Bradley Foundation Bankrolls Front Groups of Discredited PR Spin Doctor Richard Berman

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By Mary Bottari, PR Watch, Truth-out.org, May 15, 2017

Also see: Bradley Foundation Bankrolls Attacks on Unions

Also see: Document Trove Details Bradley Foundation’s Efforts to Build Right-Wing “Infrastructure” Nationwide

Documents examined by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) pull back the curtain on the highly politicized funding of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and its relationship with Richard Berman, the public relations spin doctor dubbed a “hired gun” for corporate America by 60 Minutes.

Bradley is bankrolling multiple Berman front groups along with groups across the nation that are working to “defund Big Labor” and to destroy unions, the most significant advocate for higher wages and better working conditions in America. Berman was caught on tape telling prospective funders: “I get up every morning and I try and figure out how to screw with the labor unions” and “marginalize the people on the other side,” as CMD helped reveal in 2014.

The highly political nature of Bradley’s efforts is underscored by Bradley grantees who boast in major newspapers and in Bradley-funded publications like the Daily Signal that the evisceration of public and private sector unions in states like Wisconsin and Michigan was successful in turning blue states red in the last presidential election cycle. Bradley even has a promotional video “Blue Lakes Red States,” boasting of the success of its numerous grantees.

Berman has mastered the dark art of dissemination disinformation though front groups, websites, TV and print ads and paid social media campaigns. While most of Berman’s front groups are no more than a website, a few of them have been incorporated as non-profit “charitable” organizations. They may even have an employee attached to them and a specific focus, but as the New York Times detailed in 2016, employees are generally housed at the PR firm Berman and Co. and report to the boss, Rick Berman.

These “charities” serve the function of allowing groups like Bradley to send tax-exempt funds, which are then funneled into Berman’s wholly-owned for-profit entity, Berman and Co., under the rubric of “management fees.” This scheme has prompted Charity Navigator, an independent authority on charitable giving, to issue donor warnings on Berman front groups. It has also prompted serious complaints against Berman and Co. for abusing the tax code and engaging in activities for private benefit.

The Bradley Files suggest that the foundation is quite comfortable with the Berman shell game. Bradley board documents characterize Berman’s confusing jumble of front groups and websites as a “collaborative cluster of nonprofit groups” and reveal for the first time that Bradley itself created a Berman project called the “Interstate Policy Alliance” within Berman’s Employment Policies Institute.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an ethics watchdog group, filed an IRS complaint against Berman some years ago and helps track the flack’s activities.

“When a company or a foundation gives money to Richard Berman or one of the groups set up and run by his consulting firm, they’re investing in his way of doing business, which includes exploiting ‘fear and anger’ to ‘shoot the messenger,’ usually in defense of issues his clients don’t want to be publicly identified with,” said Matt Corley, CREW Research Director.

One example is Berman’s “BigGreenRadicals.com” website, an attack on four 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 a Berman front group to fund this website under the misnomer “public education” (Center for Consumer Freedom, Grant Proposal Record, 11/12/2013).

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.

More recently, Bradley has funded another Berman front group to “expose Big Labor’s strategies and tactics, including in the policymaking arena.” Materials included in the Bradley files as examples of Berman’s work are a series of print ads accusing teachers of treating kids like garbage and ads that liken teachers’ unions to roach traps (Center for Union Facts, Grant Proposal Record, 1/10/2015).

Bradley even has an enemies list.

In board meetings and committee meetings in 2014, Bradley Foundation staff distributed and discussed a chart of “Organizations that Attack Conservatives.” The chart lists 17 groups with information about their size, funders, and leadership. The groups are a mixture of good government groups, media groups, public relations firms, and funding organizations including, in alphabetical order:

Alliance for Justice; American Bridge, BerlinRosen; Center for American Progress/Think Progress Blog; Center for Media and Democracy; Change.org; Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW); Color of Change; Common Cause; Democracy Alliance; Fenton Communications; FitzGibbon Media; Media Matters for America; Mother Jones, One Wisconsin Now; Open Society Institute; and Progress Now.

A note with the chart says Bradley wanted to “survey the landscape of such groups for a more informed perspective about that which could perhaps be done to mitigate the damage they could do.” The note says the information about the groups came from two Berman websites “Activistfacts.com and CREWexposed.com, projects of the Bradley-supported Center for Consumer Freedom” (Meeting of the Implementation and Impact Committee, October 14, 2014).

Through Berman, the Bradley Foundation can engage in unseemly opposition research and disinformation campaigns, while still keeping the appearance of a staid, philanthropic institution.

According to the Bradley Files, Bradley has given Berman groups at least $6.5 million. Bradley gave Berman’s “Employment Policies Institute,” an organization that spreads misinformation about the effects of minimum wage increases and other workplace reforms, a total of $3,650,000 between 2009-2015; Berman’s “Center for Consumer Freedom,” a front group created to undermine public support for food-safety and animal welfare groups, $625,000 between 2009-2013; Berman’s “Center for Union Facts,” created to attack and undermine unions and collective bargaining, $2,240,000 between 2006-2015.

In addition, Bradley funds the “Capital Research Center” to work with Berman on projects. The Center is not part of the Berman operation, but is run by a former Berman employee, Scott Walter. It received $2.5 million from Bradley between 1998-2015.

But for all intents and purposes, the Bradley foundation is underwriting the activities of three people: Berman and Co. President Richard Berman, Vice President Sarah Longwell (who is often listed as the contact for Center for Consumer Freedom and many other Berman groups), and Vice President Michael Saltsman (who is also listed as the head of the Employment Policy Institute, which is located within Berman’s offices).

Bradley bankrolls Berman for at least three sets of activities:

  • Disseminating studies via the Interstate Policy Alliance
  • Recommending state infrastructure investments
  • Coaching on “crisis communication” and opposition research

Dissemination of Studies

Berman’s Employment Policies Institute (EPI) was named to confuse the public with an actual think tank, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which employs a host of PhD-level economists and other support staff. Berman’s EPI has no economists on staff, but does employ “Research Director” Michael Saltsman, who has no advanced degree. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes pinned Saltsman down on that point in a remarkable interview.

In 2013, Bradley earmarked $300,000 for a new Berman project within EPI called the Interstate Policy Alliance (IPA). In 2014, the grant for the same work doubled to $600,000 and included “crisis communication” for Bradley-funded groups on the receiving end of bad publicity, and in 2015, Bradley provided $400,000. Click here for a full list of Berman IPA groups.

Bradley documents describe IPA as a “discrete channel” for “studies” that could be utilized by state-based groups “to achieve maximum credibility in local and social media outlets.”

“Created at Bradley’s behest in 2012 and with continuing Bradley support since then, IPA is a discreet channel for the better coordination and presentation of helpful, high-quality research on existing and proposed state-level, free-market policies around the country. It provides this research, too often out of reach for many small state think tanks, and customizes it for each state to achieve maximum credibility in local- and social-media outlets. The Searle Freedom Trust has joined Bradley in support of the project” (Barder Fund, August 18, 2015).