- Son of the late Robert F. Kennedy
- Environmental activist
- President of the Waterkeeper Alliance
- Senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council
Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr. is a political and environmental activist, a radio talk show host, and the son of former U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He is also the nephew of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy and former President John F. Kennedy.
Born January 17, 1954, Kennedy was the third of eleven children. After battling an addiction to heroin as a teenager, he went on to graduate from Harvard College in 1976 with a BA in American history and literature. He then earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Virginia Law School. He later studied at the Fabian-socialist London School of Economics and earned a Master’s Degree in environmental law from Pace University School of Law in White Plains, New York (where today he is a clinical professor and supervising attorney at the school’s Environmental Litigation Clinic). After passing the New York bar exam, he secured employment as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
Kennedy’s drug problems resurfaced in 1984, when he was arrested and charged with heroin possession. As part of a plea bargain arrangement, he was sentenced to 800 hours of community service, which he worked off by volunteering at the Hudson River Foundation, an organization that was later absorbed by the Hudson Riverkeepers. This experience introduced Kennedy to the environmentalist movement.
Many such “riverkeeper,” “waterkeeper,” and “baykeeper” groups already existed, viewing themselves as a “neighborhood watch” whose mission was to spot polluters and enforce environmental laws. Kennedy in 1999 created an umbrella organization (with himself as President) called the Waterkeeper Alliance, which has grown into a network of more than 120 member groups.
Around the year 2000, Kennedy began organizing a collection of trial lawyer firms, roughly half of which were involved in lawsuits against tobacco companies, to sue giant pork producers and processors such as Smithfield, Premium Standard, Bell Farms, Cargill, Land O’Lakes, and Hormel. Each of the law firms committed itself to an initial “ante” of $50,000 to work with Kennedy.
Kennedy exhorted the law firms to work with environmental groups in aggressively monitoring and reporting cases where even the tiniest amount of material from pork farms or processing facilities might contaminate a river, stream, lake, bay or coastline. Kennedy would then use his celebrity status to publicize these cases and their alleged risks to human health, in hopes of creating a public and political environment conducive to winning massive lawsuits.
In January 2001, Kennedy estimated the potential “damages” that could be collected from the pork industry at somewhere between 9 and 13 billion dollars — a large percentage of which the victorious trial lawyers could rake off for themselves. Kennedy discussed this prospect at a January 11, 2001 trial-lawyer gathering in North Carolina, where he was the keynote speaker.
The Waterkeeper legal machine initially filed suits in North Carolina, Missouri, and Florida seeking triple damages under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statutes that were written to combat organized crime. When the first of these cases was thrown out of court in North Carolina in March 2001, an undaunted Kennedy told the Associated Press: “We have lawyers with the deepest pockets, and they’ve agreed to fight the industry to the end. We’re going to go after all of them.”
After repeated attempts by Kennedy and his lawyer allies to use the RICO statutes against pork producers, Chief U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich declared in writing: “After detailing the reasons why Plaintiffs did not have a claim under RICO … Plaintiffs again brought a RICO claim, against this court’s advice.” Kennedy’s lawsuit, she continued, had “failed to state anything at all, except conclusory allegations that have no support.”
Kennedy and his fellow lawyers have also gone after the pharmaceutical company Bayer for the purported downstream impact of its livestock antibiotic Baytril. They allege that residues of the prescription drug pass through the animals and into rivers and ground water. The health effects of this are extremely difficult to either prove or disprove, but, as with tobacco, such lawsuits can be launched hundreds of times until a plaintiff eventually finds a sympathetic judge and jury.
The chief funders of Waterkeeper Alliance are trial lawyers who wish to profit from its activism. The organization also has received money from the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, controlled by Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Yet another source of revenue is the Kennedy-founded bottled water company, Keeper Springs, whose profits go to Waterkeeper Alliance.
In 2000 Kennedy campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
During the summer of 2001 Kennedy was sentenced to 30 days in prison for trespassing on military property during a protest at the U.S. Naval bombing range at Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Kennedy has called for moving America away from its dependence on fossil fuels like oil and coal, to “clean, renewable resources” like solar energy and wind power. But in 2003, when investors sought permission to build giant modern wind turbines miles off the coast of Cape Cod that could cleanly generate a significant fraction of all the electricity needed in New England, Kennedy opposed the project because some of the turbines would have been distantly visible on the horizon from the Kennedy family home at Hyannis.
In April 2004 Kennedy appeared for the first time as co-host of a weekend radio talk show “Champions of Justice” on the self-identified “liberal” network Air America Radio.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in August 2005, Kennedy penned an article blaming Republicans for supporting what he considered to be anti-environment measures that had helped create the atmospheric conditions which gave rise to Katrina. Wrote Kennedy:
“[President] Bush said he opposed mandatory CO2 caps, due to ‘the incomplete state of scientific knowledge’ about global climate change. Well, the science is clear. This month, a study published in the journal Nature. . . linked the increasing prevalence of destructive hurricanes to human-induced global warming. Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which [Republicans] have encouraged. Our destructive addiction has given us a catastrophic war in the Middle East and – now — Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children.”
“Barack Obama is a transformational figure in American history who’s been able to excite the same intensity of feeling among Americans as I saw during my father’s 1968 campaign and my uncle John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign…. A sophisticated, well-crafted energy policy designed to de-carbonize America is the centerpiece of Sen. Barack Obama’s domestic economic package…. Obama understands, as John McCain does not, that an intelligent energy policy is also the natural fulcrum for U.S. foreign policy and national security.”
At an April 7, 2015 screening of an anti-vaccination film titled Trace Amounts — the story of a man claiming to have developed major neurological symptoms after he received a vaccine containing the preservative thimerosal — Kennedy said: “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.” Further, he warned that public health officials “can put anything they want in that vaccine and they have no accountability for it.”