Nonprofits, experts are the new lobbyists

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WASHINGTON -- A group called Citizens for Health recently launched a campaign to encourage consumers to reduce high-fructose corn syrup in their diet, filing a petition with the Food and Drug Administration demanding stricter labeling on food items containing the sweetener.

Yet the petition did not disclose that the organization, which bills itself as the "voice of the natural-health consumer," received the bulk of its funding in the year it launched the effort from sugar companies, which see corn syrup as a threat to their profits.

The sugar industry's investment in this nonprofit group, detailed in newly released internal documents, is part of a growing strategy used by corporate and other interests seeking to influence Washington policymaking.

No longer content to rely on traditional lobbyists, companies are investing in other messengers such as nonprofit groups or academicians who can provide expert testimony, shape media coverage and change public opinion in ways that ultimately affect decisions in the nation's capital.

The new approach gives deep-pocketed interests more tools to influence policy but without the transparency that comes from traditional lobbyist registration rules that require companies to disclose how they seek to influence policymaking. Nonprofit organizations, now playing an increasing role in lobbying and electoral politics, are not required to publicly reveal their donors.

The trend toward so-called "soft lobbying" is clear in new data. Major corporations are hiring fewer registered lobbyists in the capital overall, with reported spending declining in 2013 to a five-year low, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But the seeming decline is more than offset by increased unreported spending on other methods to shape laws and regulations.

The new documents lay out in striking detail the extent to which two large and competing industry groups -- The Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association -- made use of these alternative influence tactics as they jockeyed to protect their positions in a health-conscious food market.

Sugar and corn have been in intense competition since the 1980s, when corn syrup became one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors as it was selected as a less expensive alternative to sugar for the U.S. production of Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks, baked goods, soups and other manufactured foods.

The new documents were released as part of a lawsuit in which the sugar industry contends that the corn refiners engaged in a "sinister conspiracy" to get the public to falsely believe that corn syrup is "natural corn sugar," effectively indistinguishable from table sugar.

The documents reveal how both sides poured money into nonprofit groups that have feel-good names but promote industry agendas in public campaigns and government proceedings.

Both sides financed academic research to bolster their positions -- in some cases, sugar advocates cited research once considered so dubious by in-house science advisers that the advisers warned against using it. A spokesman for The Sugar Association said the scientists' views changed as more information was revealed.

One prominent Florida doctor specializing in health and nutrition received $10 million since 2008 from the corn-refining industry for research that continues to show corn syrup to be no less healthy than table sugar.

The researcher, James Rippe, a Harvard-trained cardiologist who runs the Rippe Lifestyle Institute, presented 30 peer-reviewed studies showing that there is no nutritional difference between sugar and corn syrup.

"Our research debunks the vilification of high fructose corn syrup," Dr. Rippe said in a press statement accompanying one of his recently published studies. In an interview, he confirmed that, on top of the $10 million for research paid to his institute, he personally received a consulting fee of $500,000 a year from corn refiners.

That fee covered the time he spent countering "wild assertions" about corn syrup using data from his double-blind randomized trials that have been published in peer reviewed journals. The $10 million funded his research, he said.

"It is expensive because you have to put people in a metabolic unit, draw blood regularly for 36 hours," he said in an interview. "These are not trivial studies. They are detailed, delicate and intricate."

Corn industry officials said most of the funds paid to Dr. Rippe were dedicated to research.

"More than eight out of 10 dollars paid to Dr. James Rippe has gone to funding, in a transparent way, high quality clinical research, the results of which have been published in peer reviewed journals," the corn refiners said in a prepared statement.

To further bolster their case with lawmakers and the public, the corn refiners sent an additional $2.3 million over two years to a nonprofit group called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which subsequently launched a television, newspaper and web campaign to defend corn syrup safety and undermine critics.

Initially, corn syrup industry officials sought to conceal their role in the campaign.

A September 2009 email from Audrae Erickson, then the chief executive of the Corn Refiners Association, detailed a plan to keep the industry's role secret. Ms. Erickson wrote officials at Cargill, attaching copies of forthcoming television and newspapers ads developed by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group directed by Richard Berman, a well-known Washington lobbyist who specializes in using nonprofit groups for corporate messaging.

"As you know, our sponsorship of this campaign remains confidential," Ms. Erickson wrote. "We are funding Berman & Co. directly, not the Center for Consumer Freedom which is running the ads. If asked, please feel free to state the following: 'The Corn Refiners Association is not funding the Center for Consumer Freedom.' "

Berman and Co. declined to comment for this article, citing ongoing litigation.

The documents show that the sugar industry moved early to embrace aggressive tactics. Internal memos from The Sugar Association from 2003 and 2004 describe the trade group's top objective as "replacement of High Fructose Corn Syrup" with sugar.

A year-in-review document from April 2004 boasts that the sugar group had already "fed the media with the science to help fuel the public concern and debate on High Fructose Corn Syrup."

The debate intensified in 2010, when the corn refiners asked the Food and Drug Administration to allow high-fructose corn syrup to be renamed "corn sugar," a move that The Sugar Association blasted as "a blatant attempt to steal sugar's identity and goodwill."

In 2011, the documents show, The Sugar Association infused the Citizens for Health group with a $350,0000 donation, an amount that subsequently increased to more than half a million dollars.

"I worked hard to get sugar as an ally," said James Turner, the Washington lawyer who formed Citizens for Health in 1992. He recalled being outraged that corn syrup firms sought to relabel their product as corn sugar.

"When there are market forces that have views that are the same as mine, I want to get with them."



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