Who pays for FREE? 

A Bozeman-based group is embroiled in a national controversy over its free trips and private seminars, which critics say are funded by corporate interests, for hundreds of federal judges.

Since 1992, The Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), which Executive Vice President Pete Geddes says is devoted to analyzing environmental issues through a libertarian lens, has paid for hundreds of judges to attend its multi-day junkets, many of which are held at a Gallatin valley ranch. FREE, which is funded largely by foundations but receives 20 percent of its revenues from corporations, has long stated that it pays judges’ airfare, room and board out of donations unconnected to corporations.

But Community Rights Counsel (CRC), a Washington, D.C., environmental law firm, recently released 2004 records from the Exxon Mobil Corporation and Foundation showing that it gave FREE $70,000, with $40,000 specifically earmarked for such seminars.

Geddes insists that the oil company’s records are “simple errors” and that FREE maintains a firewall between corporate money and seminar funding to protect judges from potential conflicts of interest. He says he now regrets his May 25 comment to the Washington Post that “Everyone understands money is fungible,” and reiterates that no corporate money finds its way to judicial seminar expenses. Regardless, he says, judges are wise and mature enough to not be swayed by a free trip or two.

“Federal judges are big boys and big girls and I think it’s nonsensical to think that federal judges can be influenced by coming to our program. They’re used to listening to arguments and sorting the wheat from the chaff,” Geddes says.

That contention isn’t holding much water on Capitol Hill, where questions about undue lobbying influence on Congress are bleeding into the judicial realm. Recent bills propose to either outlaw free trips in favor of publicly funding them, or create an office of inspector general for the judiciary. CRC’s Doug Kendall says the bills demonstrate bipartisan unrest about judicial junkets.

Geddes says FREE supports the notion of publicly funded trips, since it may reinforce the image of judicial integrity.

“Our critics do have a point in terms of the appearance issue,” he says.

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