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IL: Grassroots group or Astroturf?

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Created 01/30/2007 - 10:43pm

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Grassroots group or Astroturf?

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STEPHANIE SIEVERS,, 217-524-5797

SPRINGFIELD -- They are so-called grassroots groups that appear to champion causes important to the "ordinary Joe" such as lower cable rates, reliable electricity and accessible health care.

But scratch beneath the surface and some groups are little more than public relations fronts for corporate and other interests.

Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity, which is fighting a proposed electric rate freeze, hasn't hidden the fact that it gets funding from Commonwealth Edison, a utility that wants to see higher rates.

CORE has dropped millions of dollars for media advertising, something most "grassroots" groups could never afford to do, says David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer watchdog group.

"Astroturf lobbying" is the term coined by former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in the 1980s to describe fake grassroots movements that can be created for a fee, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit that tracks deceptive public relations tactics.

"What they want you to hear is a nice sounding name with a carefully crafted message that resonates," says Executive Director John Stauber. "It often works because whoever is behind the front group has very deep pockets."

"The most effective political grassroots activity now is being done for the biggest corporate entities," he said.

Front groups have been a public relations tool for years but have become even more prevalent during recent elections with the emerging popularity of 527 groups, Stauber said.

Named for a section of the federal tax code, 527's are tax exempt groups that generally push a single issue and seek to discredit the other political side, he said. Stauber points to groups like Republican-backed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the most recent presidential campaign, but Democrats had their own groups like

Sometimes the goal of a front group is to push a specific agenda. At other times the goal seems to be confusing the public on a complicated issue, Stauber said.

While it may be deceptive to pretend to be a grassroots group, it's not illegal and "most powerful political lobbies have learned to put on sheep's clothing," Stauber said.

"They want to look like grassroots groups with real citizen support. They try to confuse the debate," said Dawn Iype, director of media research for Common Cause, a citizen watchdog group.

Front groups have been particularly popular with pharmaceutical, labor, utility and telecommunications companies, according to Iype.

Astroturf groups often have innocuous names like Consumers for Cable Choice or the Progress and Freedom Foundation, both of which receive substantial funding from telecommunications companies like AT&T, according to Common Cause.

If the groups have done their job well, it can be almost impossible to know who is really paying a group's bills and there is no real way to force disclosure, Stauber said.

Sometimes it can be just a hunch.

Terry Miller, an attorney for the city of Naperville, said council members raised questions when Advanced Technology Alliance spoke out in favor of a plan by AT&T to get into the local cable market.

"There are reasonable suspicions to believe (ATA) may not be as independent as they claim," Miller said.

When pressed by the council last year, Executive Director Rachel Roemke would not disclose whether the group, which advocates for more cable competition, gets any money from telecommunications companies.

When interviewed for this story, Roemke said ATA is a legitimate grassroots group but said revealing who may or may not be among the group's more than 5,000 members would violate its privacy policy.

But that secrecy raises red flags for Gary Mack, an Illinois public relations veteran who has done work for the telecommunications industry in the past.

Mack has been on the inside, representing AT&T in Springfield when there was a push to rewrite the state's telecommunications laws. Advocacy groups were formed, but it was clear that they represented the industry.

This latest generation of groups tries to blur that line by appearing to advocate for the consumers instead, Mack said.

Real grassroots groups often have no qualms about identifying members and funding sources and that transparency can help the public understand where a group is coming from, CUB's Kolata says.

"At the end of the day disclosure is the big issue," he said.

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