In an article published online today for Mother Jones, Jonathan Stein reveals a media campaign against President Barack Obama’s choice of Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for what it is: a combination of fear mongering and downright lies.
Stein expertly picks apart the arguments that the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) makes against Sunstein. The group calls Sunstein “a radical human rights activist,” warning meat lovers to “stock their freezers” in anticipation of Sunstein’s approval as regulatory czar.
As one might imagine, the CCF’s arguments against Sunstein are overblown. I suggest you read Stein’s article for more, but suffice it to say that Sunstein eats meat and Stein concludes that “Sunstein may initiate a new regulatory regime that protects consumers, the environment, and, yes, animals at the expense of CCF’s clients. But if he does so, it will likely be at the president’s direction, not his own.”
But the fact that CCF’s argument is a stretch at best may not be the most important part about this story. Sometimes the source of lies is more important than the lies themselves.
According to SourceWatch.org, CCF is “a front group for the restaurant, alcohol and tobacco industries.” CCF, once known as the Guest Choice Network, routinely releases ads attacking animal rights groups, physicians’ and scientists’ organizations, unions, anti-smoking and -alcohol abuse groups and consumer safety organizations, among others. The group lobbies for looser regulation of payday loans and food testing, and regularly attacks scholarly and government studies with twisted logic and outright lies.
As if their words alone weren’t enough to discredit them, you need look no further than their origins for an idea of their slant. CCF was created as a pitch to Philip Morris to replace their failing public relations group. When begging for seed money, CCF founder and president Richard Berman told Philip Morris that the “concept is to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists.”
Philip Morris thought Berman had a great idea, providing the original $600,000 to get the ball rolling in the mid-nineties.
Perhaps the most unfortunate part about CCF’s public reach is that members of the media still consult this clearly biased group for an “alternative view” when scientific studies are released. When a supposedly nonprofit group such as CCF denies the veracity of scientific data, it sounds a lot better than Joe Camel telling us cigarettes are good for your health.
However, it may only be due to lax oversight at the IRS that CCF even retains its status as a 501(c)(3). It seems the group and its affiliates have violated many of the laws that determine nonprofit status.
According to a complaint filed in 2004 with the IRS by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Berman violated the prohibition against electioneering several times in his vitriolic crusade against Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). Berman also violated other nonprofit status laws, including excessive compensation (CREW says he takes 72% of his nonprofits’ earnings via his salary), conflicts of interest (Berman’s for-profit PR firm basically runs his non-profits and reaps the benefits coming from tax-deductable donations) and a general lack of engagement in charitable interests.
Considering the fact that all of Berman’s various “nonprofits” engage in lobbying and obfuscation of truth, their tax-exempt status is baffling. The CREW complaint notes that CCF has “been consistently operated for the benefit of the commercial interests of tobacco, alcohol, and chain restaurant clients… not for the general public’s benefit. In essence, these purportedly nonprofit entities are a mere extension of [Berman's corporate firm] that conduct grassroots lobbying, public relations, and advertising services directed against the charitable and social welfare organizations that oppose the policies and practices of those industries. Such activity is not remotely charitable and requires revocation of CCF’s exempt status.”
Berman has even gone so far as to call CCF a “trade organization” and an “[a]ggressive DC research and communications firm,” characterizations that are clearly not in line with a nonprofit façade.
On the other hand, maybe CCF’s attack on Sunstein is just part of Berman taking cues from Senate Republicans who refuse to work with the new president. After all, last year alone Berman donated $28,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $2,300 to Sen. John McCain.
Berman does a pretty good job keeping donations to CCF and his other “nonprofits” secret. However, the identities of some of his anonymous donors have been leaked. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, CCF’s top contributors in 2000 and 2001 were, unsurprisingly, Coca-Cola, Cargill and Monsanto. Add Philip Morris seed money to that and you have a PR firm pretty well infiltrated by the usual suspects of corporate America.
Considering that, I’d say CCF’s “anti-endorsement” of Sunstein is a good sign. Do we really want a regulatory czar that Rick Berman doesn’t have a problem with?
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS