Activists Gather To Map Pittsburgh’s ‘Power Elite’ This Weekend

Sep 29, 2016

When Erie native Ida Tarbell was investigating John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company more than a century ago, she had to crisscross the country to search through public records and interview sources in person.

Her 19-part series in McClure’s magazine, titled The History of the Standard Oil Co., is credited as the first example of investigative journalism and had a direct influence on the 1909 antitrust lawsuit that eventually broke up the company.

But modern day muckrakers can launch their investigations from the comfort of their own homes. Or, in the case of Sunday’s Mapping Pittsburgh’s Power Elite event hosted by the Thomas Merton Center, a downtown conference room.

“When you start looking at politicians or corporate board members or lobbyists you can quickly notice that they often share social lives in public ways, like maybe they’re part of the same social clubs,” said organizer Gabriel McMorland. “There’s a lot of overlap in corporate board members, so the CEO of one company might be on the board of another company, or someone might be on four different boards once they’ve retired.”

McMorland said they will post the results of the mapping activity on the website LittleSis.org, which was conceived of as the opposite of “Big Brother.”

“Instead of watching down, it’s watching up at the powers that be,” said site co-founder Kevin Connor, who is also director of the Public Accountability Initiative.

The Public Accountability Initiative researched and publicized the connections between the Heinz Endowments and the oil and gas industry.
Credit Public Accountability Initiative

In June 2013, the PAI publicized the ties former president of the Heinz Endowments Robert F. Vagt had to the oil and gas industry. Vagt served as president of the Endowments from 2008 and 2014, during which time he also sat on the board of and  owned stock in pipeline company Kinder Morgan. The Heinz Endowments was instrumental in creating and funding the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which aims to develop “rigorous performance standards for sustainable shale development and a commitment to continuous improvement to ensure safe and environmentally responsible development of our abundant shale resources.”

Connor said Vagt’s involvement with the three organizations created a conflict of interest, because he stood to benefit from increased oil and gas exploration in the region.

By October 2013, Vagt had announced he’d step down from his post at the Heinz Endowments, which he did in January 2014. By May 2014, the Endowments severed their funding ties with the Center.

“LittleSis is really meant to facilitate the process of bringing transparency to these power structures, but also providing research and information that can support challenges to that power structure, to correct the balance of power in the country,” he said.

McMorland said the only requirement for attending Sunday’s event is a healthy sense of curiosity. Participants will learn how to find information about board members of corporations and non-profits and track campaign donations and will then split into groups based on their interests.

“Maybe a couple people will be really interested in looking at the board of UPMC, or maybe some students want to look at their university trustees, or someone is really interested in who’s connected to different fracking companies in the region or different real estate developers,” he said.

The event takes place Sunday, Oct. 2 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Allegheny County Human Services building at 1 Smithfield Street in downtown Pittsburgh.