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Report faults Heinz Endowments head for ties to oil and gas industry

| Sunday, June 16, 2013, 6:33 p.m.

The head of an influential charity is being criticized for his ties to the oil and gas industry, but some experts said the allegations are misguided.

The Public Accountability Initiative, a liberal-leaning group that investigates corporations and businesses, released a report last week claiming that Robert Vagt, president of the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, had not fully disclosed his ties to the oil and gas industry and his membership on the board of Houston-based Kinder Morgan Inc., the largest operator of natural gas pipelines.

The report criticized the Endowments, which are separate from the giant food company, for providing funding for the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which works with the gas drilling industry to reduce pollution.

“I don't think it's a fair criticism,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “There is a lot of work to be done to correct the problems of the gas industry, and sometimes, we get things by vinegar. Sometimes, we get it by honey. And both pathways are acceptable.”

One scientist who has researched the pollution impact of natural gas drilling said the allegations against Vagt are fundamentally different from past Accountability Initiative work that uncovered major universities' reports that did not disclose industry ties. The Endowments doesn't publish scientific reports but rather gives grants to other groups.

The criticism of Vagt “is part of a growing trend to disqualify anything that one side or the other doesn't like,” said Rob Jackson, a Duke University environmental professor who added that the Kinder Morgan tie “is not a deal breaker for me.”

Jackson said that while there are legitimate questions about whether the Sustainable Shale effort will be effective, it openly includes members of the industry. Vagt's industry experience might help the effort, he said.

Jackson and others note that the Endowments have provided tens of millions of dollars in grants to environmental groups and scientists who examine and criticize the fossil fuel industry's effects on public health.

Kevin Connor, director of the Buffalo-based Public Accountability Initiative, wrote in the report that Vagt's presence on the Kinder Morgan board establishes a conflict of interest for Heinz, particularly as it relates to support for the Center for Sustainable Shale.

The Endowments are led by Teresa Heinz Kerry, who has a long history of supporting environmental and liberal causes.

Far from being hidden, Vagt's position with Kinder Morgan has been openly disclosed on that company's website and in national news stories. Vagt's oil and gas industry background is listed on his Heinz Endowment biography and at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he served as president from 1997 until he took the Heinz position in 2008.

An expert on philanthropies said the Accountability Initiative report misses a key point.

“The fact that the president is on the Kinder Morgan board is not really a problem” unless the Endowments do something to specifically benefit Kinder Morgan, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University.

He added that some might see it as an “appearance” of a conflict of interest, and so discussion of the matter is appropriate.

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