Intimidating public interest groups

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The dramatic increase in the number and influence of public interest groups over recent years has alarmed conservative groups. In response, there has been a flurry of attempts to establish on-line databases to monitor non-profit groups. For all the bluster accompanying these projects, few have amounted to much.

Another strand in their strategy has been developing the intellectual rationale and rhetoric on how curtailing non-profit groups is consistent with maintaining a healthy democracy.

The Capital Research Center's Green Watch - which gained $50,000 in funding from ExxonMobil in 2002 and 2003 - is perhaps the most effective at profiling the "liberal environmentalist movement". [1][2]

Others, such as ActivistCash.com purport to 'expose' activist groups, while in reality providing little more than information that is publicly available. The ActivistCash.com website was launched in December 2001 with profiles on only 16 activist groups. By January 2003 it had crept up to only 33. In the next eighteen months to June 2004 only an additional six groups had been added to the database.

Public Interest Watch (PIW) was launched in September 2002 by Mike Hardiman. Hardiman, the principal of the public relations and lobbying company Hardiman Consulting, was also a lobbyist for the 'wise use' group, the American Land Rights Association. The group seems to have been primarily a vehicle to attack Greenpeace. On the basis of a review of IRS 990 forms, PIW filed a complaint with the IRS urging an investigation claiming that the perfectly legal transfer of funds between 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arms amounted to 'money laundering'. Hardiman resigned in January 2004 . In March 2004 Lewis Fein was appointed as an interim Executive Director.

However, PIW appears to be a phantom organisation. Asked if the organization had had filed an IRS return Fein said "I believe so". Nor was he able to state who the Board members were or whether the address listed on the website was in fact an office address rather than the residential address of a board member.

In May 2003 the National Center for Public Policy Research, established the Envirotruth website, which it claims "sheds light on the environmentalist movement, offering information about their tactics, terrorist acts and fundraising machines." Like most of the other profiling sites, it is long on hype and short on details. In 2003 Exxon Mobil contributed $30,000 to underwrite the project. [3]

The Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise's RANamuck website targeting the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network has not been updated since September 2002. Similarly, its PETA Probe site was last actively updated in late 2002.

In June 2003, with a great deal of fanfare, the American Enterprise Institute unveiled NGOWatch.org, a joint project with the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. The site, they claimed, would "expose the funding, operations and agendas of international NGOs". However, one-year later sections of the site remain "under construction" while the actual profiles on groups are spartan.

The launch of the NGOwatch site co-incided with a conference on NGO's co-hosted with the Australian conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) The IPA itself launched a specialist newsletter, NGO Watch, in April 2001 to profile human rights, development and environmental organisations. However, faced with little subscriber support, the October 2002 edition was the last. "It just wasn't financially sustaining, there weren't enough buying the product," said IPA Senior Fellow, Gary Johns told Inter-Press Service.

While some of these projects have floundered or been abandoned by their sponsors it would be a mistake to conclude they have no effect. In part, their role is to create a climate in which non-profits divert scarce resources away from their core mission or soften their advocacy.

While there are thousands of non-profit environmental and other non-profit groups, only a handful appear to have been singled out for specific attention. The key groups featured by one or more of these groups are:

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