Richard “Rick” Berman is a longtime Washington, D.C. public relations specialist whose lobbying and consulting firm, Berman and Company, Inc., advocates for special interests and powerful industries.
Berman and Co. wages deceptive campaigns against industry foes including labor unions; public-health advocates; and consumer, safety, animal welfare, and environmental groups. Nicknamed “Dr. Evil” by his critics, Berman’s targets range from the Humane Society of the United States to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Berman founded seven tax-exempt nonprofits and at least 40 other distinctly named linked projects. Although these groups present themselves as unbiased experts seeking to inform the public, in reality they are little more than front groups for Berman’s industry clients. All of the nonprofits are run out of Berman’s offices in downtown Washington by Berman and Co. staff, most of whom hold different titles at several of the nonprofits.
Berman’s nonprofits solicit donations from industries and hire Berman and Co. to plan and implement their public relations campaigns, an arrangement that tax experts say could run afoul of the law. In one recent case, a nonprofit directed 78.8 percent of its expenses to Berman and Co.
By giving to Berman’s nonprofits, not only can corporations anonymously support public relations campaigns that protect their profits, they can receive tax breaks for making charitable donations.
The excessive payments to Berman and Co. led an outside authority on charitable giving, Charity Navigator, to issue “donor advisories” regarding five of Berman’s front groups, warning donors about the groups’ shady practice of hiring a business owned by their CEO.
Nonprofits linked to Berman include:
The Center for Consumer Freedom, which attacks animal rights activists and anyone who criticizes soda, restaurants, or the food industry, and changed its official name to the Center for Organizational Research and Education (CORE) in 2014;
The Employment Policies Institute, which opposes government-issued mandates on employers, such as paid sick leave and minimum wage increases;
The American Beverage Institute, which fights laws designed to curb drunk driving;
The Center for Union Facts, which promotes disparaging information about labor unions;;
The Enterprise Freedom Action Committee, which attacks unions and opposes health care reform;
Family Coalition, which opposes health care reform in the name of families;
Humane Society for Shelter Pets, which promoted misleading information about the Humane Society of the United States in an effort to dry up its fundraising, before dissolving as a standalone organization in 2013. HSSP continues to operate as a trade name of CORE.
For citations and more about Richard Berman click here.
Berman’s nonprofits attack the credibility of public interest groups and shift the terms of debate, either by changing the subject or muddling the facts, using a well-worn playbook that that he applies to virtually every one of his campaigns.
In 2002 testimony before a House committee, Berman described his “shoot the messenger” tactic as “a strategy to — to reposition people who have a pristine image which is undeserved … If that’s shooting the messenger, then I’m guilty of it.”
To accomplish this, Berman’s groups push their message to the media in op-eds and press releases, and run advertisements in high-profile venues, including major publications, the Super Bowl, and the Oscars. Berman views industry advocacy as an “endless war,” and this dire view frequently manifests itself in over-the-top derogatory comparisons. Berman and his staff have compared opponents to terrorists, dictators, segregationists, and criminals.
Berman and Co. campaigns frequently employ tactics that give their work a false veneer of popular support.
Berman’s nonprofits often spam small newspapers with letters to the editor and op-eds weighing in on local issues. One community newspaper that published a letter to the editor from a Berman and Co. employee discovered nearly 90 other letters to the editor under the same employee’s name, many of which were almost identical. The Enterprise Freedom Action Committee has used state-based front groups to make their campaigns seem local, including Oregonians for Employee Freedom and Minnesotans for Employee Freedom, whose contact information directed back to the committee’s Washington, D.C. offices.
Berman groups frequently misrepresent scientific evidence and cite misleading statistics.
During his long fight against restaurant smoking bans, Berman misrepresented a World Health Organization study to claim that there was no link between secondhand smoking and lung cancer. In another instance, he also downplayed the health risks of a brand of pesticide, again misrepresenting scientific evidence. Experts and academics have repeatedly criticized and dismissed Berman’s claims.
Regulatory agencies have also chastised Berman’s campaigns.
In 2008, the Indoor Tanning Association hired Berman and Co. to help downplay the health risks of tanning beds and launched two websites, TrustTanning.com and SunlightScam.com, with Berman and Co.’s Sarah Longwell serving as media contact in press releases. In January 2010, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the ITA for making false claims, focusing its criticisms on the Berman-led campaign that the ITA launched in March 2008. Though Berman and Co. is not directly mentioned in the complaint, much of the false and misleading information cited by the FTC was found on the two websites.
For citations and more about Berman’s tactics click here.
A Lifetime Fronting for Corporations
Most of Berman’s professional life has been dedicated to defending corporate interests. After beginning his career practicing labor law at various corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Berman moved into the restaurant industry. He started the government consulting company that would become Berman and Co. in 1986.
As a registered lobbyist, Berman represented his own nonprofit, the American Beverage Institute, as well as the American Beverage Licensees, the Bowling Proprietors Association of America (BPAA), and the Employment Roundtable. BPAA has referred to Berman and Co. as “the nation’s largest public affairs practice serving the hospitality and retail industries.” Berman has said that his lobbying background enabled him to build a list of over 500 contacts in government and industry.
Berman has acknowledged that secrecy is important to his clients, and pitches himself as someone who can do the “politically incorrect” work of shaping public opinion on behalf of businesses. Berman has said that when he lobbied, many of his clients were trade associations, and this allowed individual companies to band together while retaining their own anonymity. In a 2007 deposition, Berman testified that he set up most of his nonprofit groups at the request of corporate clients.
Because these nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors, corporations can support their “aggressive” and often misleading activities without being publicly identified.
Berman once suggested that it was wrong to think that working hard and playing by the rules should keep a person out of poverty. “This is not how America works,” Berman once told a journalist. “We don’t pay people based on need. Maybe the Soviet Union.”
For citations and more about Berman’s work for corporations click here.
Click here for a list of known Berman backers.
Last updated in 2014.