Sierra Club Snags Big Ten’s Top Lawyer After Leadership Shake-Up

Sierra Club has hired Erica McKinley as its chief legal officer after the environmental group moved to replace most of its senior management within the last year.

McKinley most recently served as the top in-house lawyer for the Big Ten collegiate athletic conference. The Big Ten hired McKinley last year from her role as general counsel for the University of Mississippi.

She takes the top lawyer for a 130-year-old nonprofit that has been a party to enviromental cases that have reached the US Supreme Court.

The Sierra Club announced last August that its longtime executive director Michael Brune would step down at year’s end. Politico reported that Brune’s resignation after 11 years preceded a June 2021 report by an outside consulting firm that detailed claims of workplace discrimination and harassment.

The internal reckoning touched on the controversial past of the Sierra Club’s founder John Muir and also involved allegations about abusing senior staffers and volunteers related to race, sex, and gender, according to The Intercept.

McKinley didn’t respond to a request for comment about the role she assumed in April. Sierra Club Spokesman Adam Bingman confirmed McKinley’s hire.

The New York Times reported earlier this year on the Sierra Club’s transition, one that has led to the appointment of an acting executive director with Ramón Cruz, the president of its board, assuming much of its leadership duties. The executive leadership page of the Sierra Club’s website remains blank.

In April, the Sierra Club suspended the leadership of its Colorado chapter for four years, citing a monthslong review by the national organization that described a “harmful” management culture.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

In-House Changes

The Sierra Club parted ways last year with its former general counsel Philip Eager. Associate general counsel Juliette Hirt has served as acting legal chief for the organization since April 2021, according to her LinkedIn profile. She didn’t respond to a request for comment about McKinley’s hire.

The Sierra Club’s most recent federal tax filing for 2019 shows that it paid roughly $351,000 that year to Brune; nearly $196,000 to Eagle; and more than $250,000 to the organization’s former legal director Patrick Gallagher, who retired in 2021 after leading its litigation team for two decades.

The Sierra Club is the latest high-profile, mission-focused organization to make changes to its legal leadership in the aftermath of internal scandal.

Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid organization, announced last year its hire of a new general counsel following claims of sexual abuse levied against its late co-founder.

The Wounded Warrior Project brought back a former in-house lawyer as its legal chief in 2020 after receiving scrutiny over its spending habits.

And in 2019, the American Red Cross recruited a legal and ethics leader from Walmart Inc. after coming under fire in years prior for its accounting over donations.

Environmental Hires

Other environmental groups have also been adding legal help.

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