Consumers for Competitive Choice, a self-described grass-roots nonprofit representing mostly small-business owners, is storming Capitol Hill today in a push to lower the fees that credit card companies charge merchants.
But while the group says its interest in the issue was instigated by its small-business members, the two men behind the effort have a history of fronting AstroTurf lobbying campaigns on behalf of some of the nation's largest companies.
Robert Johnson and Jim Conran, president and executive director of Consumers for Competitive Choice, respectively, have led several lobbying campaigns where they have sided with companies that have given financial contributions to nonprofits affiliated with them.
Johnson founded Consumers Voice in 1999, a self-described watchdog fighting against broadband legislation. Consumers Voice received most of its startup funding from AT&T. Johnson and Conran also started Consumers for Cable Choice, which received a $75,000 cash infusion from both Verizon and SBC in 2004 when it was promoting changes in regulations that would open the cable market to competition.
The pair changed the group's name to Consumers for Competitive Choice in 2007, broadening its focus to a range of issues, including retail markets, education and the health care industry.
Johnson, Conran and his wife, Phyllis Conran, are listed as board members of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit, according to the group's 2007 tax return. The Conrans were paid $180,000 for consulting services while Johnson was paid nearly $200,000 for his services.
The most recent fight, over "interchange fees," has pitted credit card companies and merchants against each other in a multimillion-dollar lobbying battle.
Both Johnson and Conran refused to discuss who is funding their latest effort. Consumers for Competitive Choice does not list its members or donors on its Web site.
"We are funded through various mechanisms," Conran said, citing the organization's several nonprofit entities. "To my knowledge ... we have no financial relations with lending institutions or any major retailers."
Conran noted the group's supporters include the 200,000-member California Small Business Association. The CSBA also was a member of Consumers for Cable Choice.
Conran said Consumers for Competitive Choice's involvement in credit card fees came from its members' outrage at Visa and MasterCard. The group wants credit card transaction fees reduced to the level charged to clear personal checks, increased transparency of transaction fees, and regulatory oversight of interchange fees by the Federal Reserve or through President Barack Obama's proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
Interchange fees "are a thorn in the side of small businesses," Conran said. "Not only are they hurting, they are concerned as banking reform goes forward that Congress, while certainly putting an emphasis on protecting consumers, will give short shrift to small-business owners."
Still, Consumers for Competitive Choice has some powerful allies in Washington.
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, which counts nine of the top 10 largest retailers in the country, including Walmart, Staples and Foot Locker, as members, supports the group's efforts.
"We applaud them for doing this and are supportive of their efforts," RILA's Brian Dodge said.
Dodge declined to say whether RILA is financially supporting Consumers for Competitive Choice, saying RILA does not "discuss tactics."
RILA has been aggressively lobbying the issue for several years as a member of the Merchants Payments Coalition.
National Association of Convenience Stores, also a member of the merchant coalition, is not affiliated with Consumers for Competitive Choice, according to Lyle Beckwith, a lobbyist with the NACS.
Beckwith said he first heard of the group after some of his member companies said they were planning to come to Washington, D.C., for the event.
"I have no idea who they are," Beckwith said. "They are not run out of MPC at all."
Beckwith said that NACS and MPC are continuing their own lobbying push on interchange fees. The convenience stores are building on a 7-Eleven petition drive that secured about 1.66 million signatures. Beckwith said he expects to have about 2 million signatures to send up to Capitol Hill by March.
Correction: Feb. 4, 2010
The article incorrectly stated the number of signatures collected for a petition drive. The correct number is 1.66 million. In addition, Lyle Beckwith said he expects to have 2 million signatures sent up.