Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound’s associate director, John Donelan, resigned amid the scandal
Passionate about keeping his native Nantucket Sound free of whirling wind turbines, John Donelan admits he went too far when he e-mailed a phony press release designed to smear the company looking to erect 130 towers within sight of Cape Cod’s shore.
When executives at Boston-based Cape Wind Associates learned of Donelan’s chicanery they exposed the bogus release — just as they had his out-of-scale map that purported to show the wind farm occupying a massive portion of Nantucket Sound.
Cape Wind also demanded Donelan’s resignation from the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a Hyannis-rooted advocacy group he helped found, and where he served as associate director with a $50,000 annual salary.
But that wasn’t all. Cape Wind in March filed a lawsuit at Suffolk Superior Court in Boston that accuses Donelan of libel, and trying to damage the business relationship the company has with other businesses and government regulatory agencies.
By the time Donelan resorted to outright lying last summer, the battle between the Alliance and Cape Wind had heated up and captured public attention.
The Cape Wind proposal includes construction of 130 wind turbines, clustered on a 24-square mile patch of sea, each 417 feet tall and together providing enough electrical energy to power The Cape and Islands.
Standing on Craigville Beach in Centerville one day last August, Donelan pointed to the Cape Wind test turbine, about 10 miles away. “That one isn’t even 200 feet tall but we can see it from the beach,” he said. “The others would be twice as high and some of them would only be six miles from shore, so we’d certainly be able to see them.”
Donelan asked his wife to marry him on Craigville Beach, just across the road from the Ocean View Motel. “That’s one of the reasons I want it to stay just like it is — beautiful — which is why so many people come here,” he said.
Weeks earlier, Cape Wind supporters had attacked Donelan for distributing a map on which a dotted line indicated the perimeter of the wind project. Even then Donelan admitted the map was out of scale and not meant as a precise cartographic representation.
Under pressure by Cape Wind, Donelan and his group acknowledged the printing error and publicly apologized for any wrongful conclusions people may have drawn from it, but the wind project proponents were still seething.
Mark Rodgers, communications director for Cape Wind, at the time described the map as the latest weapon in the Alliance’s misinformation campaign.
“They knowingly put that map into mass distribution. Tens of thousands of copies went out as inserts in all the Cape newspapers,” he said shortly after the map’s release. “It might be in 100,000 households. That bothers me. It also bothers me that they at first defended its accuracy, but it’s not even close.”
Cape Wind distributed a corrected version of the map, showing the dotted line drawn by the Alliance and superimposing on it the true wind farm perimeter.
Throughout the winter the public relations battle continued, but the powder keg didn’t explode until Jan. 29, the day Donelan wrote and e-mailed a press release to the State House News Service in Boston.
Donelan had designed the press release so that whoever received it would assume it was from a company called DT Converting Technologies. The release announced it had severed its business ties to Cape Wind because the latter had legal problems in Rhode Island.
Upon learning of the situation, representatives from Cape Wind and DT Converting Technologies (now called Sencorp) asserted that no deals existed between the two companies, but the damage was already done.
James Gordon, president of Cape Wind, hired Kroll Inc., a worldwide detective agency specializing in electronic tracking. It soon became clear that Donelan was responsible for the press release. The ploy had backfired.
Cape Wind filed suit against Donelan, who subsequently submitted his resignation. Donelan told reporters his zeal to preserve the region’s natural beauty unduly influenced his decision. As he put it, “I regret casting any negative light on legitimate opposition to the project, but I let my emotions get the best of me and didn’t act in a professional manner. I decided the right thing to do is to acknowledge my mistakes and resign.”
Gordon said the lawsuit does not seek specific damages. However, it has charged that Donelan’s fake e-mail was part of a pattern of dirty tricks used by the Alliance.
“Opponents that infect the debate with misinformation and dirty tricks to sway opinion do a disservice to the public and to themselves,” Gordon said.
Since the lawsuit was filed, a judge issued a restraining order against Donelan, instructing him not to destroy or alter any of his computer files or correspondence related to the Alliance.
Gordon, meanwhile, has insinuated that others may have been involved in the smear campaign, and that the restraining order preserves the evidence — just in case.
David Liscio is a photojournalist based in Nahant, Mass., and a contributing writer at Soundings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.