Burning Man Is Fighting to Keep Its Financial Info From Someone It Claims Is a Sheriff's Agent

In a court filing, Burning Man accused the Bureau of Land Management of planning to turn over confidential information to an “agent” of the local sheriff’s department.
April 13, 2020, 6:52pm
The Man burns at Burning Man 2009; image shows fire and smoke around its skeletal structure
Burning Man 2009/ Getty Images 

Burning Man is suing the Bureau of Land Management to keep financial information about its 2019 event private, court records show.

In a filing, the Burning Man Project—the 501c3 organization behind the event—says a Freedom of Information Act request was filed with the BLM requesting information about their 2019 gross revenue. That request, it says, was made by David Skelton, a Nevada resident whom Burning Man calls “an agent” of the local sheriff’s office. Burning Man is particularly concerned that Skelton’s FOIA request could reveal how many tickets of each type it sold in 2019, which is, the filing states, “tantamount to public disclosure of Burning Man’s entire pricing structure, which is one of Burning Man’s most sensitive and private business details.”

The suit is the latest volley in a multi-sided war, combining long-simmering tensions between local law-enforcement agencies and Burning Man as well as between the organization and the BLM. In December 2019, a Burning Man subsidiary, Black Rock City LLC, sued the Bureau in federal district court in Washington, alleging that the BLM routinely overcharges the organization for a permit for the event. This amounted, the suit said, to “ongoing, unlawful and prejudicial conduct towards (Black Rock City LLC) that threatens the viability of the iconic Burning Man event.”

Do you work, or have you worked, for Burning Man? We'd love to talk to you. Contact Anna Merlan at anna.merlan@vice.com.

The complaint was filed in federal court in Northern California on April 12, and was first reported by journalist Darwin Bond Graham of Berkleyside. In it, the Burning Man Project writes that it's required to submit a “gross revenue report” to the BLM, which includes Burning Man’s entire ticket pricing structure, and the number of tickets sold in each category. (There are a variety of tickets, categories, and pre-sales for Burning Man; a standard-issue main sale ticket runs $475). That information, it says, is marked as “for permit acquisition only,” and isn’t supposed to be distributed outside of the BLM.

Enter David Skelton, a Lovelock, Nevada resident whom public records show is currently running for Pershing County Commissioner. (Neither Skelton nor an attorney for the Burning Man Project immediately responded to a request for comment from VICE.) Skelton is also identified in a 2018 news report as “Burning Man critic,” and told News 4 Nevada at the time that he believed event had gotten too big for both the county and the BLM.

“I think even at 50,000 persons, it’s too much for this county to sustain in the long haul unless some things are vastly reworked within the settlement agreement,” Skelton told reporter Debra Reid. “Unless things improve for Pershing County and Pershing County law enforcement, 10,000 people would be the max that we could sustain over a long period of time. I think 100,000 people is beyond what Nevada could handle, not just northern Nevada.”

In its complaint, the Burning Man Project alleges that Skelton is a “serial FOIA requestor” and “has made numerous FOIA requests about Burning Man Events to BLM over the years.” Burning Man is also “informed and believes,” it adds, that Skelton is “the agent of Pershing County’s Sheriff, Jerry Allen.”

Allen became sheriff in 2015, and since that time, Burning Man writes, “has publicly and privately criticized Burning Man regarding a number of purported concerns, including the amount of funding Burning Man provides to Pershing County.”

Burning Man argues that it will suffer “irreparable harm” if its financial information is released via this FOIA request, and adds that it believes the request violates the Federal Trade Secrets Act. It's asking the judge to declare that a decision by the BLM and Nevada Deputy State Director Holly J. Vinall to release the records was unlawful, and to permanently prevent the BLM from releasing these records “in response to the Skelton FOIA Request or otherwise.”

The lawsuit comes at an already curious time in the history of the organization. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burning Man recently announced the event will be online this year (or, as they put it, in The Multiverse). The organization also wrote in an official announcement that while it will provide refunds “to those who need them,” it's also anticipating substantial “belt-tightening measures” to ensure the organization is operational for next year. That, the Burning Man Project wrote, “will require substantial staff layoffs, pay reductions, and other belt-tightening measures. Burning Man Project’s survival is going to depend on ingenuity and generosity. Luckily, our community is rich in both.”

Update, 3:45 P.M. EST:

Skelton confirmed to VICE via email that he's awaiting a FOIA from the BLM, saying it's due on April 20. He said he has been "researching and compiling data" on Burning Man since 2013, adding:

Burning Man believes many thing unsupported by facts. I am interested in the actual facts and BLM is an appropriate source. Burning Man is very protective of its image and seeks to control information and narrative. The concept of Freedom of Information beyond their control is an anathema to Burning Man. Clearly without truthful facts Burning Man can gaslight unchallenged as history has shown.

Skelton added that it is "ludicrous" to call him an "agent" of the Pershing County Sheriff's Office: "I have sourced information from the Washoe County Sheriff's Office (WCSO), Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) and the Pershing County Sheriff's Office (PCSO), BLM, and the BIA. The sheriff has never requested I compile information for him. I share information with Elected Local and State Officials. This doesn't make me their agent."

Skelton said he has provided traffic control in Pershing County as a member of a volunteer civilian organization he referred to as the Posse, adding:

When the Posse is called upon to provide Traffic control, in responding I don the shirt, vest and hat that's as close to being an "agent of Pershing County’s Sheriff" as I could be considered and only then. The accusation is ludicrous. Could any citizen, resident, voter that is involved, concerned for the welfare of their County, active in the community then be considered a "agent of Pershing County’s Sheriff" if they disagree with the BMP?

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