This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.
A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned -- typically, a corporate or government sponsor. The tobacco industry is notorious for using front groups to create confusion about the health risks associated with smoking, but other industries use similar tactics as well. The pharmaceutical and healthcare industries use front groups disguised as "patients rights" advocates to market their products and to lobby against government policies that might affect their profits. Food companies, corporate polluters, politicians -- anyone who has a message that they are trying to sell to a skeptical audience is tempted to set up a front group to deliver messages that they know the public will reject if the identity of the sponsor is known.
The shadowy way front groups operate often makes it difficult to know whether a seemingly independent organization is actually representing some other entity. That's why we need your help to research and expose them. Using the resources that we have listed here, it is often possible to identify publicize the hidden sponsor who lurks behind a front group. We need you to help in the search.
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The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is a lobbying group that calls itself "the voice of small business." However, the group has been shown to lobby on issues that favor large corporate interests and run counter to the interests of small businesses. News reports have also found that NFIB, which claims to be non-partisan, engages in partisan politics, and receives millions in hidden contributions.
Small business owners run the gamut politically. For instance, 33 percent identify as Republicans, 32 percent as Democrats, and 29 percent as Independent. However, NFIB accepted a $3.7 million gift in 2010 from Crossroads GPS, a group affiliated with Republican political operative Karl Rove that overwhelmingly endorses and financially supports Republican candidates. According to new data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), in 2010 the NFIB Small Business Legal Center (SBLC) received $1.15 million from "conservative 501(c)(3) conduit group" Donors Trust, a major contributor to the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Other contributions include the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which gave to a wide range of conservative groups including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
In June 2012, Congress launched an inquiry into NFIB’s hidden sources of funding, which include large individual donations of over $1 million. However, NFIB has refused to disclose its donors.
A 2006 report quoted NFIB members who said the group was inflating its membership size of 650,000. NFIB now claims 350,000 members.
While the average small business owner makes slightly over $100,000, NFIB filings with the IRS show that CEO Dan Danner’s salary in 2011 was $743,676.
Latest articles from the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch about front groups:
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- APCO Worldwide, a PR firm affiliated with the law firm of Arnold & Porter, has created front groups for the tobacco industry such as The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition and Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. Other tobacco industry front groups have included Associates for Research in the Science of Enjoyment, the Beverly Hills Restaurant Association, the California Political Empowerment Committee, Contributions Watch, the European Science and Environment Forum, and the Hospitality Coalition for Indoor Air Quality.
- Former Arkansas Governor and U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee raised money to support his political career through a tobacco-funded front group called Action America.
- Lexington Communications, a PR firm based in the United Kingdom, has sponsored pro-biotechnology organizations in the UK including the Agricultural Biotechnology Council and CropGen.
- Alaska's Future is a front group created to promote a natural gas pipeline on behalf of companies including ExxonMobil, BP and ConocoPhillips.
- America's PAC, a conservative political action committee, has one of the top ten election-season advertisers in American markets, featuring vitriolic attack ads that attempt to discourage African-Americans from voting at all. Using a group that is not formally affiliated with the Republican Party to engage in negative campaigning is a tactic designed to minimize public backlash against this type of negative campaigning.
- The American Center for Voting Rights actually campaigned to make it harder for Americans to vote, under the guise of preventing "voter fraud."
- Funded by the chemical and food industries, the American Council on Science and Health campaigns to defend sugar, pesticides and chemical additives in foods.
- With funding from Enron, a group called Americans for Affordable Electricity campaigned in the 1990s for deregulation of the electricity market in the U.S., undermining the reliability of the electricity supply and trigging rising electricity prices and blackouts in California and the northeastern states of the US.
- Americans for American Energy, a front group created by Pac/West Communications to campaign for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, attempts to link environmental concerns to terrorism, accusing "liberal lawyers and environmental extremists" of subverting "America's access to vital energy supplies."
- Bureaucrash, an anti-regulatory website targeting a youth audience, is actually a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a corporate-funded think tank.
- Some front groups like to use the word "responsible" in the name they choose for their organization, usually as a weaselly way of positioning themselves to advocate against the cause that the rest of their name seems to support. Examples include the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions (which opposed environmental action to prevent global warming); the Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy (which advocates expanded oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge); and the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Reform (created in 2007 by Blue Cross of California to oppose health care reforms being pushed by Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Full list of SourceWatch articles about front groups: