Bradley Foundation Bankrolls Front Groups of Discredited PR Spin Doctor Richard Berman

Documents examined by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) pull back the curtain on the highly politicized funding of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and its relationship with Richard Berman, the public relations spin doctor dubbed a "hired gun" for corporate America by 60 Minutes.

Bradley is bankrolling multiple Berman front groups along with groups across the nation that are working to "defund Big Labor" and to destroy unions, the most significant advocate for higher wages and better working conditions in America. Berman was caught on tape telling prospective funders: "I get up every morning and I try and figure out how to screw with the labor unions" and "marginalize the people on the other side," as CMD helped reveal in 2014.

The highly political nature of Bradley's efforts is underscored by Bradley grantees who boast in major newspapers and in Bradley-funded publications like the Daily Signal that the evisceration of public and private sector unions in states like Wisconsin and Michigan was successful in turning blue states red in the last presidential election cycle. Bradley even has a promotional video "Blue Lakes Red States," boasting of the success of its numerous grantees.

Berman has mastered the dark art of dissemination disinformation though front groups, websites, TV and print ads and paid social media campaigns. While most of Berman's front groups are no more than a website, a few of them have been incorporated as non-profit "charitable" organizations. They may even have an employee attached to them and a specific focus, but as the New York Times detailed in 2016, employees are generally housed at the PR firm Berman and Co. and report to the boss, Rick Berman.

These "charities" serve the function of allowing groups like Bradley to send tax-exempt funds, which are then funneled into Berman's wholly-owned for-profit entity, Berman and Co., under the rubric of "management fees." This scheme has prompted Charity Navigator, an independent authority on charitable giving, to issue donor warnings on Berman front groups. It has also prompted serious complaints against Berman and Co. for abusing the tax code and engaging in activities for private benefit.

The Bradley Files suggest that the foundation is quite comfortable with the Berman shell game. Bradley board documents characterize Berman's confusing jumble of front groups and websites as a "collaborative cluster of nonprofit groups" and reveal for the first time that Bradley itself created a Berman project called the "Interstate Policy Alliance" within Berman's Employment Policies Institute.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an ethics watchdog group, filed an IRS complaint against Berman some years ago and helps track the flack's activities.

"When a company or a foundation gives money to Richard Berman or one of the groups set up and run by his consulting firm, they're investing in his way of doing business, which includes exploiting 'fear and anger' to 'shoot the messenger,' usually in defense of issues his clients don't want to be publicly identified with," said Matt Corley, CREW Research Director.

One example is Berman's "BigGreenRadicals.com" website, an attack on four environmental organizations, the National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Food and Water Watch. The website says it is a project of the "Environmental Policy Alliance" and does not disclose Berman's involvement. The Bradley files reveal for the first time that the foundation gave $150,000 to a Berman front group to fund this website under the misnomer "public education" (Center for Consumer Freedom, Grant Proposal Record, 11/12/2013).

In recent years, the site has been trashing environmental activists in Colorado. There has been a multi-year throw down between anti-fracking community groups battling it out against the oil and gas industry, and the national environmental groups have been lending a hand.

"Richard Berman is a go-to hire for corporate bullies. If the Bradley Foundation is paying groups to focus more on political bullying, it makes sense they would support Berman's attacks on environmental advocates," said Connor Gibson of Greenpeace's investigations team.

More recently, Bradley has funded another Berman front group to "expose Big Labor's strategies and tactics, including in the policymaking arena." Materials included in the Bradley files as examples of Berman's work are a series of print ads accusing teachers of treating kids like garbage and ads that liken teachers' unions to roach traps (Center for Union Facts, Grant Proposal Record, 1/10/2015).

Bradley enemies list - sidebarBradley even has an enemies list.

In board meetings and committee meetings in 2014, Bradley Foundation staff distributed and discussed a chart of "Organizations that Attack Conservatives." The chart lists 17 groups with information about their size, funders, and leadership. The groups are a mixture of good government groups, media groups, public relations firms, and funding organizations including, in alphabetical order:

Alliance for Justice; American Bridge, BerlinRosen; Center for American Progress/Think Progress Blog; Center for Media and Democracy; Change.org; Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW); Color of Change; Common Cause; Democracy Alliance; Fenton Communications; FitzGibbon Media; Media Matters for America; Mother Jones, One Wisconsin Now; Open Society Institute; and Progress Now.

A note with the chart says Bradley wanted to "survey the landscape of such groups for a more informed perspective about that which could perhaps be done to mitigate the damage they could do." The note says the information about the groups came from two Berman websites "Activistfacts.com and CREWexposed.com, projects of the Bradley-supported Center for Consumer Freedom" (Meeting of the Implementation and Impact Committee, October 14, 2014).

Through Berman, the Bradley Foundation can engage in unseemly opposition research and disinformation campaigns, while still keeping the appearance of a staid, philanthropic institution.

According to the Bradley Files, Bradley has given Berman groups at least $6.5 million. Bradley gave Berman's "Employment Policies Institute," an organization that spreads misinformation about the effects of minimum wage increases and other workplace reforms, a total of $3,650,000 between 2009-2015; Berman's "Center for Consumer Freedom," a front group created to undermine public support for food-safety and animal welfare groups, $625,000 between 2009-2013; Berman's "Center for Union Facts," created to attack and undermine unions and collective bargaining, $2,240,000 between 2006-2015.

In addition, Bradley funds the "Capital Research Center" to work with Berman on projects. The Center is not part of the Berman operation, but is run by a former Berman employee, Scott Walter. It received $2.5 million from Bradley between 1998-2015.

But for all intents and purposes, the Bradley foundation is underwriting the activities of three people: Berman and Co. President Richard Berman, Vice President Sarah Longwell (who is often listed as the contact for Center for Consumer Freedom and many other Berman groups), and Vice President Michael Saltsman (who is also listed as the head of the Employment Policy Institute, which is located within Berman's offices).

Bradley bankrolls Berman for at least three sets of activities:

  • Disseminating studies via the Interstate Policy Alliance

  • Recommending state infrastructure investments

  • Coaching on "crisis communication" and opposition research

Dissemination of Studies

Berman's Employment Policies Institute (EPI) was named to confuse the public with an actual think tank, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which employs a host of PhD-level economists and other support staff. Berman's EPI has no economists on staff, but does employ "Research Director" Michael Saltsman, who has no advanced degree. MSNBC's Chris Hayes pinned Saltsman down on that point in a remarkable interview.

In 2013, Bradley earmarked $300,000 for a new Berman project within EPI called the Interstate Policy Alliance (IPA). In 2014, the grant for the same work doubled to $600,000 and included "crisis communication" for Bradley-funded groups on the receiving end of bad publicity, and in 2015, Bradley provided $400,000. Click here for a full list of Berman IPA groups.

Bradley documents describe IPA as a "discrete channel" for "studies" that could be utilized by state-based groups "to achieve maximum credibility in local and social media outlets."

"Created at Bradley's behest in 2012 and with continuing Bradley support since then, IPA is a discreet channel for the better coordination and presentation of helpful, high-quality research on existing and proposed state-level, free-market policies around the country. It provides this research, too often out of reach for many small state think tanks, and customizes it for each state to achieve maximum credibility in local- and social-media outlets. The Searle Freedom Trust has joined Bradley in support of the project" (Barder Fund, August 18, 2015).

State think tanks participating in Berman's IPA, which include Wisconsin's Bradley-supported MacIver Institute, do not have to pay for the research or its packaging or dissemination. They are able to easily access data that has been uploaded to a password-protected website. As needed, Berman's IPA also helps with report writing, graphic design, news release preparation, op-ed placement and the scheduling of interviews, (EPI, Grant Proposal Record, 11/10/2015 ).

