When Public Advocates Line Up for Corporations
Thursday, April 3, 2008
It was billed as a coalition of public interest groups focused on the recent $40 billion contract award for a new Air Force refueling tanker.
Officials at Citizens Against Government Waste, a quarter-century-old group founded as a good-government advocate, wanted other groups to join in speaking out in favor of the "open, fair and transparent" process that gave the award to Northrop Grumman and its partner, European Aeronautic Defence and Space.
But as often happens in this town, the story was not so clear cut. It turns out Citizens Against Government Waste, or CAGW, was playing a more complicated advocacy role on the same side as the Northrop team, in an immense struggle over the deal with surprise loser Boeing.
Welcome to that special place where business and Washington intersect, where things often are not what they seem and keeping track of the players and their motives is as hard as following the aces in hands of a cardsharp.
In the weeks since the Feb. 29 decision, the winners, the loser and their proxies have worked nonstop to tilt the advantage their way. They have bought full-page ads in newspapers and trade magazines across the country. Boeing has spent about $3 million on ads in major papers since its loss, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ad campaign.
The companies have engaged top-shelf public relations specialists, opinion shapers and former military officials who now serve as their consultants. And they have enlisted vocal and sometimes stealthy support from policy and nonprofit groups, endorsements that carry the aura of integrity.
Enter CAGW. In an e-mail recruiting support from the other groups last week, CAGW included a "fact sheet" spelling out why the award to Northrop was in the best interests of the American taxpayer. Parts of it were cribbed almost word for word from a Northrop document.
The same e-mail said that CAGW would hold a meeting last Friday to explain the coalition. The man brought in to explain the effort was William Lauderback, a veteran lobbyist and communications consultant who has told multiple people that he is working on this issue for Northrop. Calls to Lauderback's office were referred to a Northrop official, who said it is company policy not to identify consultants or their activity on behalf of the company.
Further confusing matters, officials at CAGW told a reporter they had no ties to Northrop, financial or otherwise.
CAGW president Thomas A. Schatz declined to discuss whether his group has received contributions from Northrop. He said the fact that his group's interests are aligned with those of the Northrop team means nothing.
"The beneficiaries of our advocacy are the taxpayers," he said.
A Northrop spokesman said CAGW had approached the company with offers to help. And documents show they are working together on the issue.