For Corporate Polluters’ Front Groups, Every Day is Defraud the Earth Day

If you heard of a great, health-protective advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety (CFFS), you might want to learn more before joining their efforts to protect children from fire hazards.

So it might really annoy, disappoint, even enrage you to learn that they don’t really represent citizens. And that they don’t really care about fire safety.

CFFS is a classic industry front group, a fraud created by the flame retardant industry as a way to pretend that there is grassroots support for the industry’s harmful products.

The makers of toxic chemical flame retardants have hoodwinked legislators into creating regulations that require such absurdly broad use of their hazardous chemicals that flame retardants are now found in thousands of consumer products, everything from cribs to baby carriers to high chairs (whoops, gotta go, my high chair just caught fire).

But the secret is getting out, and parents are learning that flame retardant chemicals may pose serious health threats, and several state governments are considering bans on certain flame retardant chemicals.

Enter CFFS. The flame retardant companies, led by chemical industry giants Albemarle and Chemtura corporations, know that no one believes that they care about children’s health or the environment. So they paid public relations firms to come up with a front, a group that can speak for them without revealing their actual aims. As Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber described the front-group creation process in their classic book Trust Us, We’re Experts:

“Public relations firms and corporations have seized upon a slick new way of getting you to buy what they have to sell: Let you hear it from a neutral “third party,” like a professor or a pediatrician or a soccer mom or a watchdog group. The problem is, these third parties are usually anything but neutral. They have been handpicked, cultivated, and meticulously packaged to make you believe what they have to say….”

There’s nothing new about this. Environmental health advocates have long known that CFFS is an industry stooge. The group was first exposed by the Environmental Health Fund, who revealed CFFS’ work to stop much needed health protective limits on toxic flame retardants.

What is new is the increasing breadth and deviousness of CFSS’ underhanded tactics. I can tell you because CEH has recently had first-hand experience with the front-group’s attempts to fool actual public interest groups into supporting the chemical industry’s agenda.

In a recent email, colleagues in the environmental health movement told us that a Jason Sabo from CFFS called them, asking for their support against tougher state laws on flame retardants. They said that Jason claimed that we at the Center for Environmental Health recommended that he contact them.

So, to be clear: a paid liar for the chemical industry tried to trick an environmental health organization into opposing efforts to ban toxic chemicals, by lying and saying the Center for Environmental Health was on his side.

Trouble is, CEH had never had any communication with Sabo or anyone else at CFFS, and if we had, we’d more likely recommend they go to hell. (Oddly, a few days after we heard from our colleagues, our Director received a phone message from Jason, asking if we’d support CFFS!)

Jason Sabo actually works as an “Account Coordinator” for a PR firm called JCI Worldwide (he’s a busy boy – according to his LinkedIn profile, he also maintains a night job as Head Server at the trendy Beverley Hills’ restaurant Villa Bianca, where, according to recent reviews, service appears to be slipping).

In his work for JCI, one of Jason’s main tasks seems to be posting the same comment over-and-over on any website that discusses the health hazards of flame retardants (he posted it on this site as well, but since we try to discourage fraudulent posers using our blog to spread lies, we took it down). Meanwhile, his more experienced JCI colleagues (the faux “citizens” of CFFS) work to stop health protective legislative efforts in Oregon, Maryland, California and other states.

In an email to one environmental health group (that they passed along to us), Jason complained that CFFS was being called an industry front. “Contrary to what you may have thought in the past, Citizens for Fire Safety is not a ‘front group,’ as we fully disclose who we work with,” he wrote. “This would be like saying Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Connecticut is a ‘front group’ for environmental funding.”

But in fact CFFS refuses to make public their sources of funding or anything about their structure or staffing. Their website lists no staff or Board members (they claim to have an Advisory Board, but again they list no members). The group’s SafePhaseOut site, which Jason links to in his repeated blogosphere comments, also lists no staff, Board or funding disclosures – but it does offer “helpful links” to pro-flame retardant propaganda from Albemarle and Chemtura.

A 2008 tax form CFFS filed with the IRS divulges a bit more about their activities and funding. While the CFFS website describes the group as a coalition consisting of “fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders….,” it is in fact legally incorporated as a 501(c)(6) organization, an IRS category used for business trade groups. Since there are greater consequences from lying to the IRS than there are from lying to me and you, CFFS describes its main activities more truthfully in its tax form, which states the group’s focus as: “trade association activities to promote common business interests of members involved with the chemical manufacturing industry….”

