Center for Consumer Freedom

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The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) (formerly called the "Guest Choice Network (GCN)") is a front group run by Rick Berman's PR firm Berman & Co., originally primarily for the benefit of restaurant, alcohol, tobacco and other industries. It runs media campaigns that oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, animal advocates, environmentalists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calling them "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.'"

More recently CMD revealed that the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation is funding CCF to attack environmental groups with pop-up websites, like the "BigGreenRadicals.com" website, as well as to assist and train other Bradley-funded organizations in crisis communications (more below).[1]

CCF changed its name to the Center for Organizational Research and Education in early 2014[2] but uses both names.

CCF is registered as a tax-exempt, non-profit organization under the IRS code 501(c)(3). Its advisory board is comprised mainly of representatives from the restaurant, meat and alcoholic beverage industries. As of its most recent (2015) tax filing, Berman was its principal officer and held its books.[3]

Bradley Funds CCF to Aid Right-Wing Groups with "Crisis Communications" and Opposition Research

CMD's 2017 exposé on the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation revealed that the foundation gave CCF $625,000 between 2009-2013.[1]

One of the projects funded by Bradley was the "Big Green Radicals.com" website, which attacks four effective environmental organizations, the National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Food and Water Watch. The website says it is a project of the "Environmental Policy Alliance" and does not disclose Berman's involvement. The Bradley files reveal for the first time that the foundation gave $150,000 to the Berman front group [CCF] to fund this website under the misnomer "public education" (Center for Consumer Freedom, Grant Proposal Record, 11/12/2013).[1]

"In recent years, the site has been trashing environmental activists in Colorado. There has been a multi-year throw down between anti-fracking community groups battling it out against the oil and gas industry, and the national environmental groups have been lending a hand."
"Richard Berman is a go-to hire for corporate bullies. If the Bradley Foundation is paying groups to focus more on political bullying, it makes sense they would support Berman's attacks on environmental advocates," said Connor Gibson of Greenpeace's investigations team.

The foundation also uses CCF for "crisis communications" when right-wing organizations come under scrutiny:[1]

"Also at Bradley's behest in 2012, CCF [Center for Consumer Freedom] created a related crisis-communications program for state infrastructures. It has been led by Berman vice president Sarah Longwell, formerly director of public affairs at the Bradly-supported Intercollegiate Studies Institute... CCF has consistently exposed the agenda of the activist groups that seek to attack personal freedom and its allies" (EPI, Grant Proposal Record, 11/10/2015).

CCF provides other Bradley-funded organizations with "well sourced opposition research":[1]

Already-prepared "well sourced opposition research" is key, says the Bradley grant document:
"Just as CMD was able build an online dossier on ALEC that provided activists and sympathetic journalists with a base of research, so too is CCF using its data and information to build a 'bigger and better clearinghouse of research on groups within the wider left-wing network' as part of a rapid response strategy."
CCF boasts of training Bradley-supported "think tanks" across the nation that are members of the State Policy Network (SPN), such as North Carolina's Civitas Institute, Michigan's Mackinac Center, and Washington State's Freedom Foundation. CCF asks Bradley for support to expand this type of opposition research and training to the rest of the SPN network and the Interstate Policy Alliance.
According to a grant proposal record, "Full Service Menu" of Berman Center for Consumer Freedom services would include, 1) support for two or three studies a year, 2) op-ed drafting and placement, 3) drafting and sending of news releases on the groups behalf, 4) compiling a media list of reporter contacts, 5) ad buying for television, radio, print and online, 6) crisis communication assistance and in-state infrastructure seminars (EPI, Grant Proposal Record, 11/11/2014).
Bradley Files

In 2017, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), publishers of SourceWatch, launched a series of articles on the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, exposing the inner-workings of one of America's largest right-wing foundations. 56,000 previously undisclosed documents laid bare the Bradley Foundation's highly politicized agenda. CMD detailed Bradley's efforts to map and measure right wing infrastructure nationwide, including by dismantling and defunding unions to impact state elections; bankrolling discredited spin doctor Richard Berman and his many front groups; and more.

Find the series here at ExposedbyCMD.org.

