Berman & Co.
This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.
Berman & Co., a Washington, DC public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman, represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. Berman & Co. lobbies for companies such as Cracker Barrel, Hooters, International House of Pancakes, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster, Steak & Ale, TGI Friday's, Uno's Restaurants, and Wendy's. It also operates a network of several front groups, web sites, and think tanks that work to keep wages low for restaurants and to block legislation on food safety, secondhand cigarette smoke, and drunk driving.
According to a July 31, 2006, profile of Rick Berman in USA Today, Berman and Co. has 28 employees and takes in $10 million dollars a year, but "only Berman and his bookkeeper wife" know how much of the $10 million ends up in their own pockets.
In a 1999 interview with the Chain Leader, a trade publication for restaurant chains, Berman explained the focus of his lobbying efforts, which mirror his non-profit groups' activities. "In effect, our work is restricted to and focused on issues that affect shareholder value," he said. "These big issues include labor costs as they relate to health insurance and the minimum wage." He also stated that he attacks activists more aggressively than other lobbyists. "We always have a knife in our teeth," he said. Since activists "drive consumer behavior on meat, alcohol, fat, sugar, tobacco and caffeine," his strategy is "to shoot the messenger.... We've got to attack their credibility as spokespersons."
Berman also actively campaigns against any attempts to limit smoking in restaurants and bars. In testimony before the New York City Health Oversight Committee, Berman said, "The level of exposure to secondhand smoke for bartenders, waiters and waitresses is considerably lower than the federal air quality limits established by the federal government."
- The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) states that its mission is to expose what it calls "the Nanny Culture & the growing fraternity of food cops, health care enforcers, anti-meat activists, and meddling bureaucrats who 'know what's best for you.' "
- The Employment Policies Institute (EPI) calls itself a "non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth." In reality, EPI's mission is to oppose any increases in the minimum wage so that restaurants can continue to pay their workers as little as possible.
- EPI also owns the internet domain names to MinimumWage.com and LivingWage.com, a website that attempts to portray the idea of a living wage for workers as some kind of insidious conspiracy. "Living wage activists want nothing less than a national living wage," it warns.
- Another (now-defunct) Berman front group, the Partnership on Health Care and Employment, was established in 1992 to fight the Clinton administration's plan for national health insurance.
- Berman has also been involved with the Employment Roundtable, an organization whose stated mission is to "study, act on and impact trends and information regarding the optimal employment of the US labor force for mutual benefit and the common good."
- Some of Berman & Co.'s most visible lobbying has been waged against efforts to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers. It runs the American Beverage Institute, which was organized in 1991 with the stated mission of promoting "responsible alcohol consumption," but actually represents restaurants and retailers that sell alcohol. The ABI's arch-enemy is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
- The Center for Union Facts, an organization that operates a website and publishes op-eds critical of union corruption, the Employee Free Choice Act, and the pay of union bosses.
Rick Berman began his career as an attorney for the steel and automobile industries and became labor law director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before going to work for the Pillsbury Restaurant Group and Steak & Ale restaurant chain in the 1970s. In 1986, he launched his own public affairs firm, Berman & Co. He has maintained a friendly relationship, however, with Norman Brinker, CEO of Brinker International, Inc. (the former owner of Steak & Ale Restaurants and chairman of Pillsbury). In 1995, these ties figured in a House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations that House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave favorable treatment to Brinker and Berman in exchange for a $25,000 contribution.
In 1990, Berman lobbied on behalf of restaurant chains as they fought against the Pepper Commission, a blue-ribbon panel studying the problem of uninsured Americans which recommended that the federal government oblige restaurateurs and other employers to provide employees with medical insurance. His first front group, the Employment Policies Institute, was launched in 1991, around the time of the economic recession that led to the electoral defeat of then-president George Bush.
Berman continued to fight against mandated insurance in 1992 and 1993, when president-elect Bill Clinton attempted to make health care reform one of his first legislative priorities. Berman created yet another front group, called the "Partnership on Health Care & Employment," representing mostly large companies known for paying low wages and high worker turnover. It sponsored a study claiming that compulsory insurance for business would wipe out nine million jobs. During the health reform debate, Berman's study was cited in TV commercials sponsored by the Republican National Committee. The commercials continued to air even after Berman admitted that his study had actually been produced before the Clinton administration even formulated the details of its health plan.
