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April 13, 2015

Berman Lands Campaign Seeded With $57,000 from “Dark Money ATM”

By CREW Staff

Rick BermanLast week, Claire Moser of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress highlighted the role that Richard Berman’s public relations firm, Berman and Co., is playing in a campaign to sell off America’s national forests and public lands. Berman and Co. is notorious for using nonprofit front groups to wage deceptive campaigns on behalf of corporate clients. One of Berman’s employees, Will Coggin, has been spamming newspapers with op-eds arguing that public land management should be moved from the federal government to the states, who are more likely to sell the land for energy development.

Each of Coggin’s nearly identical columns — published under the guise of Berman’s Environmental Policy Alliance project — accuses several sportsmen’s groups who oppose shifting control of public lands of being “green decoys” because they have received some funding from environmentally engaged foundations.  “A quick look at their ‘dark money’ financial backers makes their true motive clear: To lock away land from being utilized for economic growth and jobs,” writes Coggin.

It takes a lot of gall for a Berman operative to attack other organizations over “dark money,” especially as part of an attack campaign that appears to have gotten its seed money from a foundation described as “the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement” by Mother Jones. In 2013, Donors Trust, a donor-advised fund “dedicated to promoting a free society,” gave $57,250 to Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom “for hunting organization opposition research.” That same year, the Center for Consumer Freedom reported spending $71,132 on research into “various environmental activist groups and their activities.” The “Green Decoys” project debuted in January 2014.

Since launching, Coggin has published at least 29 op-eds and letters-to-the editor attacking groups such as Trout Unlimited, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, including three more since Moser’s story. None of them mention that Coggin works for Berman and Co., instead listing him as an analyst at either the Center for Consumer Freedom or the Environmental Policy Alliance. Only three mention that the Environmental Policy Alliance’s parent organization, the Center for Organizational Research and Education, “is supported by a variety of businesses and foundations, including those in the hospitality, agriculture and energy industries.”

One publication, the Sierra Sun, posted an editor’s note after running a letter last August, writing that Coggin had “misidentified himself as a senior research analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Policy Alliance” and is “is actually employed by Berman and Co.” The note closed with an apology to readers: “the Sierra Sun regrets publishing this misinformation.”

Coggin’s refusal to admit his own agenda while casting aspersions on others is not the only deceptive aspect of his and Berman’s public lands campaign. In a Washington Examiner op-ed last October about Trout Unlimited’s opposition to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issuing oil and gas leases in Nevada, Coggin cited research by University of Wyoming professor Timothy Considine claiming that up to 208,000 jobs would be created if all of the oil and gas projects on federal lands in seven Western states were approved. 

Unmentioned by Coggin? Professor Considine’s report was funded by another one of Berman’s front groups, the Employment Policies Institute, and “prepared under a consulting agreement with the Interstate Policy Alliance.” On his curriculum vitae, Professor Considine also lists himself as a consultant for the Interstate Policy Alliance on “energy development on federal lands.” The Interstate Policy Alliance is a project of the Employment Policies Institute that works with the think tanks in the conservative State Policy Network to “support and promote state-based research” from a free market perspective. The Guardian recently documented how the Interstate Policy Alliance is funding research critical of the Environmental Protection Agency’s power plant rules.

Coggin isn’t the only Berman employee to cite Professor Considine’s research while arguing for opening up public lands to development without acknowledging their ties. In June 2014, Anastasia Swearingen, a Berman employee, published op-eds in the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Salt Lake Tribune that cited Professor Considine’s research as proof that “radical environmentalists have prevented Western states from reaping enormous economic benefits.” Like the Sierra Sun, the Salt Lake Tribune came to regret describing the op-ed as having been written by a representative of the Environmental Policy Alliance. 

The column now carries an editor’s note as well: “This commentary originally described the author as a senior research analyst for the Environmental Policy Alliance. In fact, Anastasia Swearingen works for the public relations firm Berman and Co., which manages the Environmental Policy Alliance and represents clients in the energy industry.”  

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