Jason, if you’re reading this (and I’m guessing you are, since you seem to spend a lot of time posting your silly comment on blogs), here’s how you know when you work for a front group:

  1. You claim to work for citizens (or friends, consumers, or others) in favor of one thing, when in fact you work for corporations that lie to protect their profits;
  2. You have difficulty understanding the difference between an industry trade group and real public-interest nonprofits who represent people who have no financial stake but who actually care about health and the environment;
  3. Dozens of actual health and environmental groups describe your employer as a front-group; and
  4. The corporations that you work for are so desperate that they need to hire a busboy to run their public relations campaigns.

Happy Earth Day!

Comments Closed

15 Comments

  1. Charlie Pizarro
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Great piece.

    Any tips for ways that people can oppose front groups?

  2. Wayne
    Posted April 22, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    This is outstanding, how can anyone be allowed to get away with this? Isn’t there a law against groups like CFFS?

  3. Posted April 23, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Wayne, I wish it were illegal, but sadly, it’s just the opposite: corporations can actually get tax breaks for some funds they divert to these phony “non-profits.”

    To avoid getting hoodwinked, your best bet is to get informed. Sourcewatch.org is a great resource for info on the PR industry, phony industry fronts, corporate crime and more.

  4. Sean Sullivan
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I’ll be in LA Next week, I’ll be sure to stop by his restaurant and order and entree of flame retardants with a side cancer and genetic disruption for dessert.

  5. Julia
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    This is the literally the most ridiculous article I have ever seen… What is this, a persecution? (“restaurant Villa Bianca, where, according to recent reviews, service appears to be slipping”) I mean come on, talk about superfluous insults. Obviously whoever wrote this thinks that by gratuitously insulting someone they can draw attention away from the fact that they have no idea what they are talking about. How about you do your research and actually come up with something useful to say? And remind me to never come to such self-absorbed pathetic sites again.

  6. info@cffsi.org
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Mr. Margulis;
    The personal attacks, and comments in your article are gross generalizations, twisted facts and blogisphere misstatements. Attack our organization, attack groups in the organization, but to attack an individual as you have done, is beyond reprehensible. We would ask that you remove the comments about any individuals working on behalf of CFFSI immediately. Our organization is very transparent about our membership and our goals, and for you to call into question the legitimacy of organizations of color like the NAACP, National African American Chamber or former presidents of the American Burn Association truly shows that you have no ethics whatsoever and smacks of the incendiary rhetoric of far right and racist organizations. Your tone, lack of facts and desire to “spin” your side of the story is unfortunate. We welcome a factual dialogue and challenge you to provide peer reviewed data to back up your claims.

  7. charlie pizarro
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Dear Mr./Ms. Info:

    You write that your “organization is very transparent about [your] membership and [your] goals.” Good one.

    Please note the unbridgeable chasm between your carefully purchased public interest branding and your organization’s actual raison d’etre (as noted in your tax documents) “to promote common business interests of members involved with the chemical manufacturing industry.”

    I’d love to hear more about CFFS’s transparency.

    (In the meantime, I’m also enjoying the contradiction between your assertions of transparency and the fact that you were evidently unable to summon the courage to attach your actual name to your tortured, convoluted, and misleading response.)

    My best to you, the Info spouse, and all the little Infos running around the Info home this beautiful weekend.

  8. charlie pizarro
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Also:

    My heart goes out to poor Mr. Sabo.

    May he one day live in a world where people who act without ethics be protected and never called to answer for the frauds they perpetrate on the public to make a buck.

  9. Posted May 3, 2010 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    To the anonymous poster from CFFSI:
    You rail against the tone and “spin” in my post, so let’s start with some facts:

    • Your organization isn’t “very transparent” about anything, especially not your membership and goals. As noted in my post, the description of your group’s goals on your website is nothing like the description you gave to the IRS (under legal obligation). CFFSI is legally and factually a trade group of for-profit businesses, organized to promote the aims (ie, more profits) of those for-profit businesses. CFFSI refuses to disclose its funding, its leadership staff, or its Board members. It’s easy for any group to say that they’re “very transparent,” but it’s not usually this easy to disprove that claim;

    • You say you’re interested in peer-reviewed articles, but you must have missed the first link in my post, to a peer-reviewed article from Science, the pre-eminent peer-reviewed science journal in the U.S. It contains several references to other peer-reviewed sources (as does this 2007 record of a Consumer Product Safety Commission meeting on flame retardants http://www.cpsc.gov/LIBRARY/FOIA/meetings/mtg08/chemicals11_13.pdf ;

    • Your complaint about “twisted facts” in my post rings false, since you fail to point out a single error, but instead stoop to calling me a racist.

    You want to debate? Great-here’s a topic: “Resolved: Phony, industry-funded “citizens” groups should be exposed as a threat to democracy.” I’ll take the “pro” side.