In 1999, Berman continued to combine tobacco flackery with his role as a restaurant lobbyist, as his American Beverage Institute published a study titled "Effects of 1998 California Smoking Ban on Bars, Taverns and Night Clubs." The study surveyed bar owners and managers, asking whether business increased or decreased after January 1, 1998, the date the California bar ban went into effect. It claimed to find that business declined an average of 26.2%, but no hard numbers were used to arrive at this percentage. Rather than look at actual sales receipts, the ABI survey merely surveyed the opinions of bar owners. Numerous other studies have examined the effect of smoking bans on the hospitality industry, and studies that actually look at taxable sales receipts show no significant impact.
In September 1999, Berman launched another group, the Employment Roundtable, to "build on the successes" of the EPI and to "find solutions for problems such as social security and health care."
In May 2000, Berman launched cspinot.com, an attack website aimed at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which Berman accuses of anti-alcohol zealotry that "combines scare tactics and junk science to scold adult college students about alcohol consumption." In February 2003, however, he was forced to surrender the domain name following a successful legal appeal by CSPI. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body charged with regulating the Internet domain name system, ruled that Berman's front group had "attempted to create confusion among Internet users looking for [CSPI's] websites."
ActivistCash.com was launched in November 2001. In January 2002 the Guest Choice Network renamed itself as the Center for Consumer Freedom.
In a speech to the National Pork Forum in Dallas in May 2003, Berman said referring to activists pushing for changes to the meat industry. "People who are on the offense want to win, while people who are on the defense don't want to lose. There's a difference," he said.
Berman said the way for business to win against activist groups was a wage hard counter campaigns "to de-legitimize them in the eyes of the public." Such a campaign he said, delivering his business pitch, would require resources and strategies that "exceed the capabilities of the other side."
In July 2007, presidential candidate John Edwards faced criticism after his campaign paid over $200,000 to a consulting firm with ties to the Center for Union Facts, a Berman front organization. The firm, LUC Media, was incorporated in Georgia and is headed by Christopher M. Werner, who is also CEO of a company called 1-2-1 Interactive Media, which bought advertising time for CUF. Both companies apparently share the same office and address. Werner insisted that "I have an interest from way back, but I don't do any work for [1-2-1 Interactive]." He added, "We're thrilled to be working for Senator Edwards."
As a private company, Berman & Co. is not required to disclose its finances. However, two of its front groups - the Center for Consumer Freedom and the Employment Policies Institute Foundation - are registered as tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, and they are required to disclose some financial information to the Internal Revenue Service which is publicly available by inspecting their IRS Form 990s.
Although Berman refuses to disclose the identity of its anonymous funders, the following companies have been linked to Berman & Co. in news reports and other public documents:
- American Restaurant Group, Inc.
- Brinker International, Inc.
- Burger King
- Carson Restaurants Worldwide
- Cracker Barrel
- El Torito
- Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association
- Hard Rock Café
- Hooters of America, Inc.
- Houston's Restaurants, Inc.
- International House of Pancakes
- KKR Enterprises, Inc.
- Luby's, Inc.
- Marie Callender Pie Shops, Inc.
- Marriott Corp.
- Metromedia Restaurant Group
- Olive Garden
- Outback Steakhouse, Inc.
- Panda Management Company, Inc.
- Perkins Family Restaurants, L.P.
- Philip Morris
- Rare Hospitality International
- Red Lobster
- Shoney's, Inc.
- Steak & Ale
- TGI Friday's
- Uno Restaurant Corp.
- Vicorp Restaurants, Inc.
Richard Berman is listed as president and his wife Dixie is listed as secretary/treasurer of Berman & Co.
Rick Berman, Dubbed "Dr. Evil" by 60 Minutes
Although Berman used to fly under the media radar, by now he is well-known and widely regarded as an industry shill, having been the subject of a 60 Minutes piece in 2007 that dubbed him “Dr. Evil,” a public takedown on the Rachel Maddow Show, and years of research documenting his close ties to industries looking for a well paid hired gun to defend the indefensible. He has attacked respected scientists and scholars, food safety experts, and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
Despite this documented lack of credibility, Berman continues to work through a variety of research-for-hire front groups to remain relevant by creating a façade of academic respectability for extreme policies that many mainstream companies, scientists, and voters have rejected.
