Two of the nation's leading public interest charities — Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Humane Society of the United States — formally asked the New York State Commission on Public Integrity on Tuesday to open an investigation into illegal lobbying by Washington lobbyist Rick Berman and one of his many corporate front groups, the American Beverage Institute.
The complaint alleges that Berman and ABI violated New York state's lobbying law. The Lobbying Act requires every lobbyist who spends more than $5,000 on lobbying activities to register and report their activities to the Commission. The complaint alleges ABI violated the law by failing to register and report lobbying activities, including expenditures in excess of $70,000. ABI spent more than $70,000 to purchase and publish advertisements to influence and defeat pending legislation intended to make roadways safer by cracking down on recidivism by convicted DWI offenders.
ABI is run by Washington-based lobbyist Richard Berman, who oversees a network of tax-exempt organizations that serve private business interests by attacking advocacy organizations deemed a threat to the profitability of Berman's alcohol, tobacco, agribusiness and fast-food clients.
Berman's corporate front groups play down the dangers of drunken driving and secondhand smoke, argue obesity is not a public health issue, defend the cruelest forms of animal abuse, and seek to depress workers' rights and prevent minimum wage increases — all under the guise of "public interest" advocacy, and without disclosing the identity of industry clients on whose behalf they speak. According to recent tax filings, Berman and his for-profit public relations firm are the key beneficiaries of the arrangement. According to its most recent tax filings, one of his nonprofits, the Center for Consumer Freedom, funneled 92 percent of its donations straight into the pockets of Berman and his for-profit public relations company.
In 2008, ABI ran full-page ads in the New York Times and the New York Post to oppose pending legislation sponsored by Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo Jr. of the New York state Senate. One provision of the bill required all persons convicted of driving while intoxicated to install an ignition interlock device while on probation.
According to the complaint and the Commission's records, neither ABI, Berman, nor Berman's company registered as lobbyists or reported lobbying activity from 2008 to 2009. It is a misdemeanor to violate the Lobbying Act's registration and reporting requirements and provides for civil penalties of up to $25,000.
ABI and Berman's efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful, and an interlock bill was passed and signed into law in 2009 by Gov. David Paterson. "Leandra's Law" was named in memory of Leandra Rosado, 11, who was killed when the van she and six friends were riding in crashed, violently killing Rosado and severely injuring the other young passengers. The driver of the van was subsequently charged with DWI and manslaughter.
"Rick Berman has for years been running a commercial public relations operation and masquerading as a nonprofit organization," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "Now, it appears that he is violating the law by failing to disclose to New York authorities his lobbying efforts to protect drunk drivers. The state should mete out the strongest penalties for this illegal conduct."