lobby campaign group APP /Sinarmas di Washington DC.
NYT March 30, 2011
Odd Alliance: Business Lobby and Tea Party
By MIKE McINTIRE
The Tea Party does not have a presence in Indonesia, where the term evokes cups of orange pekoe and sweet cakes rather than angry citizens in “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirts.
But a Tea Party group in the United States, the Institute for Liberty, has vigorously defended the freedom of a giant Indonesian paper company to sell its wares to Americans without paying tariffs. The institute set up Web sites, published reports and organized a petition drive attacking American businesses, unions and environmentalists critical of the company, Asia Pulp & Paper.
Last fall, the institute’s president, Andrew Langer, had himself videotaped on Long Wharf in Boston holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence as he compared Washington’s proposed tariff on paper from Indonesia and China to Britain’s colonial trade policies in 1776.
Tariff-free Asian paper may seem an unlikely cause for a nonprofit Tea Party group. But it is in keeping with a succession of pro-business campaigns — promoting commercial space flight, palm oil imports and genetically modified alfalfa — that have occupied the Institute for Liberty’s recent agenda.
The Tea Party movement is as deeply skeptical of big business as it is of big government. Yet an examination of the Institute for Liberty shows how Washington’s influence industry has adapted itself to the Tea Party era. In a quietly arranged marriage of seemingly disparate interests, the institute and kindred groups are increasingly the bearers of corporate messages wrapped in populist Tea Party themes.
In a few instances, their corporate partners are known — as with the billionaire Koch brothers’ support of Americans for Prosperity, one of the most visible advocacy groups. More often, though, their nonprofit tax status means they do not have to reveal who pays the bills.
Mr. Langer would not say who financed his Indonesian paper initiative. But his sudden interest in the issue coincided with a public relations push by Asia Pulp & Paper. And the institute’s work is remarkably similar to that produced by one of the company’s consultants, a former Australian diplomat named Alan Oxley who works closely with a Washington public affairs firm known for creating corporate campaigns presented as grass-roots efforts.
For the institute, the embrace of a foreign conglomerate’s agenda is a venture into new territory — and distinguishes it among Tea Party advocacy groups. The issue, Mr. Langer asserted, is important to working Americans who might have to pay more for everything from children’s books to fried-chicken buckets made of coated paper from Asia. He said the institute had not accepted money directly from Asia Pulp & Paper, though it was possible the company had paid others who then contributed to the institute.
“I suppose it could be,” he said, but added, “I don’t know about anybody else who may have gotten money from Asia Pulp & Paper who’s given money to us.”
Those on the receiving end of the institute’s attacks — strange bedfellows like Greenpeace, Staples and Asia Pulp & Paper’s American competitors — are unified in their skepticism of its motives.
“If you can spend as much money as you want and remain anonymous, then it doesn’t matter if you’re an overseas company or the Koch brothers, you pay the same network of anti-regulatory front groups,” said Scott Paul, director of Greenpeace’s forest campaign.
Seeing Tea Party Potential
Like many other nonprofit organizations on the Tea Party bandwagon, the Institute of Liberty predates the movement. It was created in 2005 by Jason Wright, an author of best-selling inspirational novels who had worked for Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative policy group.
In his three years at the institute, Mr. Wright said in an interview, he was often approached by public relations consultants pitching projects for clients. Typical, he said, were overtures from two consultants who wanted him to advocate for opposing positions on the regulation of “payday” loans, widely criticized for usurious terms that hurt low-income borrowers.
“A P.R. firm in D.C. offered me a ton of money to take the wrong side of that issue,” he said. “I did end up taking some corporate donations from the side of the issue I believed in — that the industry had completely lost control and had to be reined in.”
One of his most visible stands was opposing net neutrality, a tenet of Internet policy criticized by broadband suppliers who want the right to charge for different levels of service. With the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009, the institute, by then under Mr. Langer, helped inject the issue into the national dialogue, and soon signs equating net neutrality with government oppression became a staple at Tea Party rallies.
Mr. Langer had arrived the previous year from the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business lobbying group. An enthusiastic, talkative man of 40 who dabbles in Republican politics in Maryland, he quickly saw potential in the Tea Party phenomenon. Working with FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, the institute co-sponsored early Tea Party events in Washington and published a guide called “How to Brew a Tea Party.”
Mr. Langer can seem disarmingly candid when discussing his work. In a recent interview, he explained how the institute pitched its services to opponents of the Obama health care plan, resulting in a $1 million advertising blitz.
“A donor gave us some money, and we went out on the ground in five states in the space of like six weeks,” he said.
He would not identify any donors, and, as a nonprofit “social welfare” organization, the institute does not have to release such information. Because the institute is a tax-exempt group, its I.R.S. filings are supposed to be publicly available, but Mr. Langer said returns for the last couple of years were being amended and refiled. The last available filing showed it took in $92,500 in 2007 — a fraction of what it has spent since on several major campaigns.
He said he had sometimes chosen issues suggested by colleagues from an earlier job, at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group heavily financed by business interests. The two institutes are involved in a campaign advocating a realignment of NASA’s budget that would benefit commercial spaceflight entrepreneurs. The Institute of Liberty’s contribution was a Web page called “No Space Pork!”