In 2015, the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute revealed how IPA operated, when it reported that the Beacon Hill Institute was releasing misleading studies attacking President Obama's Clean Power Plan, an ambitious multi-year effort to cut carbon pollution and mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. The funding for the study came through the previously unknown group called the Interstate Policy Alliance.

In many of its sponsored research "studies," IPA promotes fossil fuel development over renewables. This has been a long-term agenda item of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate funded bill mill and many State Policy Network "think tanks" and advocacy groups funded by Bradley. In addition, the Bradley documents examined by CMD show Bradley is funding numerous climate denial groups, including Myron Ebell's Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute.

  • One IPA report, touts the tens of billions of revenue North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia might gain from offshore oil and gas development in the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Another report argues that fossil fuel development of federal lands in seven Rocky Mountain states will grow the economies at a faster pace than renewables.
  • Another promotes the transfer of federal lands to states, claiming that revenues from taxes and fees will rapidly flow to states.
  • And yet another study criticizes the Renewable Portfolio Standards in 29 states and D.C. as costly to consumers, while ignoring any benefits to jobs or the environment.

Infrastructure Investments

The Bradley files reveal that the foundation has a previously undisclosed stream of funding to build right-wing infrastructure nationwide and is using a metric to assess the strength and depth of the infrastructure in individual states a phenomenon that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has dubbed the Bradley Blueprint.

In 2015, Bradley asked Berman's IPA and the allied Capital Research Center (CRC) in Washington, D.C. to conduct an assessment of "second tier" states for consideration as "potential targets of opportunity" to enhance their infrastructure investments.

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The Bradley files also laud Berman & Co.'s Vice President Saltsman, who is described variously in Bradley documents as the "executive director" of EPI and "executive director" of IPA. "The talented and energetic Saltsman's IPA experience has exposed him to many of the strengths and weaknesses of the mid-sized state think tanks and conservative infrastructure around the country."

The CRC/IPA evaluation of the quality and potential of states' existing conservative infrastructure and recommended investments in eight states: Colorado, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, and California in that order. The documents note "(Given IPA's Bradley supported role in trying to help all state think tanks, they were quite keen on the report's contents being kept confidential)" (Barder Fund, Nov. 10, 2015).

Bradley asked Saltsman "to discreetly consult with ALEC's Lisa Nelson, ATRF's Grover Norquist, and Ned Ryun of the also Bradley-supported American Majority" on what states should get funding (Barder Fund, 8/18/15).

The advisors named Colorado a top tier priority. Not only is Colorado an important swing state, but Coloradan Terry Considine is on the Bradley Board of Directors. Considine is a failed Colorado politician, but a dedicated right-winger who has long served on the Board of Directors of Club for Growth, the national dark money group.

The political nature of Bradley's investment in this swing state is made clear in a report "Colorado state-infrastructure recommendations" included in the Bradley documents. "Colorado is an important swing state with a broad base of center-right organizations and donors," writes Bradley. The report discusses "The Gang of Four" liberal funders in the state who were featured in an "attention-getting" book called "The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care)," which details how a small group of Democratic donors helped turn the state blue. The book made a big impression on Bradley staff; a picture of the cover is included in the Bradley documents multiple times.

Now Bradley wants to fund institutions in Colorado in an effort to swing the pendulum back again. Bradley recommends five specific grants, including two that illustrate the political nature of the endeavor.

Bradley recommends $125,000 to American Majority for 2016. The grant asks for support for a new field office in the I-25 corridor, an executive director, field staffer and intern. "They would coordinate with Centennial [Institute] and Independence [Institute] to identify, train and nurture mentoring relationships with conservative Coloradans." American Majority is an organization that trains candidates to run for office. It claims to be nonpartisan, but was founded by Republicans to train Republicans (Barder Fund, Nov. 10, 2015).