Overview and History

CCF is one of the more active of several front groups created by Berman & Co., a public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman. A November 1, 2012 article in Bloomberg shows CCF in the following chart of non-profits created by Berman & Co. at the center of an IRS complaint filed in 2012 (used with permission):

11022012 Berman-kr-01.png

Based in Washington, D.C., Berman & Co. represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. Hotels, motels, restaurants, bars and taverns together comprise the "hospitality industry," which has long been cultivated by the tobacco industry as a third party to help slow or stop the progression of smoke free laws. CCF actively opposes smoking bans and lowering the legal blood-alcohol level, while targeting studies on the dangers of meat & dairy, processed food, fatty foods, soda pop, pharmaceuticals, animal testing, overfishing and pesticides. Each year they give out the "nanny awards" to groups who, according to them, try to tell consumers how to live their lives. Anyone who criticizes any of the above is likely to come under attack from CCF. Its enemies list has included such diverse groups and individuals as the Alliance of American Insurers; the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons; the American Medical Association (AMA); the Arthritis Foundation; the Consumer Federation of America; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; the Harvard School of Public Health; the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems; the National Association of High School Principals; the National Safety Council; the National Transportation Safety Board; the Office of Highway Safety for the state of Georgia; Ralph Nader's group, Public Citizen; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Over 40 % of the group's 2005 expenditure was paid to Rick Berman's public relations company, Berman & Co. for "management services. [4] As part of its operations, CCF runs a series of attack websites, including ConsumerFreedom.com, ActivistCash.com, CSPIscam.com (attacking the Center for Science in the Public Interest), Animal-Scam.com, FishScam.com, ObesityMyths.com, Sweetscam.com, PhysiciansScam.com and PetaKillsAnimals.com. [5]

Starting Out Smoking

Mr. Berman launched the Guest Choice Network in 1995. Its initial funding came entirely from the Philip Morris (PM) tobacco company. GCN was formed so as to appear not to be "owned" by PM; address restaurant owners lack of interest in PM's "Accommodation Program" and broaden industry appeal. According to a September of 1995 letter from Mr. Berman to Barbara Trach, PM's Sr. Program Manager for Public Affairs, GCN was designed to:

"Create an aggressive mentality by (restaurant) operators (to oppose) government smoking bans."

He proposed that PM form an aggressive front group to motivate restaurant owners to aggressively fight bans, while appearing to be acting on their own:

"...if you want to gain more ground quickly for the smokers' rights issue, the (Guest Choice) program must create a proactive, aggressive mentality by (restaurant) operators regarding government smoking bans..."

He described how hiding PM's involvement would allow the group take more aggressive action:

"Additional benefit -- if externally perceived as driven by restaurant interests, there will be more flexibility and creativity allowed than if it is 'owned' by Philip Morris. The American Beverage Institute, which opposes overly aggressive DWI laws, enjoys this profile."[6]

According to a December 11, 1995 letter to Barbara Trach:

"I'd like to propose to Philip Morris the establishment of the Guest Choice Network. ...The concept is to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists. ... I would like to solicit Philip Morris for an initial contribution of $600,000." [7]

The purpose of GCN, as Berman explained in a separate planning document, would be to enlist operators of "restaurants, hotels, casinos, bowling alleys, taverns, stadiums, and university hospitality educators" to "support mentality of 'smokers rights' by encouraging responsibility to protect 'guest choice.'" According to a year end budget, Guest Choice planned to spend $1.5 million during its first 13 months of operation, including $390,000 for "membership marketing/materials development," $430,000 to establish a communication center and newsletter (which Berman promised would have a "60% to 70% smoking focus", $110,000 to create a "multi-industry advisory council," and $345,000 for "grassroots network development/operation."[8], [9]

PM complied with Berman's initial funding request for $600,000 and pitched in another $300,000 early the following year:

"As of this writing, PM USA is still the only contributor, though Berman continues to promise others any day now," wrote Philip Morris attorney Marty Barrington in an internal company memorandum dated March 28, 1996. [10]

Aside from PM, there were no other publicly-known funders of Guest Choice until its public launch two years later in April 1998. [11]

Tactics

Personal Responsibility

While most food lobbyists rely on the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" to blame the obesity problem on the failure of people to act sensibly, CCF, in contrast, denies the problem altogether. Their position is to "defend" the very notion of personal responsibility by tying it closely to the All-American values of choice, freedom, and rugged individualism against the food police, militant radicals, and government bureaucrats who want to keep you from enjoying your God-given right to Big Macs, Marlboros, and Budweiser.

"Free to Choose"

One of CCF's favorite strategies is to align the interests of food companies with those of the consumers. It portrays these two groups as "allies" and the besieged "victims" of government regulators, nonprofits, parents, and other food-industry critics.[12] By "consumer freedom," CCF means the "right of adults and parents to choose how they live their lives, what they eat and drink, how they manage their finances, and how they enjoy themselves."[13] The free-to-choose argument implies that advocates of sound nutrition policy are diametrically opposed to the interests of everyone else and that they are killjoys with no interest in enjoying food.

