When North Carolina Democrats appointed board members of the Golden LEAF Foundation -- a state-charted philanthropy giving out money from the state's tobacco settlement -- conservatives lashed out at the foundation for being a "web of political cronyism" with a board "packed with generous campaign contributors."
But when the state's new Republican leadership appointed Art Pope, one of N.C.'s biggest GOP donors and backers of conservative causes, to the Golden LEAF board this week? That, Republicans say, was just a case of finding the best person for the job.
As Facing South revealed in an investigative series about Pope last fall, the Raleigh retail magnate was linked to $2.3 million in election spending to help Republicans in 2010, through outside attack-ad groups like Real Jobs NC and family campaign contributions. The family foundation he runs also supplies more than 90 percent of the money flowing to right-wing groups in North Carolina.
As Bob Hall of the watchdog group Democracy North Carolina said: "He [Pope] is the single biggest patron of the Republican legislature ... He's getting a return on his investment now."
But irony, not hypocrisy, might be the defining characteristic of the state GOP's pick for Golden LEAF's board. That's because for years, the network of conservative North Carolina groups that depend almost entirely on Art Pope's family foundation for survival have sought to eliminate the foundation entirely.
In the media, Pope describes himself as a mere "critic" of Golden LEAF. As Pope said in an interview with WRAL TV, "I personally have at times, as a legislator and a citizen, been critical of specific grants."
But Pope's opposition to Golden LEAF has gone far beyond that; indeed, groups funded and directed by Pope have openly called for putting the foundation completely out of business. For example:
* JOHN W. POPE CIVITAS INSTITUTE: Named after Art's father, Civitas receives more than 97% of its income from Pope's foundation, and Pope sits on their board. Civitas has also led the call for abolishing Golden LEAF: In 2009, Brian Balfour of Civitas launched a two-year crusade against the foundation, dubbing it "a slush fund that needs to be dissolved."
* AMERICANS FOR PROSPERITY: Pope's family foundation is the second-largest institutional backer of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, right behind the Koch brothers, and he's also one of their four National Directors. In its 2011 legislative agenda, AfP North Carolina explicitly called to "End the Golden LEAF Foundation."
* JOHN LOCKE FOUNDATION: As of 2008, the Locke Foundation had received more than $17 million from Pope's foundation -- more than 80 percent of their income -- and Pope sits on their board. The Locke Foundation's editors are on record in favor of destroying Golden LEAF, editorializing in January 2011 that it was one of three state agencies "that should be relegated to the dustbin, their staffs fired, and their revenues returned to the state's General Fund."
The Locke Foundation's position is notable given the group's ties to the tobacco industry. The group has received money from Philip Morris, and a Locke staffer sat on the National Advisory Board of a front-group set up by Phillip Morris called the "National Smokers Alliance."
This helps explain the staunch defense of Big Tobacco by Locke's president John Hood, who in 1994 authored a piece titled "Anti-Smoking War Could Deny Consumers Choice," one in a series of pieces decrying public health rules on smoking and tobacco advertising.
How closely do these views reflect those of Pope himself? As Facing South has documented, Pope enjoys an unusual level of purse-string and organizational power in the groups he backs. In a recent interview, David Riggs of the Pope Foundation even suggested that Art Pope personally hand-picks the lead staff of the groups his foundation funds.
If Pope and the Republicans who appointed him have the best interests of the Golden LEAF Foundation at heart, they have a funny way of showing it.