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CATCH ME IF YOU CAN! Leonardo DiCaprio's foundation, a dark money group and the plot against big oil

Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation was allegedly a 'key supporter' of Sher Edling, which sued oil companies on both state and local governments' behalf
UPDATED AUG 16, 2022
Emails have suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio's non-profit foundation funneled grants through a dark money group (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for Turner)
Emails have suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio's non-profit foundation funneled grants through a dark money group (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for Turner)

Numerous emails have suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio's non-profit foundation funneled grants through a dark money group, which they used to fund lawsuits against oil companies over alleged climate change deception. Correspondence in 2017 claims Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF) was a "key supporter" of Sher Edling, a law firm. Sher Edling has reportedly sued oil companies on both state and local governments' behalf. 

It has been found that Sher Edling's lawsuits were filed with backing from the Collective Action Fund for Accountability, Resilience and Adaptation, which happens to be a fund that dark money group Resources Legacy Fund (RLF) manages, according to Fox News Digital. The publication received the emails by tax-exempt group 'Government Accountability & Oversight' (GAO). RLF's tax filings reportedly showed that between 2017 and 2020, the group contributed over $5.2million to Sher Edling.


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The group does not disclose who its donors are, but GAO obtained the emails through litigation. The emails suggested that that the actor's foundation backed lawsuits brought against major oil companies on behalf of states such as New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Honolulu. Accusing the companies of deceiving the public about climate change, the lawsuits call on fossil fuel companies to take responsibility for rising sea levels.

Emails show that Dan Emmett, a major philanthropist, and Ann Carlson, then a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) climate professor, together helped Sher Edling with its fundraising efforts. Emmett and Carlson reportedly discussed how Sher Edling's director of strategic client relationships Chuck Savitt had asked for support from Emmett. Emmett said that the law firm has already received support from LDF. The email mentions Terry Tamminen, who was the CEO of the DiCaprio foundation at the time.

Carlson is now a senior official in President Biden's administration. At the time, he was serving as the co-director of the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change & the Environment. He still chairs the institute. "Chuck Savitt who is heading this new organization behind the lawsuits has been seeking our support," Emmett wrote in an email to Carlson on July 22, 2017. "Terry Tamminen in his new role with the DiCaprio Foundation has been a key supporter."

Emmett also forwarded a message to Carlson from Savitt, where Savitt sought support. In that particular email, Savitt mentioned that Sher Edling's lawsuits had the support of the RLF managed fund, Collective Action Fund for Accountability, Resilience and Adaptation. "Wanted to let you know that we filed the first three lawsuits supported by the Collective Action Fund on Monday," Savitt wrote to Emmett. "These precedent setting cases call on 37 of the world's leading fossil fuel companies to take responsibility for the devastating damage sea level rise - caused by their greenhouse gas emissions - is having on coastal communities."

DiCarpio's foundation announced it would contribute $20million in grants to a number of different environmental causes just two months after the emails were sent. GAO accessed the announcement through a web archive as it had been removed from the group's website. Mirroring Savitt's language in the email to Emmett, the announcement included a grant to the RLF "to support precedent-setting legal actions to hold major corporations in the fossil fuel industry liable for the effects of climate change pollution". 

"We are proud to support the work of over 100 organizations at home and abroad. These grantees are active on the ground, protecting our oceans, forests and endangered species for future generations – and tackling the urgent, existential challenges of climate change," DiCaprio said while speaking at Yale University at the time. 

In February 2018, Carlson asked Emmett if a person named "Andy" would have "any interest in helping to finance the nuisance litigation". She added that she had spoken to "the lawyers, including Vic Sher, a partner at Sher Edling, and had "continued to be impressed with him." In response, Emmett said she could definitely reach out to 'Andy'. "You can tell him Terry's organization and I are both serious supporters, that you are an advisor, that the science is there, that it could do more for the environment than just about anything going on if it succeeds," Emmett said.

It is not known how much money LFD handed to RLF. However, of the $20million announced in 2017, $3,573,562 was allocated to 'Climate Program', which happens to be the category under which The Collective Action Fund fell. Its 2017 announcement suggested that various other organizations received funding from the foundation under this category.

GAO also raised questions on what it called "double dipping" by Sher Edling in its report on the findings. GAO found that the firm also received "contingency fee" agreements to file the climate lawsuits on behalf of the governmental clients. These fees suggest that Sher Edling would have received payment no matter what the outcome was. 

Law professor emeritus at George Mason University, Michael Kraus, wrote for Forbes in 2020, where he noted that this would mean the firm had two funding sources for the same cases. "Can a non-profit funnel donations to a for-profit law firm that has already determined a different form of compensation?" Kraus wrote. "May a law firm, which could be fabulously enriched on a contingent basis, ethically accept funding that is paid whether or not the client prevails?"

"If legislation through litigation is bad, what to make of legislation through litigation subsidized by taxpayers through charitable donations? We don't have all the answers to these questions yet. I think we deserve them," Kraus added. Further, slamming Washington DC's lawsuit against several of the oil giants such as British Petroleum, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Shell, he said, "The lawsuit is a political attempt to achieve through litigation what the District cannot accomplish through legislation." The GAO also says in its report that this is the reason why some of the lawsuits filed by Sher Edling have faced setbacks in court.

According to the group, the judges concluded that the suits were meant to directly influence federal environment policy. "This led the lawyers and plaintiffs to change tack and insist the cases are really purely local, consumer protection matters," GAO said. While most of the cases are ongoing, two of them involving the California cities of San Francisco and Oakland appear before a federal panel at present.