Bradley recommended $250,000 to the Independence Institute in 2016. The Independence Institute is a State Policy Network member heavily funded by Bradley for both its work on climate issues and its anti-union work. The Bradley documents say it is led by "the charmingly bombastic Jon Caldara" "who has lead the creation of one of the more-effective conservative state infrastructures." But that infrastructure has a problem. "Colorado has 3,600 local governments."

"Not only does the left exercise its power and coercion through these governments, he and [the Independence Institute] believe, but it uses them as farm teams to groom people for higher office." Caldera wants to counter this problem and "build a better bench" for the right-wing by compiling a database of every appointed and elected position in Jefferson County and conducting outreach to these officials. The Institute would coordinate its activities with American Majority, the Centennial Institute and the Leadership Program of the Rockies. Staff recommended $75,000 for this later institution (Barder Fund, Nov. 10, 2015).

These two investments appear to be exactly the type of political spending that might run afoul of IRS rules for permissible non-profit activity.

Other Colorado grantees included Colorado Christian University for its Centennial Institute ($75,000), Leadership Program of the Rockies ($75,000) and the Steamboat Institute ($50,000).

"Crisis Communications" and Opposition Research

Bradley has also bankrolled the Berman team for a communications program for many years.

"Also at Bradley's behest in 2012, CCF [Center for Consumer Freedom] created a related crisis-communications program for state infrastructures. It has been led by Berman vice president Sarah Longwell, formerly director of public affairs at the Bradly-supported Intercollegiate Studies Institute... CCF has consistently exposed the agenda of the activist groups that seek to attack personal freedom and its allies" (EPI, Grant Proposal Record, 11/10/2015).

This crisis communication work as described by Bradley relates directly to the successful, grassroots campaigning against ALEC that was sparked in 2011 after CMD published more than 800 ALEC "model bills" secretly voted on by corporate lobbyists and legislators on its website ALECexposed.org in 2011.

To quote from the Bradley files:

"In the wake of the media firestorm that engulfed the American Legislative Exchange Council last year, it was clear that a new group of influential, media-savvy activist outfits have emerged—along with a new group of targets that includes state think tanks and other entities including foundations. The Gates Foundation, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Walmart, Johnson and Johnson, McDonalds and Wendy's are just a few of the funders that cut ties to ALEC following the media onslaught generated by activists who successfully linked it to the shooting of Trayvon Martin."

"ALEC never saw it coming. Neither really did the Heartland Institute or Chick-fil-A see what was coming when they subsequently have been on the receiving end of similar onslaughts. Caught flat footed as the media charged ahead with the 'Stand Your Ground' story, ALEC had no rapid-response strategy in place to combat this runaway narrative. Berman and Co.'s advice to ALEC to be more aggressive in its response was not followed. The 'I stand with ALEC website' came much too late and brought far too little to its defense" (EPI, Grant Proposal Record, 11/11/2014).

These are "case studies," writes Bradley staff, and "cautionary tales" for any conservative organization. Now Bradley wants to fund CCF for an "off the shelf public relations strategy for use by any such conservative outfit caught in the media crosshairs."

Already-prepared "well sourced opposition research" is key, says the Bradley grant document:

"Just as CMD was able build an online dossier on ALEC that provided activists and sympathetic journalists with a base of research, so too is CCF using its data and information to build a 'bigger and better clearinghouse of research on groups within the wider left-wing network' as part of a rapid response strategy."

CCF boasts of training Bradley-supported "think tanks" across the nation that are members of the State Policy Network (SPN), such as North Carolina's Civitas Institute, Michigan's Mackinac Center, and Washington State's Freedom Foundation. CCF asks Bradley for support to expand this type of opposition research and training to the rest of the SPN network and the Interstate Policy Alliance.

According to a grant proposal record, "Full Service Menu" of Berman Center for Consumer Freedom services would include, 1) support for two or three studies a year, 2) op-ed drafting and placement, 3) drafting and sending of news releases on the groups behalf, 4) compiling a media list of reporter contacts, 5) ad buying for television, radio, print and online, 6) crisis communication assistance and in-state infrastructure seminars (EPI, Grant Proposal Record, 11/11/2014).

