Burning Man Sues Feds to Block Release of Financial Records

The Burning Man festival “playa.” (Image by GemGemRemy from Pixabay)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Burning Man organizers sued the Bureau of Land Management on Sunday to block the agency from turning over “confidential financial information” to a fervent critic who claims the annual festival cheats his rural Nevada county out of vital revenue each year.

The Burning Man Project is challenging the bureau’s March 30 decision to disclose information requested by David Skelton, a board member of Pershing County’s Economic Development Authority and 2020 candidate for county commissioner.

Organizers of the annual weeklong festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert turned in reports on their ticket pricing structure, ticket sales and other revenue sources to obtain a special use permit from the Bureau. The reports were marked “Not for Distribution Outside BLM” and handed over with “at least an implied assurance that BLM would maintain the confidentiality,” according to the complaint.

Burning Man insists the reports are exempt from disclosure under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Exemption 4, which covers confidential business information. It also claims that releasing the records would violate the Trade Secrets Act.

“Burning Man will suffer irreparable harm if BLM releases the subject records, and the confidential financial or commercial information therein, to the public and the information thereby becomes available to commercial competitors,” the 13-page complaint states.

Burning Man describes Skelton as a “serial FOIA requester” who is believed to be an agent of Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen, who has “publicly and privately criticized Burning Man regarding a number of purported concerns, including the amount of funding Burning Man provides to Pershing County.”

Reached by phone, Skelton said although he supports the sheriff, he is not an agent of the sheriff. He also defended his “serial FOIA requests” as necessary to combat Burning Man’s alleged lack of transparency and tendency to distort data in a way that minimizes fees paid to the county.

Home to about 6,700 residents, Pershing County’s population increases by more than 70,000 people when the annual festival takes place at the end of each summer. Under the terms of a settlement reached in 2013, Burning Man pays the county a certain amount based on how many people attend each year. The settlement expires in 2023.

Skelton claims event organizers distort the numbers by claiming some 7,000 to 10,000 volunteers who attend each year don’t count. He also believes they may be skewing data in other ways to minimize fees paid to the county.

“They’ve adjusted their numbers so they pay as little as possible and keep that information under wraps,” Skelton said.

According to an Oct. 30, 2019, article by Debra Reid of News4Nevada, Burning Man paid the county $296,627 for its 2019 event in accordance with the terms of the settlement.

Skelton said nearby Carson City and Reno get more money from Burning Man than his county, even though the weeklong festival taxes local law enforcement and usually creates more crime in one week than the county sees during the previous seven to eight months.

“We’re a very small county with limited resources and we just can’t support that kind of event because we’re financially limited to what’s available to us,” Skelton said.

This isn’t the first time Burning Man has gotten tangled in a legal dispute with the Bureau of Land Management. In December last year, Burning Man sued the BLM over its special recreation permit fee, arguing the bureau has been overcharging it for years.

According to that suit filed in District of Columbia federal court, Burning Man paid the bureau more than $18 million from 2015 to 2018. The San Francisco-based arts nonprofit paid $2.95 million for its BLM permit in 2019.

Earlier this year, The Associated Press reported that Burning Man made more than $43 million in ticket sales in 2018 along with $2 million in contributions and other revenue sources, bringing in $46 million total. The nonprofit gave some of its organizers $40,000 raises that year and managed to triple its “rainy day” fund to $10 million over two years. Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell earned $268,000 in 2018, a $7,000 increase from the year prior, according to that report.

Started in 1986 with the burning of a wooden effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, the annual festival moved to Nevada’s Black Rock desert in 1990 and has grown to host more than 70,000 people in a manmade temporary metropolis that espouses values of community, art self-expression and self-reliance.

A Bureau of Land Management spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation, and the Burning Man Project did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment Monday.

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