that analysis guides us and creates urgency in our work. The city is seeing more investment and listicle cameos than when I first arrived, which is great, but it is also important that the work of rebuilding the economy does not become the work of rebuilding the economy for the one percent. I think it’s crucial that we ensure that reinvestment in Buffalo happens in a way that is equitable and just, and I hope that PAI can continue to play a role in that work.

AV: How can the 99 percent take action? How can they aid in research on the one percent?

Connor: We built LittleSis.org to facilitate collaborative research on the one percent. You can sign up, start making edits to the database, and also learn how to do the research by reading our blog and our reports and following us on social media. The research lays the groundwork for strategic action and impact. Even if you aren’t interested in doing the research, I think that it’s important to understand the larger analysis, to get curious about the role that corporate power and big money plays in our democracy, and to get organized around challenging that power.



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