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May 11, 2010

Investigative Report: Richard Berman

Corporate front-man makes a fine living attacking charities

  • LIVING LARGE—The McLean, Va., mansion that is home to Richard Berman, who has established a web of organizations to attack public interest charities and groups on behalf of hidden corporate clients and their agendas. The HSUS

  • LIVING LARGE—The McLean, Va., mansion that is home to Richard Berman, who has established a web of organizations to attack public interest charities and groups on behalf of hidden corporate clients and their agendas. The HSUS

  • LIVING LARGE—The McLean, Va., mansion that is home to Richard Berman, who has established a web of organizations to attack public interest charities and groups on behalf of hidden corporate clients and their agendas. The HSUS

  • LIVING LARGE—The McLean, Va., mansion that is home to Richard Berman, who has established a web of organizations to attack public interest charities and groups on behalf of hidden corporate clients and their agendas. The HSUS

Editor's note: Millionaire PR operative and lobbyist Richard Berman and his shadowy web of corporate-front organizations rake in large sums of money in attacking public interest groups, including The Humane Society of the United States.

The HSUS hired independent journalist Ian T. Shearn to write an investigative report about Berman and the workings of his groups. Shearn, as statehouse Bureau Chief of the Newark Star-Ledger, led a team of reporters that won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper in recognition of its coverage of the resignation of then-Gov. James McGreevey.

Shearn’s distinguished career spanned 29 years as reporter and editor. He is now a freelance writer based in Hillsborough, N.J.

Shearn’s contract required him to identify himself in all encounters as preparing a report for The HSUS. The final product, however, represents his independent reporting and judgment.

This is page 4 of 4. Click here to start at the beginning»

 


 

In April, Berman’s group did garner some media attention, and exacted a degree of angst from the Humane Society, when it pointed out on its website that less than one-half of one percent of HSUS revenue went to animal shelters, a fact Humane Watch asserted was hypocritical and misleading to its donors.  As a result, several corporate donors—including Yellow Tail wines—pulled back their pledges, totaling about $200,000.

For HSUS’s Pacelle, that’s regrettable though understandable. “Corporate funders want to feel good; they don’t want to court controversy,” he said, adding, “But we do still have 11 million supporters.'"

As for the issue of donations to local shelters, Pacelle asserts it’s a complete red herring.  The HSUS’s mission is not intended to be a pass-through operation, but rather to fight animal cruelty on many fronts—including, legal, legislative, educational and rescue efforts. “They would love it if we spent all our money on rescuing stray dogs and cats,” he said. "And, the $200,000 of corporate donations The HSUS recently lost was all dedicated to the group’s animal rescue operations," he added.

“The HSUS provides direct care to more animals than any other animal welfare group in the nation,” said HSUS Chief Operating Officer Michael Markarian,  “spending more than $20 million annually supporting local animal shelters and running our own hands-on animal care programs and providing other direct care services."

  

While The Humane Society in recent months has been defending itself from Berman broadsides, today, it returned salvo.  It came in the form of a joint complaint with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the New York State Commission on Public Integrity, charging that Berman’s American Beverage Institute failed to register and report lobbying activities in 2008 and 2009 “to influence pending legislation related to ignition interlock devices.”  During that time, a bill was pending in the New York State Legislature that would require people convicted of driving while intoxicated to install an ignition interlock device in their vehicles while on probations.

 

MADD has been an active supporter of such legislation, and ABI a vocal opponent. ABI neither registered as a lobbyist nor reported $70,000 it spent on newspaper ads in the New York newspapers, opposing the bill, the complaint states. The bill ultimately passed and was signed into law last year.

The complaint also included the following:

“All ABI work is performed by Berman & Co. employees who bill their time to ABI. As ABI’s president, director, and general counsel, Berman examines Berman & Co. bills charged to ABI and decides whether or not to pay them .” In 2008, Berman & Co. received management fees from ABI in excess of $1.2 million. According to its website, ABI is ‘a restaurant trade association’ that represents restaurant and bar owners that serve alcohol.” ABI Managing Director Sarah Longwell, who also serves as communications director for Berman & Co., declined comment.

Mixed Reviews

Even Berman’s most ardent detractors have to occasionally set aside their contempt to tip their hat to his business and political acumen.

Naomi Seligman, former deputy director for the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was one of the first to take Berman on publicly several years ago, launching a website called BermanExposed.org.

“He is scum extraordinaire. He’s scary brilliant,” she said in a recent interview, “but he gets it in a way 90 percent of Washington doesn’t.”

Richard Bensinger, former AFL-CIO organizer, who is credited with bestowing Berman’s Dr. Evil moniker in a 2006 USA Today article, concedes, “I’ve debated a lot of management people, and Berman is by far the toughest one to reckon with. He is articulate, funny, dynamic, aggressive and polished—a real street fighter.” 


VIDEO: Berman drives away in his Bentley.

Michael Jacobson, a Berman target on food and alcohol issues in his capacity as the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (Berman refers to them as “the food police”), sees Berman as a person “of no morals,” who “has been a mild nuisance over the past decade.”

“They seem to have moved on to presumably more lucrative targets and generally seem to get less and less traction on our issues, said Jeff Cronin, CSPI’s director of communications. “Even a lot of the mainstream food industry organizations just roll their eyes at Berman's tactics these days.”

The back-and-forth on Berman tends to focus on his technique and style. But it begs a simpler question:  What does Berman actually accomplish in the realm of public debate and policy?

“I don’t think Berman is very effective,” Jacobson said. “He temporarily muddies the water a little, but basically he’s just someone on the sidelines throwing raspberries.”

And then drives home in his Bentley.

» go back to the beginning of the report 
» click through to pages 1, 2, 3, 4
» get a pdf of the full report

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