The Great and Powerful Oz was really just an old man with theatrical flair, hiding behind a false persona. In much the same way, D.C. public relations Svengali Richard Berman has taken to these pages in disguise — as the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom — in a dubious attempt to discredit my organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
But Berman isn’t just any corporate shill. He becomes anyone you want him to be ... for the right price.
Berman fronts for a network of phony nonprofit groups with innocuous-sounding names. Today, he’s representing the Center for Consumer Freedom, but he passed himself off last month in the Washington Times as the executive director of the Employment Policies Institute. Sometimes, he’s the head of the Center for Union Facts or the Facts on Childhood Obesity.
This year alone, Berman has penned at least 15 opinion pieces in papers around the country on behalf of four different organizations.
Over the years, he’s claimed to be an expert on smoking, food safety, unions, children’s health and even tanning beds. I’m pretty busy as the executive director of just one organization, so it is hard to imagine how Berman finds the time to lead so many organizations, all with different missions requiring specific expertise.
Berman’s role in so many so-called nonprofits is murky, but the facts about CREW are clear. Since our founding in 2003, CREW has been an ardent critic of corrupt politicians and candidates, regardless of political affiliation. We’ve also been a leader in fighting for government transparency no matter which party is in power. We don’t target Republicans or Democrats, but those who betray the public trust — and that doesn’t make us beloved by either party.
I doubt Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appreciated CREW’s blunt and outspoken criticism of the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) when, as the incoming Speaker, she sought his election as Majority Leader. Similarly, former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) could not have been gratified by our efforts to see then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) held accountable for his long list of misdeeds
Along the same nonpartisan vein, the Obama administration wasn’t any more pleased when we sued for access to White House visitor logs than the Bush administration had been when CREW sued over the same issue a couple of years earlier.
Have we filed complaints against more Republicans than Democrats? Yes. Apparently, Berman believes this is sufficient to merit condemnation. But CREW doesn’t operate under a quota system where we take on one Democrat for every Republican. In fact, such a tit-for-tat approach would mean CREW was doing just what Berman suggests: picking targets based on political affiliation.
Instead, CREW goes where the facts lead, and it is this fierce independence that has left us alternately excoriated and praised by those across the political spectrum.
Someone has an agenda, but it isn’t CREW. Notably, Berman’s opinion piece follows closely on the heels of the IRS complaint filed against CREW by failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. She needs something to do with the $7 million war chest she’s sitting on — it’s not as if she can live on the money. And did I mention that O’Donnell has a book coming out?
But it is not just a coincidence that it is Berman who penned this piece.
Back in 2004, CREW filed a complaint with the IRS against Berman for abusing the nonprofit status of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which has received funding from Philip Morris to mount a campaign claiming the proposed bans on smoking in restaurants infringed on consumer’s choices. We’ve been a thorn in his side ever since.
In fact, CREW created a website dedicated to exposing Berman’s shady tactics. BermanExposed.org reveals that more than 20 of Berman’s so-called nonprofits operate from the same address on Vermont Avenue Northwest that houses his public relations firm, Berman and Co. The site also shows a number of employees of Berman’s public relations firm seemingly hold additional and different positions at several of these organizations. So Berman has his own reasons not to be much of a CREW fan.
In a 2007 “60 Minutes” piece titled “Dr. Evil,” Berman succinctly described his modus operandi as “shoot the messenger.” This “facts-be-damned” philosophy had led him to vilify the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Food and Drug Administration and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It’s a list CREW is proud to join.
Melanie Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.