Berman has raised millions of dollars from companies, trade associations and individuals, but refuses to name them. According to the National Journal, the Employment Policies Institute was started “by a group of restaurant companies” that at the time (1995) got “95% of its budget from corporate sources—primarily restaurateurs and retailers.” Several years ago an unnamed former Berman employee revealed a list of Berman’s 2001-2002 corporate funders, including Coca-Cola, Cargill, Monsanto, Tyson Foods, Wendy’s, Outback Steakhouse and Applebee’s.
“We always have a knife in our teeth,” Berman has said, and his approach is “to shoot the messenger.” Restaurant industry spokespeople have praised his “outstanding work as an industry Doberman.” 60 Minutes called him “the booze and food industries’ weapon of mass destruction.”
Before striking out in 1986 with his own consulting company, Berman worked as a lawyer for Bethlehem Steel and Dana Corporation (1967-72), as labor law director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (1972-74), and for the late Norman Brinker’s restaurant empire (Steak and Ale and the Pillsbury Restaurant Group, 1975-86). Berman & Company now has about 30 employees and runs the Employment Policies Institute and a number of other industry-backed secretive front groups such as the Center for Consumer Freedom, Center for Union Facts, and American Beverage Institute.
A number of employees and associates of Berman & Co. also double as representatives of its various front groups:
- Restaurant magnate Norman Brinker has served as chairman of EPI. Brinker is the chairman and CEO of Brinker International. He is also the founder of the Steak and Ale restaurant chain, a former chairman of Burger King, and past President of the Pillsbury restaurant group (all of which are either former employers of Rick Berman or clients of Berman & Co.).
- Mike Burita has worked for a variety of conservative causes, including Republican election campaigns, Phyllis Schlafly, Frontiers of Freedom, and Brent Bozell's Media Research Center.
- Paul Carson
- David Martosko has been described in news stories as CCN's director of research.
- J.P. Freire has been described as a conservatarian mercenary.
Other individuals who have worked with Berman & Co. include lobbyist Ann Eppard (formerly a top aide to House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster); Kevin Lang of Boston University (who has authored a study sponsored by EPI); and Mark Gorman of the National Restaurant Association. John Doyle was communications director for Berman & Co., and also served as a spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom, the Employment Policies Institute and the American Beverage Institute. In late 2006 he joined the Washington D.C. office of the PR firm, Ruder Finn.
In 1994 Berman scored a coup when he managed to hire Candy Lightner to lobby on behalf of the American Beverage Institute. Lightner was best known as the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving but was fired as the group's executive director in 1985 over disagreements including her request for a $10,000 bonus on top of her $76,000 annual salary. As an ABI lobbyist, Lightner fought MADD's call for lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. Criticized as a traitor to the movement she helped launch, Lightner left her job with Berman after less than a year.
Berman & Co.
1775 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 1200
Washington, DC 20006
Phone: (202) 463-7110
FAX: (202) 463-7107
Articles and Resources
- Rick Berman
- David Berman
- Center for Consumer Freedom
- A Visit to the ActivistCash.Com Web Site
- Richard Berman cares about animals: clients exposed
- Conservatives target the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
- American Beverage Institute
- Employment Policies Institute
- Employment Roundtable
- The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and the Philip Morris documents web site have additional correspondence and company memos related to Berman & Co. To search them yourself, use the following keywords: "Guest Choice"; "American Beverage Institute"; "Berman, R"; and "Berman, RB."
- IRS tax forms for the Guest Choice Network, Center for Consumer Freedom and the Employment Policies Institute can be found by searching the GuideStar web site.
- ConsumerDeception.com has compiled a detailed dossier on Berman's activities and funding.
- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)'s web site, www.BermanExposed.org
- Richard Berman, "Disability Act Threatens to Cripple Hospitality Industry," Nation's Restaurant News, October 9, 1989, p. F4.
- The Chain Letter, a magazine for restaurant chains, published a profile of Rick Berman in its December 1999 issue.
