Dark Money-Funded, Climate Change-Denying Think Tank Campaigned Against Banning Trans Fats

(A shortened version of this article is published in The Intercept.)

The conservative DC think tank that opposed a federal ban of trans fats also actively campaigns against climate science and environmental regulation and is funded by shadowy dark money.

On June 16, the federal government announced a ban of industrial partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of artificial trans fats, in food by 2018. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared in 2013 that trans fats are agreed by most experts to be unsafe for consumption. FDA acting commissioner Dr. Stephen Ostroff said that the ban “is expected to reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks every year.”

Not everyone supported the ban, however. The National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), a self-identifying “non-partisan, free-market, independent conservative” DC think tank, campaigned against the injunction, which it referred to as a “horrible idea.”

The NCPPR argues that the solution to minimizing potentially dangerous trans fats in foods is by allowing the free market to operate. Senior Fellow Jeff Stier claims that it was through “markets respond[ing] to consumer demand” that the amount of trans fats in foods has decreased.

Stier and the NCPPR are commonly cited by the press. Stier is given a platform in Forbes, the Guardian, the Washington Times, and more.

According to a 2011 article in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, nevertheless, it was in fact the US government’s 2006 mandate that corporations label trans fat content in food that led to this decrease. Stier and the NCPPR, meanwhile, oppose mandatory food labeling and other forms of governmental oversight. In fact, in February 2014, Stier went on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze to argue against the government’s plans for more detailed food labels.

An article in the same leading medical journal maintained that banning industrial trans fats is a “simple policy that will save lives.” The UK Faculty of Public Health and Royal Society for Public Health explain that “it has been proven that industrially-produced TFA [trans fatty acids] can damage health” and “there is no known safe level of consumption.”

Denmark banned industrial trans fats in 2003, and the push for this ban was led not by special interest groups but rather by a cardiologist from Copenhagen University Hospital. Austria and Switzerland followed suit in 2009. US cities such as New York, Seattle, Baltimore, and more have also legislated against trans fats in restaurants.

The NCPPR’s Jeff Stier writes a lot about food and, on principle, opposes government regulation of it. In 2007, he referred to organic food as “a detriment to public health.” He poses the free market as a solution to the obesity crisis. Stier even posts comments on articles in scientific publications opposing regulation of the tobacco industry.

Stier, the NCPPR website says, “has testified at FDA scientific meetings, met with members of Congress and their staff about science policy, and has submitted testimony to state government legislative hearings.” In spite of this, he is a climate change denier who warns of a conspiracy he calls “the global warming agenda.” Stier accuses governments of basing their decisions to ban trans fats on “junk science” and of dabbling in a “troubling trend … where ideology comes before good science” while he simultaneously denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change—a scientific reality which close to 100% of climate scientists agree on.

Nor is Stier an outlier in his organization. The NCPPR itself actively campaigns against action on climate change. In its summer 2014 newsletter, the NCPPR harangues Apple for what it describes as the company’s “radical environmental policies.” The group also published a eulogy to Rawleigh Warner, Jr., chairman and CEO of the Mobil Oil Corporation, libertarian activist, and fellow climate change denier, whom it refers to as “a friend and supporter.”

For approximately 13 years, Stier was the associate director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). The ACSH is a pro-corporate advocacy group that has received extensive funding from large multinationals like McDonald’s, Chevron, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, American Petroleum Institute, GE, and more. The Claude R. Lambe Foundation, a charity front group for the Koch Brothers, has also made large donations to the organization. Of the ACSH, Ralph Nader remarked “A consumer group is an organization which advocates the interests of unrepresented consumers and must either maintain its own intellectual independence or be directly accountable to its membership. In contrast, ACSH is a consumer front organization for its business backers.”

In snarky op-eds in conservative papers, the ACSH medical director refers to environmentalists as “toxic terrorists” who ignore the alleged “threat” of organic food. Like the NCPPR, the ACSH denies climate change, and it has downplayed or even outright denied the harmful effects of asbestos, Agent OrangeBPA, mercury, and more.

I contacted Stier and the NCPPR, inquiring about their position against the trans fat ban, in spite of their record of opposing regulation of what are found to be lethal substances and their what some might consider extreme positions. Stier responded laconically, asking that I simply quote from his writings. NCPPR Chairperson Amy Ridenour did not immediately return the request for comment.

Questionable Practices

The NCPPR, a little-known think tank, has operated behind the scenes since the beginning of the Reagan era. At its peak influence, in 2005, its small handful of staff members boasted 8,046 media interviews, citations, and op-eds. Its chairperson and president, spouses Amy and David Ridenour, respectively—who together make almost $500 thousand per year—have a history of lobbying on behalf of tobacco corporations and against environmental regulations. Their documented right-wing activism goes back to their days as College Republican leaders.

Leaked emails revealed that, as the NCPPR opposes banning trans fats today, the organization also opposed regulation of the tobacco industry in the 1990s, which Amy Ridenour privately called an “anti-tobacco onslaught.” Moreover, the tax records of fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil show that it donated large sums of money to the think tank over many years.

In a late 2009 blog post on the NCPPR website, Ridenour speaks of “the church of global warning,” claiming that global warming is the United Nations’ “established religion” and that the international community is “in blind adherence to an unproven premise – a faith in the veracity of global warming.”

President Bush lauded the libertarian-leaning NCPPR in 2002. “For 20 years,” he said, “you have remained steadfast in your efforts to advance the cause of individual freedom in the United States.” In its newsletters, the organization disparagingly refers to its ideological opponents as “statists.”