In addition, Bradley is recommending a $200,000 grant in renewed support for ALEC in 2016 as it continues to build a "comprehensive communications infrastructure" in response to citizen campaigns targeting its funders. The grant summary reads: "ALEC has been under sustained, organized attack from the Left for several years, as well-documented in Bradley Prize recipient Kimberly Strassel's new book The Intimidation Game: How the Left Silences Free Speech. Under Executive Director Lisa Nelson and at Bradley's urging, ALEC is aggressively, but thoughtfully responding." "The plan consciously mimics the Left's Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL)...the parent organization of Forecast the Facts and Color of Change."

ALEC also redesigned and beefed up its website, deployed more social media, and partnered with CrowdSkout a data analytics company to track, view and engage supporters (ALEC, Grant Proposal Record, 8/16/2016).

Bradley outlines the bigger game plan for ALEC: "The larger plan also has an important component for aggressive 'opposition research,' which has yielded many beneficial outcomes, including to Strassel for her helpful book, among others." This last comment in the Bradley documents suggests that ALEC provided Wall Street Journal editorial writer Kim Strassel with information for her book Intimidation Game. In it, Strassel portrayed the sustained citizen campaigning against ALEC as a well-funded, nefarious effort to crush the "free speech" rights of ALEC and its enormous funders, including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and ALTRIA/Phillip Morris (Strassel received a $250,000 Bradley Prize in 2014).

As part of its opposition research funding, Bradley recommended $115,000 in 2016 for the Capital Research Center run by Bradley-ally Scott Walter to develop "an online encyclopedia of the left" in conjunction with Berman that mimics the Center for Media and Democracy's Sourcewatch.org wiki. CRC wants to focus on the anti-ALEC groups and the Democracy Alliance, a group of liberal funders.

"This will be a comprehensive, wiki-style resource that provides in-depth profiles of left-of-center individuals and organizations based on the model of the Center for Media and Democracy's website Sourcewatch.org…CRC plans to take a page out of Sourcewatch's playbook by ensuring that its new, wiki-style encyclopedia of the left is thorough, regularly updated and written in a manner that is accurate and measured in order to attract and retain a larger audience. The website will be constructed and in partnership with Berman and Company [where Walter worked briefly as director of development], and CRC is collaborating with ALEC and the Heartland Institute to make use of their data as it builds the new website's profile list," (Capital Research Center, Grant Proposal Record, 8/16/2016).

"Sourcewatch is a widely used resource that significantly influences public opinion regarding the activities of center-right groups and individuals. While there are a number of conservative resources that profile organizations and individuals on the Left (such as David Horowitz's DiscoverTheNetworks.org, Heartland Institute's LeftExposed.org, Berman and Company's ActivistFacts.org and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise's UndueInfluence.com) CDC will build upon and complement their efforts adding value through its more comprehensive coverage, superior search engine optimization, and wiki-style format," (Capital Research Center, Grant Proposal Record, 8/16/2016).

Current members of the Bradley Foundation Board are Richard W. Graber (President), Art Pope (Chairman; Variety Wholesalers), Patrick J. English (Vice Chairman; Fiduciary Management, Inc.), Terry Considine (AIMCO), Curt S. Culver (MGIC), Robert P. George (Princeton University), Victor Davis Hanson (Hoover Institution), Diane Hendricks (ABC Supply Co. and Hendricks Holding Co.), Cleta Mitchell (Foley & Lardner), and James T. Barry III (The Barry Company). Former board members include Michael W. Grebe and George F. Will.


David Armiak, Evan James, Nick Surgey, and Lisa Graves contributed research to this series.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is the Deputy Director of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation in 2011 and is a recipient of the Hillman Prize for investigative journalism.