- PR Watch first exposed the shenanigans of Berman & Co. in its First Quarter 2001 issue, including details of his lobbying activities to keep wages low and drivers drinking, as well as the cash-for-favors scandal involving Berman, Norman Brinker and Newt Gingrich
- "Bogus 'Consumer' Group Stripped Of Domain Names," Center for Science in the Public Interest news release, February 20, 2003.
- Richard Berman, "Animal Groups Callous, Not Cute," USA Today, April 15, 2003.
- Rod Smith, "Activists winning public opinion in battle on food", Feedstuffs, Issue 21 Volume 75, May 26, 2003.
- Greg Sargent, "Berman's Battle," The American Prospect, January 3, 2004.
- John N. Frank, "ABL ups efforts slamming GM for its support of MADD", PR Week, February 28, 2005. (Sub req'd).
- Nancy Goldstein, "Biting the Hand that Spins You," PageOne, March 17, 2005.
- Caroline E. Mayer and Amy Joyce, "Nonprofit's Tactics, Funding Sources Spark Controversy", Washington Post, April 27, 2005.
- Melanie Warner, "Striking Back at the Food Police", New York Times, June 12, 2005.
- Seth Lubove, "Food Fight," Forbes, September 23, 2005.
- Aina Hunter, "Mercury in Fish? Baloney!: Lobbyist tells pregnant women to eat more tuna", Village Voice, January 17th, 2006.
- Harold Meyerson, "Our Pious Babylon", Washington Post, April 6, 2006; A29.
- Mark Matthews, Lobbyists Hide Behind Non-Profit Fronts, KGO TV, San Francisco, CA, May 3, 2006.
- Jayne O'Donnell, Got a nasty fight? Here's your man, USA Today, July 31, 2006.
- "Edwards Consultant Tied to Anti-Union Ads," The Washington Post, July 20, 2007.
- Michael P., "Metro Center Advertising - Front Groups ," blog "Infosnack Headquarters," September 24, 2008.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Berman & Co.: "Nonprofit" Hustlers for the Food & Booze Biz, PRWatch, First Quarter 2001, Volume 8, No. 1.
- ↑ Jayne O'Donnell, [usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/companies/2006-07-31-lobbyist-usat_x.htm Got a nasty fight? Here's your man], USA Today, July 31, 2006.
- ↑ Tobacco Library, Secondhand Smoke in Bars and Restaurants Falls Well Below OSHA Standards, ABI Testifies Group Cites New Research from Oak Ridge National Labs, PR Newswire, February 23, 2003, accessed May 24, 2013.
- ↑ Peter Hillman with David Madison, Ph.D., Supreme Court Rulings on Race and Retribution: Implications for the Workplace, The Five O'Clock Club, November 2003, accessed May 28, 2013.
- ↑ Feedstuffs Daily Update, Feedstuffs, May 21, 2003.
- ↑ 60 Minutes, Meet Dr. Evil, CBS News, September 19, 2007.
- ↑ The Rachel Maddow Show, Confronting Rick Berman, MSNBC, accessed April 2, 2013.
- ↑ Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Berman Exposed, organizational website, accessed April 2, 2013.
- ↑ Ian T. Shearn, Investigative Report: CCF's Richard Berman, The Humane Society of the United States, accessed April 2, 2013.
- ↑ Anti-Union Group's Ads Attack Organized Labor, Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2006.
- ↑ Louis Jacobson, "Tanks on the Roll," National Journal, July 8, 1995, p. 1767.
- ↑ Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Berman & Co.: "Nonprofit" Hustlers for the Food and Booze Biz, PRWatch, first quarter 2001, Volume 8, No. 1.
- ↑ Foodservice Blog, Who's gonna make us?, Nation's Restaurant News, September 16, 2007.
- ↑ Elizabeth Flock, PETA and Humane Society attacked by reports - are they real?, The Washington Post, February 27, 2012.
- ↑ Campaign for a Healthy Denver and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, The National Restaurant Association: Behind the Fight Against Working Families and an Economy that Works for All, organizational report, October 2011.
- ↑ Marcus Kabel, Wal-Mart denies critics' claim that retail giant backs anti-union group, The Seattle Times, March 26, 2006.
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