According to its 2013 990 tax form, the NCPPR does spend a little on lobbying expenses, and the amount spent has increased in recent years, but it is insignificant in size. The bulk of what the organization does is try to influence media and public narratives in the interest of anti-regulation and pro-corporate measures.

Aside from questionable funding sources, the NCPPR also has a history of questionable practices. The DC-based think tank was fined by the Pennsylvania Department of State Bureau of Charitable Organizations in 2000 for “soliciting contributions without properly registering with the Bureau” and for “printing the disclosure statement on solicitations implying that it was registered in Pennsylvania, when in fact it was not registered with the Bureau.”

Critics claim the organization “swamps” those who sign up with mail and does “not honor requests to be removed from mailing lists.” The NCPPR, they claim, acquires “the names of older people and mail them requests for donations. These requests are sent with letters intended to scare the recipient into donating.”

These tactics appear to be supported by the data. According to the group’s 2013 tax forms, $6.5 million of its $8.8 million expenses (roughly three-fourths) went to printing and mailing. The NCPPR’s 2011 independent audit, the most recent available on its website, also found that $8.2 million of its 10$ million expenses went to direct mailing fees.

In 2013, the NCPPR raised over $7.3 million through Response Dynamics, a prominent conservative direct-mailing company that works with a slew of other right-wing think tanks and lobbying groups. In 2004, College Republicans broke ties with the company over what they say was its dishonest direct-mail campaign, which sought to raise money by misleading senior citizens. The Seattle Times discovered that the “group’s top donors are overwhelmingly elderly and include people who made hundreds of donations throughout the year in response to the constant solicitations that arrived in their mailboxes,” and that some “of those donors said the letters were misleading and that the high-pressure tactics led them to give more money than they could afford.” Response Dynamics often sends misleading messages that warn about impending disasters if readers do not donate.

A 1998 investigation published by SF Gate found groups like this, which it refers to as “the fear merchants,” target primarily senior citizens with urgent messages asking for donations. These letters, most of which the investigation found “ring with hyperbolic, anti-government zealotry,” leave elderly Americans up at night, worried about which cause they should donate their meager savings to. A spokesperson for the American Association of Retired Persons explained “Seniors are a top target of these folks. There are seniors who receive volumes of mail that say if you don’t give me $25, $50 or $100, the sky is going to fall down.”

Another investigation conducted in 2014 found these deceptive methods still continue. The NCPPR is listed as a primary culprit in both. A reporter with 435 Magazine got ahold of a letter sent to a senior citizen, signed by Amy M. Ridenour, that read “It is absolutely critical that National Retirement Security Task Force receives immediate financial aid within the next four days. We have just 96 hours. 96 hours to thwart President Obama and the liberals’ effort to bankrupt Social Security by filling the trust fund with useless ‘IOU’s.”

I spoke to Judith Bell, who runs the blog Drowning in Junk Mail, which she says seeks to educate others on “what really works to stop the systematic harassment of the elderly through the mail.” Before Bell began investigating the hate-mail harassment, she was flooded with at least 20 pieces of mail per day. Many of these came from the NCPPR.

Bell says she knew an elderly woman who was tricked into giving over $1,000 dollars to the NCPPR. In order to get off their list, she said she had to resort to “publicly shaming them through Twitter” and privately messaging them the house address. Even then, she said it took over eight weeks for the torrent of junk mail to finally dry up.

ncppr junk mail

CREDIT: Judith E. Bell/Drowning in Junk Mail

Neither the NCPPR’s 990 tax forms nor its independent audits disclose its donors. The organization says that 94% of its funding comes from individuals, but does not reveal who any of these donors are.

The Dark Money Behind the Conservative Think Tank

Watchdog organization CitizenAudit discovered that the NCPPR is funded by Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, even less-known charities that bankroll the US right-wing.

Donors Capital Fund describes itself in its tax records as an organization that donates to organizations that “encourage philanthropy and individual giving and responsibility as an answer to society’s needs, as opposed to governmental involvement.” Its president, Whitney Ball, who identifies as a libertarian, makes at least $240 thousand per year.

Donors Trust is identified by Donors Capital Fund as a sister grant-making organization, with which it operates in unison. Together, the two had almost $180 million in income and close to $140 million in assets in 2013.

Although it has just five employees, Donors Capital Fund has an enormous impact. Mother Jones refers to it as the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement,” explaining that the group “allows wealthy contributors who want to donate millions to the most important causes on the right to do so anonymously, essentially scrubbing the identity of those underwriting conservative and libertarian organizations.”

Donors Capital Fund gave the NCPPR $40 thousand in 2013 in cash to be used “for general operations.”

The money it gave to the NCPPR is mere pennies, however, compared to the millions of dollars Donors Capital Fund donates to a litany of leading right-wing organizations. There are roughly 40 pages of donors listed in Donor Capital Fund’s 2013 tax forms. The list of groups to which it donates reads like a Who’s Who of the American right.

In 2013 alone, Donors Capital Fund gave many millions of dollars to similar science-denying libertarian organizations like the Franklin Center (almost $6 million), the Market Research Foundation (over $3 million), the State Policy Network (over $2.5 million), the Hudson Institute (over $2 million), the American Enterprise Institute (almost $2 million), the Heartland Institute (over $1.5 million), the Federalist Society (almost $1.5 million), and many more.