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June 18, 2010

The Smear Becomes More Clear

It hasn’t been a good PR week for multimillionaire PR flack Rick Berman. This past weekend, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune exposed his attack on The HSUS and included the voices of animal shelter leaders concerned that Berman’s smear campaign against The HSUS was harming their operations. And today, The New York Times published a front-page story calling out Berman and his half dozen phony “nonprofit” organizations that exist for the sole purpose of attacking many of the nation’s leading charities, including The HSUS, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), in a naked self-enrichment scheme for the 67-year-old lawyer and lobbyist.

For the past year, the Center for Consumer Freedom, one of Berman’s groups run on a day-to-day basis by David Martosko (who, interestingly, given the attacks on MADD, has a "rap sheet" with a drunk driving conviction and a list of other vehicular violations), has been waging a brand-attack campaign against The HSUS. Berman won’t reveal his donors, but last year he made the rounds to a wide range of corporations involved in animal cruelty and told them The HSUS was the greatest threat to their industries and he’d mount a PR offensive with their money. Berman has long had ties to the food and beverage and alcohol sectors, so it wasn’t a big leap for him to come with open hand to agribusiness interests upset about The HSUS’s undercover efforts exposing slaughterhouse abuses and our successful campaigns against extreme confinement of animals in small cages on factory farms.

Downed cow at Hallmark/Westland
© The HSUS
Animal use industries fear The HSUS's track record of success.

There’s just one reason that The HSUS is the target of a Berman campaign: we are strategic and effective in fighting institutionalized animal cruelty in the United States and abroad. So we take his attack as a marker of our success. Still though, we are committed to exposing Berman and his phony campaigns, so that no American is deceived by the likes of a scammer like him.

Let me try to draw out the key facts of the Berman shell game.

First, Berman is a guy who defends industries that practice animal cruelty, a man who minimizes the problems of drunk driving and childhood obesity, a fellow who makes the case for the safety of mercury in seafood—a PR smoothie who cut his teeth telling people cigarette smoking was a harmless vice. That should be an unmistakable indicator to anyone concerned about the health and well-being of a civil society that this guy is a disreputable person.

Second, Berman abuses the tax code by creating nice-sounding “nonprofit” charitable organizations that serve no discernible purpose but exist to attack legitimate public interest organizations. Berman and his groups don’t help one animal, shelter one homeless person, or do anything for the public good. He is a PR hit man masquerading as a nonprofit, and Stephanie Strom’s piece in The New York Times exposes him as such.

Third, corporations that fund Berman’s “nonprofits” not only get his public relations services but also unwarranted tax benefits and anonymity. They essentially hire out Berman to do the kind of work they don’t want to have their fingerprints on, and they scam taxpayers in the process. There’s nothing wrong with companies hiring lobbyists and PR firms to make their case to the American public, but they should disclose who they are and not fleece the American taxpayers in the process.

Fourth, Berman hires his own for-profit PR firm to do the advertising and media work for his nonprofit groups, with a large share of total revenues for each of his groups going to Berman and Company, a for-profit PR company he owns. In 2008, 92 percent of the money taken in by the Center for Consumer Freedom went either to pay Berman or the company he owns. In short, Berman double dips—getting paid by his nonprofits and also his for-profit PR company, which almost exclusively works for his phony organizations. It’s a personal enrichment scheme for a multimillionaire.

On one level, it’s all worked very well for Mr. Berman. He fights efforts to raise the minimum wage, but he drives a Bentley and a Ferrari, and he lives in a $3.4 million mansion in northern Virginia. But at this unique and unsavory intersection of the philanthropic and corporate sectors concocted by Berman, you’d have a hard time finding a more corrupt scheme anywhere in America.

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