Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

The Corporate Bully Whose Front Groups, Willful Distortions and Hate-Mongering Has Poisoned U.S. Politics
: Meet Richard Berman

Big Food’s top flack has pioneered the worst in our political culture.

“Why don’t we know who one of the most powerful people in America is? What he has done? Why '60 Minutes' called him Dr. Evil?” asks Saru Jayaraman, a leader in a growing national movement of restaurant workers demanding better pay and working conditions.

Dr. Evil is Richard Berman, a Washington-based lawyer-turned-hitman for Big Food who pioneered and still deploys many of the most intentionally deceptive, inflammatory and anti-democratic tactics used in corporate propaganda campaigns today. For nearly four decades, Berman’s attacks have tried to smear, discredit and destroy public-interest causes and groups by a toxic brew of industry front groups, distortion-filled attacks, ridicule and bullying to stoke prejudice and hatred as a means of turning the public’s attention and regulators away from his paymasters’ business practices.

Take his effort to cripple the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and defame the character of its CEO, Wayne Pacelle. He ran a television ad during the 2013 Academy Awards telling people not to give to HSUS. He created a YouTube video viewed 1.7 million times calling Pacelle “the Bernie Madoff of the charity world.” He set up a non-profit front group called Humane Watch to undermine donations intended for the HSUS and a website attacking its funding. He even threatened the Better Business Bureau to drop HSUS' accreditation under the business group's Wise Giving Alliance, and then attacked BBB when it refused to do so.

Astute observers have concluded that Berman is guilty of the sins he regularly accuses others of. Legitimate watchdog groups, such as CharityNavigator.org, have characterized his web of non-profit front groups, which take in millions in tax-deductible corporate donations, as the fake charities. Tax law experts contacted by Bloomberg.com said his operation was comparable to Madoff’s, a shell game of financial transfers enriching Berman that likely violated tax laws. Investigative reporters have even traced e-mails from front groups who deny they’re working with him back to his office.   

Can one man really be held responsible for large slices of any era’s excesses, especially in a city as dominated by opportunists as Washington, D.C.? The answer is yes, there are people who are emblematic of political eras. Ronald Reagan was the “Teflon president,” evading criticism that stuck. Lee Atwater was the dark political operator who revived the GOP’s racist attack machinery for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. In Berman’s case, there is a decades-long record of gleefully taking fights into the gutter.

Why would Berman and his backers go after a group like the Humane Society of the U.S., the nation's most effective animal protection group? Or enviromentalists concerned about mercury in tuna? Or nutritionists concerned about trans fat? Or physicians worried about the effect of high-fructose corn syrup on obesity? Or restaurant workers seeking a higher minimum wage and paid sick days? Or liberal foundations funding public-interest advocates? Because in every one of these examples, their warnings and advocacy threaten how Big Food—the corporate-dominated food and beverage industry paying Berman—makes its fortune.

Berman and his agribusiness allies didn’t just target the Humane Society of the U.S. They’ve gone after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, creating websites and videos saying that PETA kills pets when they can’t find homes. They mock almost all public health efforts as a totalitarian nanny state nightmare. Their bottom line is always the same: protect profits by stifling debate and government regulation. And Berman's methods usually involve playing dirty to intimidate and win on emotion.

In May, the Boston Globe’s deputy Washington bureau chief Michael Kranish wrote a magazine-length report on Washington’s “industry of distortion,” citing Berman’s attack on the Humane Society of the U.S. as Exhibit A. It ended by quoting a 2010 article by the Nebraska Farm Bureau News where Berman boasted about winning on emotion—not truth.

“Emotional understanding is very different; it stays with you,” Berman said. “Intellectual understanding is a fact and facts trump other facts. When I understand something in my gut, you’ve got me in a very different way.” Speaking to Minnesota’s Agri-Growth Council in 2012 about animal rights activists, he was blunter. “We should attack their credibility using ridicule and humor; not for what they’ve said but for who they are.”

Now 70, he has used front groups and exaggerated facts flung with a disregard for public consequences for decades. He created the American Beverage Institute in 1991, which attacked Mothers Against Drunk Driving, saying it was not run by women and that using a cellphone in a car is more dangerous than driving slightly drunk. Like fists on a punching bag, Berman unleashed a series of distorted claims to derail any effort that might alter the booze industry’s business model—such as lowering the legal blood alcohol level. His institute’s experts, on his payroll, blare that new cars will soon have breathalyzers, and that people won’t be able to have a “beer at a ballgame.”

