Tea Party Senate Candidate Mike Lee Tried to Dump 1,600
Tons of European Nuclear Waste on Utah
With an assist from FreedomWorks, Mike Lee grabbed
Utah's Senate nomination from incumbent Bob Bennett. Now
he shows he's not a states' rights kind of guy.
By Andrew Belonsky
September 23, 2010
Dick Armey and his political organizing group,
FreedomWorks, have been working overtime to convince Tea
Party supporters they're invested in the movement's
"common sense" approaches on states' rights, strict
constitutionalism and protecting Main Street from Wall
Street. FreedomWorks' ties to Big Energy run deep,
however, and by throwing their weight behind the group's
endorsed Utah Senate candidate, Mike Lee, Tea Party
adherents are inadvertently backing a candidate who
tried to bury 1,600 tons of European nuclear waste in
what some call their sovereign state. FreedomWorks and
Lee, put simply, are capitalizing on Tea Party anger for
their own interests.
FreedomWorks' PAC, dormant since 2000, was reborn for
this year's midterm elections, funneling about $24,000
to Tea Party candidates, including little-known
Senatorial hopeful Lee, who has received a total of
$13,610 in contributions and independent expenditures,
far more than boldfaced rabble-rousers like Sharron
Angle and Pat Toomey. But direct campaign contributions
are only a part of the many rewards Senate candidates
could reap from a FreedomWorks endorsement; the
organization expects to spend $5 million in the midterm
elections for get-out-the-vote and voter-education
campaigns, according to a strategy memo obtained by the
Huffington Post's Sam Stein.
It was FreedomWorks that advanced Lee's successful
charge to unseat incumbent Bob Bennett, a three-term
Republican senator -- by helping to pack the Utah state
GOP convention with Tea Party activists. (In Utah,
convention delegates get first shot at determining the
Republican candidate; the primary race is run between
candidates getting less than 60 percent of the
"There was a misperception that Bennett was a
conservative," FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon told
me of his group's Lee endorsement. "But he was part of
the machine, not a true-blue conservative. You're not
going to beat the establishment unless everyone's
pulling the same way, and we decided to take a chance."
But, like Bennett's, Lee's career also unfolded within
the proverbial machine.
Oil in Their Veins
Energy and oil flow through FreedomWorks' veins. The
political organizing group was born from a schism within
the group Citizens for a Sound Economy, founded with
funding from conservative oil man David Koch (a
principal in Koch Industries, the second-largest
privately held corporation in the U.S., and who is now
the big wallet behind another Tea Party-aligned
astroturf group, the Americans for Prosperity
Foundation). What's more, FreedomWorks' chairman and
spiritual leader, former House Speaker Armey spent three
years of his post-Congress career lobbying for Irving
Oil, owner of Canada's largest oil refinery.
Armey sees no moral hazard in his work on behalf of Big
Energy: he once told Congress that human beings, quite
simply, lack the power to destroy the planet. "I take it
as an article of faith," Armey asserted, "if the lord
God almighty made the heavens and the Earth, and he made
them to his satisfaction and it is quite pretentious of
we little weaklings here on earth to think that, that we
are going to destroy God's creation."
FreedomWorks' connections with the energy industry don't
end with Armey, of course: board chair C. Boyden Gray, a
card-carrying member of the Federalist Society, was the
Bush administration's Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy
Diplomacy, and now keeps busy with his eponymous law
firm, Gray & Schmitz LLP, which made $20,000 last year
lobbying for Constellation Energy, a company that
operates nuclear facilities here in the States. And that
brings us back to Lee, whose work with nuclear waste
management company EnergySolutions squares quite nicely
with FreedomWorks' money-generating mission.
Lee looks like an ideal Tea Party candidate: he loathes
"Obamacare," supports term limits and regularly gripes
about porous borders that threaten national security.
Perhaps most notably, Lee opposes funding for the
Troubled Asset Recovery Program known as TARP, which
incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Bennett supported, a move
that garnered him plenty of right-wing vitriol which
FreedomWorks' operatives happily fueled during the
state's Republican convention.