A related salvo is CCF's argument that nutrition advocates and other food-industry critics are infantilizing people when they give dietary advice. CCF produced a television commercial showing people trying to enjoy all-American pleasures such as ice cream, hot dogs and beer, only to be foiled by a hand that swoops down and commandeers the offending items. A voice-over inveighs:

"Everywhere you turn, someone's telling us what we can't eat. It's getting harder just to enjoy a beer on a night out. Do you always feel like you're being told what to do? Find out who is driving the food police at ConsumerFreedom.com.[14]

Marginalizing Advocates

Center for Consumer Freedom's anti-sugary drink ban advertisement

Part of CCF's method is to direct attention away from the substantive issues and to keep the focus on the messenger rather than the message. For example, CCF has created a website known as CSPIscam, whose sole purpose is to discredit and defame the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CCF dismisses CSPI's work as media driven and reliant on junk science to scare people into believing that the group is trying to take away their right to eat whatever they want.[15] In response to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to limit the size of sugary drinks, CCF took out full-page ads in major newspapers mocking him, showing him dressed a nanny.[16]

CCF explains its mission as fighting back against "self-anointed "food police," health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal rights misanthropes, and meddling bureaucrats."[17] An important aspect of such rhetoric is to set advocates apart from the mainstream. These labels are meant to conjure up caricatured images of 1960s-style activism, complete with flag burning, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.[18] CCf has also developed a website called ActivistCash that claims to "expose" the funding sources of various environmental and public health organizations. The site includes a list of "key players" in nutrition advocacy, including New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who is described as "one of the country's most hystieral anti-food-industry fanatics," a food cop with "radical goals."[19]

Implicit in CCF's food cop rhetoric is the idea that people who advocate for eating a healthy diet are motivated by personal agendas. They maintain a long list of people operating under supposed "hidden agendas." CCF is also accuses pro-vegetarian organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) of hiding behind an "animal rights agenda", though these groups are visibly and vocally trying to protect animals and readily acknowledge such. [20]

Selected Campaigns

See CCF selected campaigns.

Attacking environmental advocacy groups

See CORE Attacking Environmental Advocacy Groups.

CCF and Anti-Animal Rights/Welfare

See Richard Berman cares about animals: clients exposed.

CCF and Puppy Mills

See Missouri puppy mills & Prop B.

List of Targeted Organizations

See A Visit to the ActivistCash.Com Web Site.

Affiliated Organizations and Websites

In addition to CCF, Berman & Co. sponsors several other organizations and web sites. These include the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) and the American Beverage Institute (ABI). EPI is dedicated to keeping minimum wage low and opposing mandatory employee health insurance and ABI opposes drinking and driving restrictions.

Quotable and Notable

In a 1999 interview with the Chain Leader, a trade publication for restaurant chains, Richard Berman boasted that he attacks activists more aggressively than other lobbyists:

"We always have a knife in our teeth. 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." [21]

In November 2001, the Guest Choice Network launched a separate web site, ActivistCash.com, which purports to expose the "hidden funding" of various activist groups that support animal rights, food safety and smoking prevention. In January 2002, the Guest Choice Network renamed itself the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF). In a May 11, 2002 San Francisco Chronicle article, CCF spokesman John Doyle responded to questions about nationwide radio ads put out by the group. He said the ads were meant to attract people to their website and:

"draw attention to our enemies: just about every consumer and environmental group, chef, legislator or doctor who raises objections to things like pesticide use, genetic engineering of crops or antibiotic use in beef and poultry."[22]

On November 16, 2004, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) alleging that CCF had violated its tax exempt status. According to the complaint, CCF engaged in prohibited electioneering; made substantial payments to Richard Berman and his wholly owned, for-profit Berman & Co. and was generally engaged in non-charitable activities. [23] According to CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan to Forbes:

"It doesn't seem to me that someone should get a tax deduction while they're writing public relations memos about how people should be able to smoke in restaurants."[24]

Mr. Berman set up CCF and a number of other tax exempt groups, which all seem to support messages which dove tail nicely with his industry lobbying. However, according to David Martosko in a May of 2006 interview with ABC News, this is simply "the way things tend to be done" in Washington. Furthermore, he has no idea, nor does he want to know, who funds CCF:

"I don't know the firms that send the Center for Consumer Freedom money. I don't want to know. It's not my business to know." [25]

Funding

Nonprofit Organizations

Corporations

Coca-Cola Company, Cargill, Inc., Monsanto, Tyson Foods, Outback Steakhouse, Wendy's, Brinker International and Dean Foods have all contributed to CCF. See CCF funding for a complete list of CCF's corporate donors.