It is stunning how many fights have been picked by Berman's corporate protection racket. He’s also gone after teachers' unions, food processing industry union drives, Obamacare and Obama’s tax policies, and groups such as Center for Science in the Public Interest. He’s defended the tanning salon and payday lending industries. His Employment Policies Institute exists to keep minimum wages as low as possible. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington, which created BermanExposed.org in 2009, tracks his efforts—the front groups, attack websites and propaganda. “Berman runs at least 23 industry-funded projects, such as the Center for Union Facts, and holds 24 ‘positions’ within these various entities,” BermanExposed said.

Real public-interest groups such as CREW and the Humane Society of the U.S. have tried to hold Berman accountable for years. But they have been thwarted by playing by Washington’s murky rules. In 2004, CREW filed an Internal Revenue Service complaint to revoke his non-profits’ tax status, which let dozens of corporations funnel millions into a political attack machine. The HSUS filed a similar complaint last year. But the IRS does not want to say when campaigns without candidates—like Karl Rove’s 2012 non-profit—cross the line from “educational” to “political,” which would be illegal. Just this week, for example, it approved non-profit applications for dozens of Tea Party chapters, taking their word that they will limit political work to 40 percent of overall activities. Berman’s aides, when they talk to the press, say that his non-profits are educational.

With little legal recourse, Berman’s targets have worked with the media to try to expose his dark tactics. In 2007, CBS’ "60 Minutes" produced a Berman profile, “Meet Dr. Evil,” which was the name union officials gave him. This spring, theBoston Globe profiled the Humane Society attacks, dissecting his methodology, profiteering, refuting his attacks, and concluded that no responsible official or media should heed him. But these more civil tactics—seeking IRS review, being upbraided in the mainstream media—don’t derail a street fighter who enjoys bullying. As a smug Berman told "60 Minutes," “I grew up in the Bronx. Name-calling is not the worst thing that I’ve been subjected to.”

If anything, Washington’s political culture has been embracing Berman’s thuggery. October’s federal government shutdown, the ongoing Obamacare and budget wars, and the routine vilification of critics are all signs of increasingly poisoned politics.

The fights that Berman and his allies are picking today are not the same as a few years ago when their message was based around a “personal freedom” mantra and their target was the “nanny state” and its advocates, who called for regulation of their unhealthy or addictive products. Today, Berman and allies like the National Restaurant Association are ramping up attacks on groups such as Restaurant Opportunities Centers United—a powerful nationwide movement of low-wage workers. Why? Because ROC United is challenging the business model of an industry that pays poorly, has few benefits, is rife with sexual discrimination, and has escaped anti-trust regulation for decades.

“They don’t just weigh in on minimum wage and paid sick days,” said Jayaraman, ROC United co-founder. “They’re the ones that got pizza declared a vegetable in Congress. They’re the ones that fight the soda tax bills. They’re the ones that fight the trans fat bills. They have some connection to these groups that set FDA policy…. They all come together in the body of Richard Berman.”

From Big Tobacco to Big Exploitation

When CBS’ Morley Safer talked to Berman, he had been working to stop regulation of addictive substances and unhealthy foods for decades. He grew up in working-class New York where his father ran gas stations and car washes. He went to law school in the 1960s and began his career as a labor lawyer for management at Bethlehem Steel—opposing unions. In the early 1970s, he moved to Washington as director of labor law at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he filed a brief opposing granting healthcare to pregnant women. In 1975, he moved into food and beverages, working for the Steal and Ale restaurant chain. In 1986, he created his firm, Berman and Co., where within a decade cigarette-maker Philip Morris became a multi-million-dollar account.

ConsumerDeception.com, one of the first websites tracking Berman, posts “inter-office correspondence” and other memos documenting his tobacco-defending tactics. Berman proposed creating “The Guest Choice Network… to educate members of the hospitality industry on all the issues that affect their business.” Its goal was to stop second-hand smoke regulations and smoking bans, that day’s anti-smoking efforts. Philip Morris executive Barbara Trach, writing on the margin of a 1995 memo suggesting an initial $600,000 payment, listed the rules that would come to define a Berman operation.