The son of Rex E. Lee, who worked as Ronald Reagan's
solicitor general, candidate Mike Lee followed in his
father's footsteps by studying constitutional law at
Brigham Young University, where his father also served
as university president. After graduating, Lee went to
work first as a law clerk for Utah Judge Dee Benson, and
later for future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who
was at that time sitting on the U.S. Court of Appeals,
Third Circuit, in New Jersey. From Alito and the Garden
State, Lee returned to Utah and became Republican Gov.
Jon Huntsman's general counsel.
In the summer of 2007, Lee took his expertise to Howrey
LLP, an international law firm that made a total of $5
million lobbying for the tobacco industry in 2003 and
2004. During his time at the firm, Lee has worked on
behalf of EnergySolutions, which sued the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission and Utah for the right to import
and store nuclear waste from Italy.
Utah officials -- and 76 percent of the public --
objected to EnergySolutions' plan to dump 1,600 tons of
Italian waste in their backyard. The state of Utah
argued that the materials exceeded its pre-determined
radioactive limit, which only allows low-level "Class A"
materials. The Italian materials were of a higher grade,
Class B and C. Lee and his peers claimed that
EnergySolutions could bring the levels down by mixing
the waste with lower, Class A materials, a process whose
safety raises serious concerns for nuclear experts.
"The average concentration of radioactivity has to be
certain, but can still have highly radioactive hot
spots. If future generations build on that site, they're
in jeopardy," said Mary Olson from the Nuclear
Information Research Service.
You Tell Me It's the Constitution
In addition to opposing the radioactive level of the
Italian waste, Utah officials, including Democratic U.S.
Rep. Jim Matheson, who last year introduced a federal
bill that would ban foreign waste, also argued that
international refuse strained the state's capacity to
contain domestic materials. EnergySolutions was trying
to trump the NRC's, and therefore Utah's, decision-
But according to Lee and EnergySolutions' attention-
deflecting Tea Party-ready defense, the issue was less
about safety or the state's power and more about
constitutional principles: the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission says that states can only determine the type
of materials they store, not whence they came.
The federal government, meanwhile, regulates foreign
trade, meaning Washington, not Salt Lake City, had power
over the Italian waste decision. Since they've already
agreed to bring in nuclear materials, Lee argued, the
state has no right "to pick and choose the sources from
which it takes that waste."
"[The litigation] focused not on whether it was a good
idea to bring that material in, but what government has
the authority to do it," Lee said during a radio
interview earlier this year. "It's only the federal
government that can decide whether or not material can
be imported." When asked later whether his case would
"force" Utah to take unwanted materials, Lee replied,
"Correct." States' rights go right out the window and
the federal government, anathema to the Tea Party, comes
out on top.
Lee and FreedomWorks' true business interests, as
opposed to Tea Party ideas, become more clear in
FreedomWorks' spokesman Brandon's other explanation for
their endorsement: "Lee, the first candidate to sign our
Contract from America." That rigid document demands that
signatories support "all-of-the-above" energy reform, a
vague reference to the American Energy Act introduced in
June of last year by House Minority Leader John Boehner.
While the act concerns hot-button issues like cap-and-
trade and offshore drilling, it also tips the scales in
the nuclear industry's favor.
For example, the act allows the secretary of Department
of Energy to sign contracts with private companies such
as EnergySolutions, and goes on to insist the NRC "may
not deny an application for a license, permit, or other
authorization... on the grounds that sufficient capacity
does not exist, or will not become available" for
already authorized sites.
In other words, EnergySolutions, whose PAC has donated
$138,000 to Republican candidates this election season,
would, under a Republican administration, be set up
nicely for government contracts, even if it's above
capacity for the work being contracted. The secretary of
energy holds all the cards, and the Tea Party's idea of
limited government goes straight out the window.
Lee apparently wants to avoid the EnergySolutions
controversy -- repeated calls and emails to his campaign
went unanswered. While the company dropped its Italy
waste bid in July, mere weeks after Lee won his party's
nomination, new suits have since been filed against
EnergySolutions, including one by shareholders who claim
executives inflated business prospects to elevate stock
prices before selling off their own shares before a
In the world of Mike Lee and FreedomWorks, state-based
rights, limited federal government and constitutional
integrity are valid only to a point, and cease to matter
when money's at stake. If Lee comes out on top, so too
do energy companies, leaving the rank-and-file to deal
with the ramifications.
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