Consumers for World Trade (CWT), which describes itself as being a "network of consumers," is enthusiastic about everything from the right of the U.S. President to negotiate free trade agreements, slashing import duties and quotas on items such as footwear and apparel and opposing mandatory country-of-origin labeling. You'd be right in thinking this doesn't sound like a normal consumer group, but exactly who they are is not immediately obvious. A little digging though, reveals that CWT is just another front group trying to wrap a self-serving corporate message in a public interest name.
As is so common with front groups, a check of CWT's website provides little detail on who funds the group and the affiliations of those involved. Sure there's a list of the group's office bearers and directors, but to the uninitiated there is no description of who they are beyond their name and a city. Nor is there any disclosure of who funds the group or even a policy description of who they do accept money from. Nor are there any copies of the group's annual reports on the website to cater for the curious. But there is enough of a sprinkling of phrases such as "grass roots" to imply that CWT might be a real community group, albeit pro-free trade.
A little digging into easily available public access records, however, reveals a more interesting tale. The website of CWT was registered on July 17, 1997 by Robin Lanier from Alliance Management Group (AMG). On its website, AMG states that it "provides full management services to Consumers for World Trade -- a citizen's group dedicated to keeping markets open. We provide meeting planning services, web services, data services, board governance and government relations services to this client. Using web technologies, Alliance Management Group has helped CWT generate emailed communications on issues like steel protection and lowering import tariffs."
A little more digging, this time into CWT's annual returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service, is far more revealing. The last available return, which covers the 2006 financial year and was filed in August 2007, reveals that CWT raked in $54,683 that year and ran a deficit of a little over $12,000. The biggest single line item for the group's expenses is "dinner and luncheons." But the most interesting information is the June 2007 list of office bearers and directors and their affiliations:
- Maureen Smith, who is listed on the group's website as President from Washington, D.C., is described in the annual return as the Senior Vice-President of Jefferson Waterman International, an international lobbying firm.
- Lewis Leibowitz, who is listed as Vice President from Chevy Chase, Maryland on the group's website, is described in the annual return as a partner in the Washington D.C law firm Hogan & Hartson.
- Sam Gibbons, who is listed as a Director from Washington D.C. on the group's website, is described in the annual return as the Chairman of the Board of Gibbons & Company, a lobbying company that specializes in international trade law matters.
- Frank X. Kelly, who is listed as a Director from N. Bergen, New Jersey on the group's website, is described in the annual return as the Vice President of Customs and International Trade Operations for Liz Claiborne, a major clothing company.
- Stephen E. Lamar, who is listed as a Director from Arlington Virginia on the group's website, is described in the annual return as the Executive Vice President of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade association.
- Russell Smith, who is listed as a Director from Washington D.C. on the group's website, is described in the annual return as Special Counsel for Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, a major corporate law firm.
- Will Berry, who is listed as a Director from Washington D.C. on the group's website, is described in the annual return as the Executive Director of the National Association of Foreign Trade Zones, a group representing companies operating in designated foreign trade zones.
A quick web search also reveals a little about those listed on the CWT website as office bearers but not mentioned in the 2006 annual report.
- Sarah Thorn, who is listed as the group's Secretary and based in Washington, DC on the website, is the Senior Director, International Trade for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
- Jonathan Gold, who is listed as the groups' Treasurer and based in Arlington, Virginia, is now Vice President, Supply Chain and Customs Policy for the National Retail Federation but his official bio note describes his role with CWT in the past tense.
- David Palmeter, who is listed as a Director from Washington D.C. on the group's website, is senior counsel at the law firm Sidley Austin and specializes in the arbitration of international trade before the World Trade Organization.
You can see why they don't list their work affiliations on CWT's website. Sure, they are consumers of a sort and are certainly for free trade. But the more accurate name of "Executives, Lobbyists and Lawyers for World Trade" just wouldn't play as well with the media or Congressional committees, would it?
Leveling out the Information Playing Field
As a relatively low-budget operation, CWT don't appear to have had much impact. However, they have had some success in projecting their voice into elements of the media and Congressional considerations. Late last year for example, CWT's President Maureen Smith had an opinion column in the Washington Times arguing against some of the proposed Congressional responses to the safety problems associated with some food, pet food and toys imported from China. All the brief bio note at the foot of the column stated was that Smith was the President of CWT -- nothing about her role with Jefferson Waterman International or the other trade and lobbying groups involved in what was touted as a "consumer" group.
Aside from having sent off a few letters to various Congressional committees last year, CWT seems to be in its death throes. The last newsletter dates back to January 2007, its blog hasn't been updated since December 2007 and what was billed as an "Upcoming Event" for January 2008 still states "details coming soon."
Few will mourn what seems to be the imminent passing of CWT, but the group is symptomatic of a far broader phenomena. CWT's deceptive name and limited disclosure is typical of most front groups. That's why the Center for Media and Democracy has teamed up with the Consumers Union to launch the Front Groups portal on SourceWatch, so that anyone can help identify and investigate groups that may be shaping the public agenda while masking the identity of their leaders and sponsors.
While CWT may have had a free run for much of its limited life, it now faces a major problem. Search Google for "Consumers for World Trade" and the link that comes up after the group's own web page is the SourceWatch profile on them. CWT and other groups like it will now find it much harder to hide who they really represent from public scrutiny.