“We can’t tell him what to do—he knows what to do and what’s going on,” she wrote. “We don’t want reportable activities… No direction in grassroots by us… Minimize written correspondence… Check payable to Berman & Co.”   

The Guest Choice Network became the Center for Consumer Freedom, which Berman used to attack nearly 60 public interest groups and government agencies, according to ConsumerDeception.com’s count a dozen years ago: health departments; medical and scientific associations; public health, farming and environmental groups. The funders were a who’s who of agribusiness giants, food producers and processors, and fast food and restaurant chains. CREW’s BermanExposed.org has since updated the list.

In the "60 Minutes" profile, Berman described himself as a fighter for corporations in an era dominated by do-gooders. “Businesses themselves don’t find it convenient to take on causes that might seem politically incorrect,” he said. “And I am not afraid to do that.”

Berman says he isn’t in interested in policy debates and position papers, but gut punches that people will remember. In one anti-union drive effort, his television ad begins with a smirking cashier, saying, “You know what I love, paying union dues just so I can keep my job.” A smiling black construction worker followed, saying, “I really like how the union discriminated against minorities.” Then a busy waitress, “Nothing makes me feel better than knowing I’m supporting their fat-cat lifestyles.” It ended, in unison, “Thank you union bosses,” with an on-air credit to the “Center for Union Facts.” In another television ad, a trial lawyer interrogates a Girl Scout on a witness stand because her cookies do not have nutrition labeling.

Berman calls this approach “shooting the messenger,” and told CBS it “means people getting that this messenger is not as credible as their name would suggest.” His staff goes through government reports, activist press releases, policy papers and books by anyone who might stand in the way of unfettered corporate profits. They take aim by seizing on small points—a research methodology, size of a poll, minority opinion—and blow up that trifle to smear a reputation, organization or agenda. They create websites parodying the points, write and air ads attacking groups, their leadership, their funding, and even push GOP officeholders to join in the bullying.

The methodology is twisting the truth, exaggerating facts that are totally acceptable to make them sound corrupt, and fanning cliches or prejudice to evoke emotional reactions that take the public’s eye away from real scrutiny of, or accountability for, his clients’ exploitive business practices.

So Berman launches a website shouting that PETA kills animals. He accuses the Humane Society of the U.S. of giving less than 1 percent of its funds to local shelters, but he omits that HSUS runs five of its own animal care centers and sanctuaries, supports countless rescue groups, operates disaster response teams for animal victims of natural disasters, investigates animal cruelty and carries out countless other initiatives for animal welfare and protection.

Front groups traced back to Berman's office accuse ROC United of a litany of supposed sins in cities considering higher minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, while other websites mock Jayaraman’s new book while she’s on a speaking tour. Meanwhile, Berman writing on the National Restaurant Association (NRA) website, says that raising minimum wages are “a politician-made disaster” leading to “the death of the entry-level job.” On theWall Street Journalopinion page, the anti-regulator argues without a trace of hypocrisy that groups like ROC United should be regulated under federal labor law.

Marion Nestle, a longtime healthy food expert and author who also has been attacked by Berman, says she tries to ignore him. Nestle said she met Berman once, when they were on a panel at a NRA conference. That appearance gave her the chance to meet with a handful of national restaurant chain CEOs, Nestle said, where she went in armed with three demands—including one about ceasing to bankroll Berman.

“I wanted these restaurant chains to give a price break for smaller portions, to have the default meals for kids be healthy, and I wanted them to stop funding the Center for Consumer Freedom,” she said of meeting with the CEOs of Applebees and Darden, the nation’s largest restaurant group. “They just went ballistic. Absolutely ballistic. It was truly amazing. I thought they were three completely reasonable asks. And they said that Berman was the only person who understood their problems.”

Nestle’s sit-down with Berman’s sponsors reveals why he has had a four-decade run as a corporate hit man. With the backing of tobacco, booze and then Big Food, he has created industry front groups, kept his sponsors’ identities largely hidden, developed a political playbook based on smears, distortions and hate-mongering, and seen the campaign and lobbying profession embrace his poisonous and destructive methodology.

America’s political culture has become uglier and more hate-filled in recent decades, and Richard Berman has played a singular roll in that descent into the gutter.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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