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Support Snafu 

Many of Rosemont Copper's 'partners' say they're no such thing

In Rosemont Copper's alternate reality, a nature-adoring mine has already become fact, and big-money jobs lurk just over the hill—in this case, in the Santa Rita Mountains south of town.

Within such mystical realms, appearance is everything. For instance, Canadian investment firm Augusta Resource Corp. must convince financial backers that its Rosemont Copper subsidiary is more than just a shiny website and a few suits.

It must also persuade locals that a multitude of their fellow citizens likewise inhabit this magical world. Not surprisingly, Augusta employs a small army of inventive public-relations folks and, on occasion, more than a little skullduggery.

Which brings us to the "partners." On its website (rosemontcopper.com), Rosemont details its plans to pull copious amounts of copper from an open pit in the Santa Ritas when (not if) it gets a green light from the adjacent Coronado National Forest—upon which tailings would be dumped—and a slew of federal regulatory agencies.

Meanwhile, the company's public-relations posse doggedly spreads the notion that this mine is a fait accompli, and that Rosemont Copper has become a bona fide community member. One pillar of this strategy involves spreading small donations throughout town—or proffering the occasional volunteer—and then listing the recipients on Rosemont Copper's website under "partnerships."

The message couldn't be more explicit: These organizations, from Tohono Chul Park and Arizona Opera to the Casa de los Niños child-abuse crisis center, symbolize Rosemont's support across Tucson.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines partner as "a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, esp. in a business or company with shared risks and profits," or, "either of two people dancing together or playing a game or sport on the same side."

In truth, Rosemont may just be gaming the term: Almost without exception, organizations listed under "partnerships" say they take no stance on the mine project. Some contend they know little about it, while others apparently have no connection to Rosemont whatsoever.

Many organizations seemed unaware that their names were even listed as partnerships; several were less than pleased about being slipped into the online queue.

At least one, the Arizona Foster Care Review Board, a government agency, wanted its name off the list posthaste. "We've asked them to remove us as a partner," says the board's Caroline Lautt-Owens. "I'm not exactly sure why we're listed, but I can tell you that the Foster Care Review Board is a volunteer-based program, and we have over 500 volunteers across the state. I know that our Tucson office had a volunteer at one point who worked for Rosemont."

Lautt-Owens says that recipients such as her agency were initially noted more innocuously on Rosemont's website. But after being contacted by the Weekly, she took another glance. "I saw how we were listed as more of a partner, and that concerned me, because that almost looked like there was a true partnership. ... Is the perception that it's more than volunteers? Is the perception that they're somehow giving us money?"

Even after a bit of research, an Arizona Opera staffer remains baffled about how her organization landed on Rosemont's list. "We have no record at all of ever working with the Rosemont Copper mine," says development and external affairs director Mindy Riesenberg. "We know nothing about it. I know nothing about the mine, and we are completely uninvolved with them."

But at least one organization, the Perimeter Bicycling Association of America—sponsor of El Tour de Tucson—embraces Rosemont's support. Pointing to more than $20,000 in annual contributions, Perimeter president Richard DeBernardis calls the company "one of my top sponsors. ... I don't have a problem with Rosemont Copper. I wouldn't be dealing with a sponsor I had a problem with."

And at the Tohono Chul Park nature preserve on Tucson's northwest side, executive director Christine Conte tersely clarifies the connection. "We are not a partner with Rosemont Copper," she says, noting that in 2008, the company donated $500 for a geology wall at the park. "They have not given anything since, and what they have done does not qualify as a partnership."

Still others, such as the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Casa de los Niños, simply accept Rosemont's money while claiming neutrality. "As an organization, we have no opinion and take no stand on that," says Casa executive director Susie Huhn. "I'm not making an approval statement about whether they should be able to mine in Arizona or not."

When I contacted Rosemont Copper and requested to speak with a company official about these "partnerships," I instead received a call back from Strongpoint, one of Rosemont's hired PR firms. When I asked Strongpoint vice president Jan Howard how organizations such as the Arizona Opera became listed as partners despite no apparent Rosemont ties, she promised an answer.

That answer never came. Nor has Howard explained why others such as Tohono Chul Park and the Foster Care Review Board found themselves on the list, a designation they obviously opposed. Howard did say that donation recipients received "correspondence" explaining how their names would be used.

Our request for a copy of that correspondence also went unanswered. Instead, we received a statement from Rosemont vice president Kathy Arnold, who described my inquiry into Rosemont's so-called partners as "pathetic."

Critics might tap that very term to describe Rosemont's string of misleading PR efforts, tracing back to when the company packed public hearings with mine supporters—who merely turned out to be hungry fellows lured by the promise of cheap T-shirts, a free meal and jobs that have not materialized.

Or the "surveys" distributed by another Rosemont PR firm that touted the mine's potential. The surveys asked readers to check the box supporting Rosemont, or another requesting more information. There was no box for opposing the project.

Next came the alleged letters of support for Rosemont that blanketed Tucson in 2010. Although made to appear as if they came from various neighborhoods, the testimonials were actually concocted by company PR hacks, complete with fake signatures.

The "partners" snafu only deepens Rosemont's substantial credibility gap, and may prove self-defeating, according to Tiffany Gallicano, an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Oregon. "One of the worst things you can do," she says, "is alienate organized groups of people by pretending that you have their support without their permission."

She calls it green-washing "by pretending to have support that you don't have. It's also 'astro-turfing,' which means fake grassroots."

Either way, Gallicano says, "It's a huge abuse of trust."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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