US: On Opinion Page, a Lobby's Hand Is Often Unseen

Susan Finston of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a conservative research group based in Texas, is just the sort of opinion maker coveted by the drug industry.

In an opinion article in The Financial Times on Oct. 25, she called for patent protection in poor countries for drugs and biotechnology products. In an article last month in the European edition of The Wall Street Journal, she called for efforts to block developing nations from violating patents on AIDS medicines and other drugs.

Both articles identified her as a "research associate" at the institute. Neither mentioned that, as recently as August, Ms. Finston was registered as a lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry's trade group. Nor was there mention of her work this fall in creating the American Bioindustry Alliance, a group underwritten largely by drug companies.

The institute says Ms. Finston's ties to industry should not have prevented her from writing about those issues. Nor is there a conflict, it says, in the work of Merrill Matthews Jr., who writes for major newspapers advocating policies promoted by the insurance industry even though he is a registered lobbyist for a separate group backed by it. "Lobbying is not a four-letter word," said the institute's president, Tom Giovanetti.

But organizations like the institute, which bills itself as an independent, nonprofit research group committed to a "smaller, less intrusive government," are facing new and uncomfortable scrutiny over their links to special interest groups after the disclosure this week that the Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff had paid at least two outside writers for opinion articles promoting the work of his clients.

One writer, Peter Ferrara, an advocate of privatizing Social Security who is often quoted by news organizations, including The New York Times, works for the institute as a senior policy adviser.

The other, Doug Bandow, a scholar for the libertarian Cato Institute and a columnist for the Copley News Service, resigned from both after acknowledging that he had received as much as $2,000 an article from Mr. Abramoff for writing in support of his lobbying clients, including Indian tribe casinos. Mr. Abramoff is now the focus of a federal corruption investigation involving his gifts to members of Congress.

The issue of whether supposedly independent writers and researchers are having their work underwritten - directly or indirectly - by lobbyists and other special interests is hardly new.

But the payments by Mr. Abramoff and a closer review of the work of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group founded in 1987 by a former House Republican leader, Dick Armey of Texas, are evidence that the ties may be much closer than research organizations, conservative and liberal, would prefer to admit.

The Bush administration acknowledged this year that it had paid outside writers, including Armstrong Williams, the conservative columnist and television commentator, to promote the Education Department policy known as No Child Left Behind.

Executives in the public relations and lobbying industries say that the hiring of outside commentators to promote special interests - typically by writing newspaper opinion articles or in radio and television interviews - does happen, although it is impossible to monitor since the payments do not have to be disclosed and can be disguised as speaking fees and other compensation.

While major newspapers and magazines usually insist that outside writers disclose conflicts of interest, editors do not routinely conduct background checks, especially for authors affiliated with credible research groups.

Brian Groom, an editor at The Financial Times who handles opinion articles for the newspaper, based in London, said he did not recall being told of Ms. Finston's ties to the drug and biotechnology industries before publishing the article.

The editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Paul Gigot, said in an interview that "we're absolutely convinced" the paper was not told of Ms. Finston's industry ties. The paper might still have run the article, he said, but with more information about her background.

David Rickey, chairman of the board of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, an industry group that includes lobbyists, said the industry opposed the use of outside writers to promote a client's interests unless the financial ties were fully acknowledged. "This is going to sound pretty much mom and apple pie," he said. "But if there is a conflict of interest, it must be disclosed."

In announcing the departure of Mr. Bandow last week, the Cato Institute said it required its writers to disclose all affiliations that might influence their work.

Mr. Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation said that he, too, insisted that "anyone working with I.P.I. must disclose any pertinent lobbying relationships and conflicts of interest whenever they act on behalf of I.P.I., including published projects."

But he also suggested it was naïve to see a conflict of interest in the articles by Ms. Finston or by Dr. Matthews. There is no accusation that Ms. Finston or Dr. Matthews, unlike Mr. Ferrara, received direct payments from an outside lobbyist like Mr. Abramoff for an opinion article.

Mr. Giovanetti said it was "no surprise that a person can move back and forth between the worlds of lobbying and public policy, just as a person can move back and forth between policy and politics."

In a brief interview, Ms. Finston said that she left the pharmaceutical manufacturers' association in May and that the filings showing her as a lobbyist as recently as mid-August were in error.

She said that she notified the institute this fall that she would be ending her relationship with it to turn her attention to the American Bioindustry Alliance, the new trade group, but that her articles were already in the pipeline for publication. She said she believed that the papers had been told of her industry ties by the institute. "It's clear that there shouldn't be any subterfuge," she said.

Dr. Matthews, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, said in an interview that he was careful to identify his ties to the Council for Affordable Health Insurance, an industry group based in Alexandria, Va., when writing about insurance issues for outside publications.

He noted his affiliation with both the council and the institute in several recent opinion articles, including one published Dec. 5 in USA Today titled, "Medicaid Is Still Welfare." The article recommended that the government allow participants in Medicaid, the federal health program for more than 50 million low-income people, to "move into private insurance." The council's Web site identifies it as an "advocacy organization promoting free-market health insurance reforms."

Dr. Matthews said that while he was identified as a lobbyist in Congressional records, he lived in Texas and "can't think of the last time I was on Capitol Hill talking to a legislator."

Mr. Giovanetti said the institute had a policy of not identifying its individual donors. But he did reveal that it received no money from health insurance companies, lessening a possible conflict of interest in its relationship with Dr. Matthews. Asked if the institute had accepted money from pharmaceutical manufacturers or any drug companies affiliated with Ms. Finston, Mr. Giovanetti would not comment.

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