The tagline on the website, LEED Exposed, says it all: "Wasting taxpayer money to fund not-so-green buildings." The website's mission is written in the name itself. The scandalous operation that the site claims to be exposing—LEED, the ubiquitous building-performance rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council—is failing society, apparently. This website breaks this message down into four talking points: arbitrary point system, questionable science, taxpayer costs, and uncertain future.
The message is loud and clear. But the organization behind this message is less obvious—although not extremely well-hidden, either.
LEED Exposed is an example of astroturfing, perhaps the first such example from the world of architecture. The site is run by an organization called the Environmental Policy Alliance. That alliance’s website says that it is a "project of the Center for Organizational Research & Education"—an organization with no obvious website or virtual paper trail.
That's the point of astroturfing. The Journal of Business Ethics describes astroturf organizations as "fake grassroots organizations usually sponsored by large corporations to support any arguments or claims in their favor, or to challenge and deny those against them." The organization behind LEED Exposed sounds like your typical D.C. nonprofit organization or think tank, perhaps one that draws its grassroots support from thousands or millions of Americans outraged by green building. In fact, the site is largely the work of a single figure.
The address listed on the Environmental Policy Alliance's website (the group uses the acronym EPA, burying its own search results) is the same Washington, D.C., address as Berman and Company. This company describes itself as "a dynamic research, communications, advertising, and government affairs firm" with a staff of 30. The organization's president and founder is Rick Berman, a serial Beltway astroturfer who draws favorable comparisons to the tobacco lobbyist from the movie Thank You for Smoking, according to USA Today. Berman has been frequently interviewed and profiled, including in a 2007 60 Minutes interview with Morley Safer and this week's issue of TIME magazine. Richard Bensinger, former director of organizing for the AFL-CIO, has described Berman as "Dr. Evil."
Berman's interests are diverse, as expressed by the many websites produced through Berman and Company. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington launched BermanExposed.org and as a response, Berman launched CREWexposed.com.
The path connecting Berman with LEED Exposed is a winding one. A press release from Feb. 28 quotes a research analyst for the Environmental Policy Alliance named Anastasia Swearingen. A person named Anastasia Swearingen wrote a December opinion article in Forbes, who was described as "a senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom." The Center for Consumer Freedom's executive director is Rick Berman. According to 2012 and 2011 tax documents, the Center for Consumer Freedom operates consumerfreedom.com, activistcash.com, animalscam.com, cspiscam.com, humanewatch.org, obesitymyths.com, petakillsanimals.com, physicianscam.com, fishscam.com, howmuchfish.com, and mercuryfacts.org. (At press time, howmuchfish.com and mercuryfacts.org were no longer online.*)
Same address, same employee. But here's the clincher: according to a document on the West Virginia Secretary of State's website, the D.C. department of consumer and regulatory affairs issued a certificate of amendment effective Jan. 28 approving that the Center for Consumer Freedom would now be called the Center for Organizational Research and Education.
In case you're lost—and that is very much the point of this matryoshka doll of nonprofit organizations—the Center for Organizational Research and Education is the listed parent organization of the the Environmental Policy Alliance, and thus of LEED Exposed. At press time, there was no obvious indication of the name change on the Center for Consumer Freedom's website, Twitter, or Facebook pages. According to a search of city business filings, the Center for Consumer Freedom is listed as a trade name for the Center for Organizational Research and Education. The Environmental Policy Alliance is also listed as a trade name, along with two other organizations.
The Environmental Policy Alliance's website lists three other "projects" in addition to LEED Exposed: Green Decoys, EPAFacts, and Big Green Radicals.
The Alliance's findings have been getting some play in the media. The Daily Caller, a conservative news organization, published a story about an analysis conducted by the Alliance on recently-released LEED data, finding that privately-owned buildings in the district that are LEED certified use more energy than those that aren't. Neither Berman nor the Center for Consumer Freedom was mentioned in the article.
A Fox News report on the Alliance's analysis writes that the USGBC has pushed back on the Alliance's figures, saying that "group behind the report is run by a lobbyist working for special interest groups." (The article does not specify beyond that.) Another article by a commentary writer in the Washington Examiner describes the Alliance as "an organization dedicated to exposing environmental hypocrisy." National Review, another conservative outlet, also covered the Alliance's research. Robert Friedman, writing on the National Resources Defense Council's blog, connects the dots between Berman and another one of the Alliance's "projects," Big Green Radicals, which calls out the NRDC for "its radical agenda" and "extreme tactics," and is also critical of the Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch.
In 2004, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that the Center for Consumer Freedom had violated its tax-exempt status with the organization making "substantial payments" to Berman and Berman & Co. The Center for Consumer Freedom—formerly known as the Guest Choice Network—was set up by a $600,000 "donation" to Berman from tobacco company Philip Morris.
Only recently has building performance arrived as a divisive, partisan issue. The Ohio state senate recently passed a resolution that would ban state agencies and entities from using LEED v.4 as a building performance rating system. Critics of the bill say that it serves special interests, specifically plastics and chemical companies.
The debate taking shape over building performance, in Ohio and other places, is one that will decide how millions of dollars in future development will be spent. Healthy debate over best practices in green building makes sense, and people and industries are paying attention. One figure in this debate, however, is deliberately disguising who he speaks for.
With additional reporting by Caroline Massie.
*This post was updated to reflect that howmuchfish.com and mercuryfacts.org are no longer online.