Core Financials

2015[3]

  • Total revenues: $5,106,372
  • Total expenses: $3,583,198
    • Compensation to Richard Berman, President and Executive Director: $39,525
    • Payments to Berman & Co. for management, advertising, research, and fees: $1,752,531
    • Reported lobbying expenses: $8,295
  • Net assets: $1,378,806

2014[28]

  • Total revenues: $3,561,286
  • Total expenses: $4,252,732
    • Compensation to Richard Berman, President and Executive Director: $36,338
    • Payments to Berman & Co. for management, advertising, research, and fees: $1,987,053
    • Reported lobbying expenses: $0
  • Net assets: -$144,368

Personnel

Staff

The CCF website lists the following[29]:

Board of Directors

As of 2015:[3]

Advisory Panel

CCF also has an advisory panel. In 1998, it included the following individuals:

Media

Contact Information

Center for Organizational Research and Education
1090 Vermont Ave NW, Suite 800
Washington D.C., 20005
Tel: 202-420-7871
Email: info@coreprojects.com
Web address: https://coreprojects.com/

The Center for Consumer Freedom also has this P.O. Box and phone number:
P.O. Box 34557
Washington, DC 20043
Tel: 202-463-7112
Web address: http://www.consumerfreedom.com/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/consumerfreedom?lang=en
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ConsumerFreedom/

Like other Berman & Co. front groups, CORE is headquartered at:

Berman & Co.
1090 Vermont Avenue, NW, Suite 800
Washington, DC 20005 6
Phone: (202) 463-7100 Email: info@bermanco.com

Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles

Other Berman Front Groups

Related PRWatch Articles

External Articles

External Resources

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Books

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Mary Bottari Bradley Foundation Bankrolls Front Groups of Discredited PR Spin Doctor Richard Berman, Exposed by CMD, May 9, 2007. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "frontgr" defined multiple times with different content
  2. David P. Goch, Re: The Center for Consumer Freedom (17-33-72) (LINK DOWNLOADS A PDF), letter to New York Department of Law - Charities Bureau, January 30, 2014.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Center for Organizational Research and Education (Center for Consumer Freedom), 2015 IRS Form 990, organizational tax filing, Viewed June 19, 2017.
  4. "The Center for Consumer Freedom", Form 990, 2005, p.3.
  5. "The Center for Consumer Freedom", Form 990, 2005, Statement 1
  6. Richard Berman, Untitled letter to Barbara Trach at Philip Morris, Tobacco Legacy Library, 3 pp. September 5, 1995
  7. Richard Berman Letter to Barbara Trach, Phillip Morris, December 11, 1995
  8. R. Berman/PM planning document, PRWatch, December 1995
  9. year-end Berman/PM 1995 year-end budget, PRWatch, December 1995
  10. Martin J. Barrington PM Internal Memo, PRWatch, March 1996
  11. Mark Berlind Activist Cash.com, Tobacco Legacy Library, January 4, 2002
  12. Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, Nation Books, October 2006, p. 48.
  13. About Us, CCF, accessed January 2010
  14. Advertisements, CCF, accessed January 2005
  15. Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, Nation Books, October 2006, pp. 50-51.
  16. Michele Simon, The Best Public Relations That Money Can Buy, Center for Food Safety report, May 2013.
  17. About Us, CCF, accessed January 2010
  18. Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, Nation Books, October 2006, p. 52.
  19. Marion Nestle Biography on ActivistCash, Activistcash.com, accessed January 2010
  20. Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, Nation Books, October 2006, p. 53.
  21. Charles Bernstein The Zealot: Freedom of choice advocate Rick Berman preaches about DUI limits, the minimum wage and health care in the name of food service., Chain Leader, December 1999
  22. Carol Ness Hand that feeds bites back: Food industry forks over ad campaign to win hearts, stomachs, San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 2002, Page A-3
  23. Crew Files IRS Complaint Against the Center for Consumer Freedom Alleging Violations of Tax Exempt Status, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, November 2004
  24. Seth Lubove, "Food Fight," Forbes, September 2005
  25. Mark Matthews Lobbyists Hide Behind Non-Profit Fronts, ABC News/KGO San Francisco, May 3, 2006
  26. Employment Policies Institute, 2014 IRS 990 Form, Employment Policies Institute, November 11, 2015.
  27. Grocery Manufacturers Association, 2013 IRS 990 Form, Grocery Manufacturers Association, May 12, 2014.
  28. Center for Organizational Research and Education (Center for Consumer Freedom), 2014 IRS Form 990, organizational tax filing, November 24, 2015.
  29. CCF Website About page, viewed June 19, 2017