The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit corporation run by lobbyist Richard Berman through his Washington, D.C.-based for-profit public relations company, Berman & Co. The Center for Consumer Freedom, formerly known as the Guest Choice Network, was set up by Berman with a $600,000 “donation” from tobacco company Philip Morris.
Berman arranges for large sums of corporate money to find its way into nonprofit societies of which he is the executive director. He then hires his own company as a consultant to these nonprofit groups. Of the millions of dollars “donated” by Philip Morris between the years 1995 and 1998, 49 percent to 79 percent went directly to Berman or Berman & Co.
Richard Berman is an influence peddler. He has worked out a scheme to funnel charitable donations from wealthy corporations into his own pocket. In exchange, he provides a flurry of disinformation, flawed studies, op-ed pieces, letters to the editor, and trade-industry articles, as well as access to his high-level government contacts, who are servants of the industries he represents.
Berman’s name might sound familiar. In 1995, Berman and Norm Brinker, his former boss at Steak and Ale Restaurants, were identified as the special-interest lobbyists who donated the $25,000 that disgraced then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was hauled before the House Ethics Committee for influence-peddling over the money. Berman and Brinker were lobbying against raising the minimum wage.
Richard Berman is a spin doctor. For example, he has argued against a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) initiative to lower the blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for drivers by claiming that the stricter limits would punish responsible social drinkers. He has claimed that U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warnings about salmonella-related food poisoning are just “whipping up fear over food.”
Here’s how an internal Philip Morris memo described Berman’s spin: “His proposed solution would broaden the focus of the ‘smoking issue,’ and expand into the bigger picture of over-regulation.” Smoking won’t kill you; over-regulation will.
Berman is “a one-man wrecking crew on important issues.” His approach has been described as “misleading” and “despicable.” Berman has been called “a tobacco company whore,” but he’s branched out since then.
Using “freedom of choice” as his battle cry, Berman has now taken on PETA and a number of other groups and organizations whose points of view could have an impact on the profits of his clients by waking consumers up. Berman’s Guest Choice Network has an “advisory panel” whose members in 1998 included officials representing companies ranging from Cargill Processed Meat Products and Outback Steakhouse to Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and Sutter Home Winery. Berman’s clients are companies with vested interests in low employee wages; cheap, unhealthy restaurant-chain food, particularly meat; and tobacco, soft drink, and alcohol consumptioncompanies like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Armour Swift, and Philip Morris, whose product line includes Kraft Foods and everything from Marlboro cigarettes to Oscar Meyer wieners and which is a major shareholder in its former subsidiary Miller Brewing, now known as SABMiller.
PETA’s recent successes in gaining fast-food industry concessions for more humane conditions for farm animals have sent ripples of fear through the food and beverage service industry. About the same time that McDonald’s buckled to PETA’s demands, Richard Berman changed his front group’s name and stepped up his attacks.
The key to Berman’s aggressive strategy is, in his own words, “to shoot the messenger ... we’ve got to attack their credibility as spokespersons,”an interesting remark from someone whose background and funding so severely challenge his own credibility.
PETA has since created a response site, PETA Saves, which discusses Richard Berman and the CCF's smear campaign.