Last year, the two groups also supported the effort by the agribusiness giant Monsanto to ease federal restrictions on its pesticide-resistant alfalfa. (In February, regulators agreed to do so.) Mr. Langer said he decided “to try out our grass-roots method on that, and frame it as a dairy issue and access to affordable food.”
He got a column published in July in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, talking up Monsanto’s product and asking readers to consider the value of bioengineered foods as they “stroll down the aisle of the supermarket.” The institute’s Web site urged members to speak up, and Mr. Langer filed a petition with the Department of Agriculture.
But a close look at that petition illustrates how a “grass-roots” campaign may be something else entirely. He submitted 8,052 comments he said were collected by telephone. The comments, under different names, were identical and began: “I was recently contacted by the Institute for Liberty and asked if I would be willing to lend my voice in support of moving these types of alfalfa to nonregulated status.” The New York Times examined a random sample of 50 names, and found that three of the people were dead when the comments were submitted. Others said they had no idea their names had been used.
“I vaguely remember responding to a survey as to whether or not the affordability of food for my family was important to me,” said Romeyn Jenkins of Iowa. “But that is far different than setting myself up as an authority on specific genetically engineered crops and authorizing my name for submission on form letters.”
Told of these findings, Mr. Langer said, “That’s news to me,” and attributed them to errors by a consultant he retained to solicit the petitions, whom he would not identify. “Naturally,” he said, “the law of averages dictates that not everything will be perfect, and I will contact the vendor about that.”
Taking On Tariffs
Mr. Langer’s latest initiative, defending Asian paper imports, is the central theme of his project called the Consumers Alliance for Global Prosperity, started with Frontiers of Freedom.
Domestic paper companies and their employee unions, complaining that China and Indonesia were subsidizing exported paper products, petitioned federal trade officials several years ago to slap tariffs on them. The main target, Asia Pulp & Paper, is also under attack for its logging practices; several big retailers have stopped selling its paper.
Last year, with a tariff decision looming, Asia Pulp & Paper went on the offensive. It deployed lobbyists and retained Mr. Oxley, the Australian who runs a Washington-based policy group, World Growth International, which has long defended commercial forestry and palm oil interests in Southeast Asia.
World Growth issued a report last June, “Green Protectionism,” asserting that groups like Greenpeace colluded with American labor unions and paper manufacturers to hobble Asian paper imports. In September, Asia Pulp & Paper released an Oxley review criticizing a Greenpeace study of the company’s logging practices.
Three days later, Mr. Langer came out with his own detailed report that hewed to these same themes, and put up a Web site, pulpwars.com, to promote it. Titled “Empires of Collusion,” it reads like a brief for Asia Pulp & Paper and has been followed by reports on subjects like palm oil and American paper industry subsidies that are important to Asia Pulp & Paper and its parent company, Sinar Mas. He has worked these issues into podcasts, Facebook postings and opinion columns, often with a folksy Tea Party-friendly twist.
“More regulation and U.S. corporate welfare do not benefit American consumers, Asian companies or those in Southeast Asia who desperately need employment,” he said.
Although some of his material cites Asia Pulp & Paper, Mr. Langer insists that he had not even heard of the company when he was setting up Consumers Alliance last August to call attention to free trade and affordability of products. He decided to do its first campaign on paper imports, he said, because the tariffs — which were approved in October — could raise textbook prices. “Paper came up because it was the beginning of the school year,” he said, adding that no one brought him the idea.
Internet domain records, however, show that pulpwars.com was created shortly before the Consumers Alliance Web site in mid-August, suggesting the paper issue was driving the project from the start. And there are intriguing links between Mr. Langer’s operation and Mr. Oxley’s.
World Growth and Consumers Alliance share an e-mail marketing service. And an executive at the DCI Group, a Washington corporate affairs firm that helped Mr. Oxley set up World Growth and has continued to provide services to it, is married to Mr. Langer’s consultant on the Consumers Alliance project.
The DCI executive, Trice Whitefield, has done communications work on forestry and climate change issues for World Growth. Her husband, Bret Jacobson, said he did “some Web design and initial communications efforts” for Consumers Alliance but would not talk about how he got the assignment. Neither would Ms. Whitefield, who said only that her husband “does his own thing and I do mine.”
Mr. Oxley, who has previously worked with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Frontiers of Freedom and other conservative groups in Washington, denied collaborating with Mr. Langer. He attributed any similarities between his work and the institute’s to the small number of organizations promoting the issue.
While acknowledging that he had represented Asia Pulp & Paper, he said he did not know if the company was financing the Consumers Alliance, but added, “It’s not unusual that economic interests who are challenged would take action in some way.”
As for Asia Pulp & Paper, one of its executives seemed to suggest it was lending a hand somehow. Speaking last October to Mongabay.com, a Web site focused on forests and conservation, Ian Lifshitz said his company would continue to “support groups like the Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity” that respect the economic rights of developing nations.
Asked about that recently, Mr. Lifshitz, who is the sustainability and public outreach manager for the North American division, backtracked, saying, “We do not directly or indirectly fund” Consumers Alliance.
“What I was getting at,” he said, “is that we’re just like-minded.”