The call starts with flattery: You have been named businessman of the year, or physician of the year, or state chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee's Business Advisory Council.
Then comes the fundraising hook: a request for as much as $500 to help pay for a full-page Wall Street Journal advertisement, then a request for $5,000 to reserve a seat at a banquet thrown in your honor. Can't handle that? How about $1,250 for the no-frills package?
Officials of the NRCC, which helps elect Republicans to the House, say their honors program isn't really fundraising because no one has to pay for the honor.
Plenty of people called by a telemarketing firm that plays a taped message from House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) agreed to accept the title and have their names printed in small type in an ad that ran Wednesday in some regional editions of the Journal. Some have posted the commendation on their Web sites and framed their faxed award certificates.
But others who were called -- including a New Jersey limousine company owner, an Arlington physician and a Beverly Hills, Calif., accountant -- weren't pleased. "This whole thing is not right," said Bob Flesch, one of NRCC's "New Jersey businessmen of the year." "They're trying to extort money."
Michael Broida, the accountant who said he is politically "a little left of Jesse Jackson," called it "character assassination" to have his name appear on an NRCC fax as one of the businessmen of the year who "will work closely with the Republican leadership in restoring American prosperity."
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform group and a longtime student of political fundraising, said the NRCC method "fits into the hall of fame of telemarketing scams." He said it is "designed to catch people unaware and fool them into thinking they are getting something, when the only purpose is to mass market through unsolicited telephone calls."
Carl Forti, an NRCC spokesman, said the committee is merely recognizing business leaders and inviting them to periodic conferences and banquets. No money need be given to accept the honor, although there is a fee for the gatherings, he said.
The NRCC has run such programs for at least five years, Forti said. They have attracted scattered media attention over that time: Some local newspapers have trumpeted awards given to local business leaders. Others have reported gaffes, such an award given to a Florida man charged with making drug paraphernalia.
He would not say how many people are offered the awards, but this week's Journal ad lists more than 1,900 people as 2003 businessmen of the year -- including one from the District, 38 from Maryland and at least 59 from Virginia. Forti would not divulge the criteria for selecting honorees, or where the telemarketer got the names of those solicited.
"I guess it's unfortunate he believes it's a scam," Forti said of Wertheimer. "There are many, many happy members of the Business Advisory Council."
Cameron J. Hutchison, president and founder of the Hutchison Group Inc., a Woodbury, Conn., management consulting firm, said he never saw the Wall Street Journal ad that he paid $300 for, but is looking forward to the "tax summit" March 17-18 at the Washington Hilton and Towers that he paid about $1,200 to attend. He declined to pay the $4,000 for the black-tie gala to be held the first night.
Gebreyes B. Begna, owner of the Ethiopia Amalgamated Ltd., bragged to the Addis Tribune in Addis Ababa that he had been made an "honorary co-chairman" of the council, even though the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia was preparing to foreclose on his company.
The NRCC pitch generally follows a script. Businessmen or physicians receive a phone call from people identifying themselves as aides to DeLay. The callers are really telemarketers from Akron, Ohio-based InfoCision Management Corp. They then ask if the recipients would like to hear a message from DeLay.
After the message extolling their virtues along with those of President Bush's tax-cut proposal, the honorees are asked if they would accept their awards. If the answer is yes, the awardees are asked to help pay for a Wall Street Journal ad.
Some months later, honorees are faxed an invitation to a conference and awards dinner, then urged to call a toll-free number to "reserve your spot." During that call, honorees are told the price.
Recent rounds of calls have been so widespread they are beginning to stir up protests. Regina Varolli, a self-described left-leaning Internet columnist and speechwriter in Springfield, was nominated as "businessman of the year," then wrote two columns about it for the Online Journal in October and December. Marie Schum-Brady, a general practitioner in Arlington, who was named physician of the year for 2002 and 2003, recently returned a call to a toll-free number to say she could attend the Physicians' Advisory Board meeting, chairmen's dinner and award luncheon Feb. 25-26. A telemarketer then said the cost would be $5,000, she said.
When she balked, she was offered the bargain rate of $1,250. She still objected, she said, and was told she could keep her faxed award certificate but could not come to the conference.
Schum-Brady then contacted Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, who inquired about the invitation. NRCC special projects coordinator Adam Fromm called to say there had been a "terrible mistake" and that Schum-Brady could attend without paying. She plans to attend the meeting at the J.W. Marriott Hotel next week.
Flesch, the owner of Executive Limousine in Princeton Junction, N.J., said he was at first intrigued and honored. His small company had been hammered by the decline in business travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the caller played off that, saying he had been chosen for weathering the "adversity of 9-11."
But when he was asked to contribute to pay for the ad, he was incredulous, and refused. A few weeks later, when he was sent what he thought was a copy of the Wall Street Journal ad, including the newspaper's masthead, he became suspicious, he said. When he received his award invitation and was told the cost, he was incensed.
"I said: 'You're telling me you want me to pay $5,000 to go to a dinner to accept my award? I think you're scamming us,' " he said.
It is not just some recipients who are angry. Lawyers for Dow Jones & Co., owner of the Wall Street Journal, contacted NRCC officials before Christmas to ask them to stop using the Journal masthead, saying they were "misstating a connection between the award and the Wall Street Journal," said Brigitte Trafford, a Dow Jones spokeswoman. Flesch said he received his "Wall Street Journal" ad fax this month. Trafford said Dow Jones lawyers would be back in contact with the NRCC.
Some honorees who contributed have complained that they never received their promised "handsome framed certificate." Others said they welcomed the attention regardless of its value.
Christine Berk-Carlton, owner of Transformations Tanning and Skin Care Studio in Lake Mary, Fla., said she framed her faxed award and proudly posted on her Web site that she had been appointed to serve on the NRCC Business Advisory Council. The Republican activist said an honor is not supposed to come with a price tag, but she figures that since she resisted the sales pitch, she made the most it.
William R. Steele, president of Aerospace and Defense Strategies, LLC in Phoenix and the "Arizona chairman" of the Business Advisory Council, came to a similar conclusion.
"It's always nice to post something like that on a Web site," he said. "It probably won't get me a free cup of coffee, but it's nice to have the recognition."