In yet another absurd twist to the continuing furore over the proposal to build an offshore wind farm off the eastern US seaboard, the author of a fraudulent press release intended to cast dispersions on the project developer has revealed himself. John Donelan, a $50,000-a-year officer and co-founder of the anti-wind Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and a former employee of the Cape Cod Times, admitted to a reporter of that paper that he had submitted the false release to an online news service.
The purported press release, sent to the Boston-based Statehouse News Service on January 29, claimed to be from a Cape Cod businessman, Brian Urban. It contained alleged "quotes" by Urban and seriously maligned the business reputation of the developer of the 130-turbine offshore wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound, Jim Gordon of Cape Wind Associates (Windpower Monthly, March 2003). The document also claimed that Urban would not honour an alleged "contract" between his company and Cape Wind because of a lawsuit regarding the construction of a hotel, filed against Gordon in the neighbouring state of Rhode Island. Urban has denied any knowledge of a press release and making any statements regarding Gordon or his business reputation.
When the story broke in early February, several officers for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound vehemently denied that anyone from their organisation had participated in the scheme. Gordon hired an international internet investigation firm, which followed a trail which ultimately led to John Donelan. Donelan, 33, first denied to the Cape Cod Times having sent the e-mail, but later on the same day admitted to the action. He said he had acted alone. He reportedly told the newspaper: "I let my emotions get the best of me."
Gordon and Cape Wind Associates have filed a civil action against Donelan for issuing a fraudulent press release. The complaint accuses the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound of a "campaign of disinformation" which has repeatedly "engaged in dirty tricks and made false statements" about Cape Wind, its principals and the Cape Wind Project.
"Those dirty tricks include publication of a viewshed map purporting to show locations on Cape Cod and the Islands from which the Cape Wind Project's wind turbines will be visible (which included locations from which it is not even possible to see the ocean); distributing 100,000 flyers to Cape Cod residents falsely depicting the footprint of the Cape Wind Project at approximately three times its actual size." Donelan has since hired an attorney and declines to answer questions.
Last month, Cape Wind initiated a discovery process -- a legal term meaning the company will try to acquire relevant documents and conduct depositions of Donelan and others who may have been involved in the writing and sending of the "press release." Gordon says Cape Wind will pursue the issue as far as possible to find out as much as possible. "The principals of this company have worked for over 29 years to build a reputation for integrity and fair business dealings. When we saw this fabricated press release, it hurt," he says. "Right now, our company is interested in finding out the facts of this incident, who was involved. We just want the truth to come out."
Gordon says he has had a hard time getting his project discussed on Cape Cod in a fair and honest manner. "In the complaint we have alleged a pattern of misinformation and dirty tricks. In some ways this group has helped to shape the public perception of this project on Cape Cod."
The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound was formally founded in May, 2002. Initially the director was a local public relations consultant, Isaac Rosen. The organisation was extremely well-financed, with one unnamed donor providing nearly $100,000 in the first year of operations. Several others provided five figure donations.
Rosen stepped down as director last fall. Susan Nickerson, whose family has a long history on Cape Cod dating back to the earliest years of English colonisation, assumed the directorship. Nickerson was previously the head of a local environmental group that worked quite successfully to acquire and protect large amounts of land on Cape Cod. A major park in the county is named after an ancestor.
Under Nickerson's leadership, the alliance seems to be committed to a greater degree of accuracy, but many question whether she will be able to bring the free-wheeling actions of some members under control. When the Donelan issue broke, Nickerson initially denied that anyone else in her organisation had been involved in the fraud. She said she would not ask board members about their involvement, as she did not think it necessary. She also accused Gordon of filing the legal suit in order to get press attention. Later, as the uproar continued, she said she would consider launching an internal investigation.
As this bitter controversy rages on, Massachusetts' elected officials last month held a public hearing at Boston's State House to discuss the merits of the proposed project. Massachusetts state Senator Robert O'Leary, a long-time project opponent, told listeners the offshore wind power station will not provide enough benefits to offset its negative aspects. Massachusetts state Representative Matthew Patrick countered by saying the project will provide roughly 75% of Cape Cod's electricity requirements.
While the hearing was occurring inside the State House, both sides were holding public rallies outside. About 300 people attended the rally in support of the project, while roughly 45 people, including O'Leary, attended the opposition rally.
Meanwhile, no one knows exactly what the people of Cape Cod really think about the wind project. A number of polls, all of which are questionable, have been discussed, but because the local news coverage of the issues has been tainted, the situation remains quite murky.
The director of the Cape Cod Technology Council, Spyro Mitrokostas, says that attitudes towards the project depend a great deal on demographics. "Those who have been here 40, 50 or more years kind of take it in stride," he says. "Also, the further you are from the project, the likelier you are to support it. There's a middle ground of people who could go either way at some point. They're just sort of waiting it out." Mitrokostas, who grew up on Cape Cod, personally supports the project. At this point, if the misinformation ends and people begin to get more accurate facts, opinions could change.
Publicly, many politicians in the state oppose the project. Mitrokostas says this may be due to the opposition of Democratic US Senator Ted Kennedy, who possesses -- and wields -- an enormous amount of political power from the local level all the way up to national level. "The other politicians all say: If we support this project, where does it leave us if Senator Kennedy doesn't want this thing approved?" he says. "At this point, it's way too complicated. I can't keep score to predict which way things will fall."
Nevertheless, says Mitrokostas, he does know one thing for certain: "It's about winning and losing now. It's not about right or wrong."