Derailing a multibillion-dollar federal plan to
restore the Florida Everglades is just the kind of cause that suits Citizens
for a Sound Economy, a conservative think tank that fights for smaller
But soon after the group took on the Everglades project in 1998, the
Washington-based nonprofit got an incentive that went beyond the purely
philosophical. It received $700,000 in contributions from Florida's three
biggest sugar enterprises, which stand to lose thousands of acres of
cane-growing land to reclamation if the Army Corps of Engineers plan goes
The sugar contributions were never disclosed publicly but were outlined
in internal CSE documents that detail how various corporate interests
donated millions to the group to bankroll its efforts on issues of direct
interest to them, from global warming to Florida tort reform.
Along with those earmarked contributions, from companies such as Exxon
Corp. and Hertz Corp., the organization received more than
$1 million from Philip Morris Cos. at a time when CSE was opposing cigarette
taxes. Phone company US West Inc. gave $1 million as CSE pushed deregulation
that would let US West offer long-distance service.
The documents, obtained by the Washington Post, provide a rare look at
think tanks' often hidden role as a weapon in the modern corporate political
arsenal. The groups provide analyses, TV advertising, polling and academic
studies that add an air of authority to corporate arguments -- in many cases
while maintaining the corporate donors' anonymity.
``Corporations have discovered that funding of research, publications,
media campaigns and other forms of advocacy on policy issues can serve as an
adjunct to traditional corporate lobbying and political contributions,''
said James Allen Smith, author of a book about think tanks.
Others use harsher terms. ``It's part of a rent-a-mouthpiece
phenomenon,'' said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project.
``There are mercenary groups that function as surrogates when industry feels
it's not advantageous for it to speak directly.''
CSE officials will not discuss specific donations, saying that disclosure
could expose contributors to harassment by labor unions or other groups. CSE
President Paul Beckner strongly denies picking issues with an eye to their
potential for luring corporate funds -- or tailoring the groups' views to
mesh with those of contributors.
``We aren't a group for hire,'' he said. ``There's a bright line that
defines our independence. There is only one position we can take on most
issues: the one that means less government and lower taxes. We choose the
issues we work on, and we decide how that money is expended.''
While corporations are prohibited from contributing directly to political
candidates, there are no restrictions on their giving to nonprofit
organizations such as CSE whose advocacy may help their interests. And
though lobbyists representing corporations must register publicly, nonprofit
groups are not required to identify the corporations financing their
In recent weeks, CSE has thrown itself into the political campaigns in
Iowa and New Hampshire, sending out grassroots activists -- clad in
signature red jackets emblazoned with the organization's Web address on the
back -- to obtain candidate endorsements of its position against Internet
Such outright activism is not for every think tank. Some, such as the
Heritage Foundation, will not accept money for specific projects for fear of
appearing beholden to the interest that funded it. Others, such as the Cato
Institute, take earmarked money but go beyond the legal requirements and
identify major donors.
For example, the largest supporter of Cato's study of Social Security
privatization is the U.S. insurance company AIG, which manages privatized
retirement systems abroad and stands to benefit if -- as Cato is
recommending -- such an option is put in place here.
But other groups, including CSE, use donations for specific projects
without making public the names of their donors -- raising questions even
among some of their fellow think tanks. ``A nonprofit which is doing work
for a very clear interest ought to reveal that,'' said Urban Institute
President William Gorham.
On the other end of the political spectrum, some left-leaning think tanks
take money from similarly interested parties. For example, unions provided
the seed money to start the Economic Policy Institute, which produces
research on trade, wage and work-related issues.
CSE, founded in 1984, has become a particularly vocal and political group
under the chairmanship of C. Boyden Gray, a Washington lawyer who served as
President George Bush's White House counsel. Modeling itself on grassroots
groups such as the Christian Coalition and Ralph Nader's activist
organizations, CSE has inserted itself into a number of fights with the
Clinton administration and become an active force in state politics on
issues from tort reform to labor.
The group has a foundation that can take tax-deductible contributions --
used, for example, to finance its ``education'' effort in support of a
California initiative requiring unions to get annual permission from members
to use dues for political purposes. It has a nonprofit arm that can engage
in even more extensive lobbying. This year, CSE is branching into explicitly
electoral politics; its board recently voted to set up a political action
committee with a goal of raising at least $1 million for favored candidates
Critics -- and even some business lobbyists -- have previously said that
CSE's ``grassroots'' activism has sometimes been, as National Journal wrote
in 1996, ``a fig leaf for corporate lobbying efforts.'' But the newly
obtained internal CSE spreadsheet -- whose information was verified
independently with a number of corporations -- offers the most precise
illustration yet of the close fit between CSE funding and corporate
It shows that Exxon Corp.'s $175,000 for ``global climate'' issues
arrived after Beckner dismissed the notion of global warming as ``junk
science.'' Huizenga Holdings' gift of $75,000 went toward the battle for
Florida tort reform legislation, which limited car rental companies'
liability. The holding company manages the investments of Florida
businessman Wayne Huizenga in, among other things, auto rental companies.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle