Lobbyist opposing DWI law accused

Anti-union PR boss Richard Berman is on the hot seat after two charity organizations asked the New York State Commission on Public Integrity to investigate one of his firms for illegal lobbying. According to a joint press release by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and The Humane Society, the two organizations have filed a complaint alleging that Berman’s lobbying firm, the American Beverage Institute, failed to register and report its activities to the state of New York.

According to New York state law, a lobbyists who spends more than $5,000 on lobbying activities must register with the state. According to reports, Berman’s American Beverage Institute spent more than $70,000 for advertisements against pending legislation to crack down on DWI offenders.

The American Beverage Institute is one of Berman’s many corporate front groups. He works on behalf of alcohol, fast-food, tobacco, and agribusiness corporations to fight regulations on alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and other health and safety laws. Part of Berman’s strategy has been to attack groups like MADD and the Humane Society. As part of his campaign to weaken DWI laws, Berman called MADD a “scare” group.

In 2008, ABI ran full-page ads in New York newspapers in opposition to pending bipartisan legislation requiring anyone convicted of driving while intoxicated to install an ignition interlock device while on probation.

ABI and Berman’s efforts ultimately proved unsuccessful, and an interlock bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. David Paterson in 2009. “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 her and severely injuring the other young passengers. The driver was charged with DWI and manslaughter.

Berman has also used hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Tobacco companies to fight smoking restrictions by promoting the idea that second-hand smoke is safe, despite a medical consensus its dangers.

In addition, Berman’s lobbying firms have argued obesity is not a public health issue, defended the cruelest forms of animal abuse, and have sought to depress workers’ rights and prevent minimum wage increases – all under the guise of “public interest” advocacy.

In 2006, business interests paid Richard Berman hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight a wave of state laws requiring large employers like Wal-Mart to provide health insurance for their employees instead of forcing them to seek public assistance.

The MADD/Humane Society complaint in New York alleged that according to recent tax filings, Berman and his for-profit public relations firms have funneled 92 percent of donations straight into their own pockets.

In 2006, the non-partisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) expressed concerns that Berman illegally pocketed large amounts of cash donated to his supposed non-profit group. Berman’s partisan work on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party violated his groups’ non-partisan status, CREW alleged.

“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.”

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimwinstead/ / CC BY 2.0



Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).