    Jason, you phoned and emailed colleagues of ours, using our name fraudulently in an attempt to trick others into supporting your chemical industry campaign. We take your lies personally. I’m not going to remove my personal comments about your evening restaurant gig, but I will apologize to all busboys for my disparaging comment, as that position is a far more honest and noble one than your day job.

  10. Rob
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    It’s funny how you never see scientists or burn surgeons speaking in the same tone as Mr. Margulis.That’s probably because he is not an expert on any of the issues he writes on.

    “Charles Margulis is billed an “issue expert,” he is essentially a public relations spokesman for Greenpeace’s anti-biotech smear campaigns (Definitition: An attempt to ruin a reputation by slander or vilification). Margulis waged a PR blitz that tried to show Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to be unsafe, without any supporting scientific evidence (the campaign’s materials are still up on Greenpeace USA’s web site). When Greenpeace activists held an organized shouting session outside Kellogg’s corporate headquarters in March 2000, Margulis personally led a costumed activist dressed as “FrankenTony” (Greenpeace’s version of Tony the Tiger), into the executive suite.”

    Ah yes, a graduate of the California Culinary Institute and a longtime professional baker running media outreach for CEH? Sounds an awful lot like some of the people he “smears.” So much the degree in “Peace and Conflict Studies” did for you, Charles. I’d rather listen to an expert.

  11. Posted May 3, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    “SafePhaseOut” is in agreement to end manufacture and production of Deca-BDE by 2013. It was also created as a coalition to bridge the gap between fire safety and the environment. They advocate the development of non-toxic flame retardants to protect communities (http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm/2009/12/30/Industry-Agrees-to-Phase-Out-DecaBDE-Flame-Retardant/). Mr Margulis only talks about Citizens for Fire Safety, but criticizes SafePhaseOut and attacks members of a public relations firm. How is SafePhaseOut fraudulent?

  12. Posted May 3, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    To the anonymous SafePhaseOut commenter: I didn’t mention your website, but since you brought it up: like CFFS, your website lists no members, Board, or staff, so why should anyone trust that you are a “coalition” created to do anything other than hide the fact that you’re part of this industry-funded front?
    To “Rob” (another staffer of the pr firm that industry pays to run CFFS, according to your email)” thanks for posting my bio, as taken from another industry-funded site. Let’s be clear: I have no problem with busboys or longtime bakers making their views known on these important health topics. What I object to is your industry’s use of phony “citizens” groups pretending to work on behalf of the public interest when in fact you work on behalf of for-profit companies that have a lot to lose in this fight. No wonder most Americans say they don’t trust industries like yours “to do what is right.” (http://www.edelman.com/trust/2009/coverage/portland_business_journal.html )

  13. Charlie Pizarro
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rob!

    I’m no expert on the science. Perhaps you’re in the same boat. If so, here’s a tip for you: you don’t actually have to be an expert on science to read peer-reviewed scientific literature!

    And in this case, that literature is unequivocal: the brominated flame retardants made by your bosses at Albemarle are toxic.

    Suggesting that one needs to be an expert on the science of flame retardants in order to warn people about their toxic effects is like saying we need to be doctors to know that cigarettes are dangerous. (To be clear, Rob, we do not.)

    Also: I find it interesting that you’re willing to get personal about this. A few comments above, your colleagues at JCI and its brainchild front group CFFSI shared their contrived outrage at the outing of poor Mr. Sabo. They also suggested that the industry front groups on your side of this discussion were above getting personal.

    I guess that was just another convenient distortion of the truth.

    Do you have anything substantive to say about this issue or are you content with your personal attack on Mr. Margulis?

    For those of you just tuning in, here’s what this conversation has shown:

    1 – JCI is a PR firm that is paid by Albemarle and other well-heeled members of the chemical industry to convince the public and government decision makers that they need toxic flame retardants
    2 – CFFSI is the front that JCI invented (see #1)
    3 – CFFSI exists only to protect the profits of the chemical industry (this is clearly noted in CFFSI’s tax documents)
    4 – CFFSI has lied and mislead the public
    5 – Brominated flame retardants are toxic
    6 – The front group and PR firm’s best response to 1-5 is to make distractions, feign outrage, etc.

    Pretty weak.

    I wonder if Albemarle feels like it’s getting its money’s worth.

  14. Posted May 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t Charlie Pizarro the same person as Charles Margulis? Using the Pizarro name to speak your mind, Charlie Margulis? Because the info email on CEH website goes to both…

  15. Posted May 3, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Hi again – you have as much problem reading as you have telling the truth. As you can see http://www.ceh.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogsection&id=0&Itemid=241 , we are definitely not the same person (C. Pizarro is the good looking one)

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