Memo: Fake Virginia Investigative Reporting Outlet
To: Virginia Reporters, Editors & Interested Parties
From: Campaign for Accountability (CfA)
Subject: Fake Virginia Investigative Reporting Outlet
A recent Washington Post report by Elahe Izadi details how Virginia-based public relations firm Tigercomm started a fake investigative news site to drum up negative stories on behalf of its corporate clients. This site, called the Checks & Balances Project (CBP), has spent months investigating Virginia non-profits, businesses and political leaders, and not disclosing that it is likely a paid effort. CfA previously highlighted Tigercomm’s connections to CBP in a June 2017 report.
We urge members of the Virginia media to issue clear guidance to your newsrooms and colleagues to closely examine the use of any material produced by CBP.
Key points from The Washington Post investigative report:
At first glance, Checks and Balances Project looks like a traditional if scrappy news site — an “investigative watchdog blog,” as it bills itself, filled with serious stories scrutinizing corporate activities and government officials.
Yet a closer look suggests the site is not always the independent crusader it appears to be
Checks and Balances is investigating a massive hospital system in Virginia named Sentara, publishing regular stories and asking patients and employees to send tips
These stories started appearing the same month that a medical school in a complex dispute with Sentara hired a public relations firm that happens to share a founder and financial ties with Checks and Balances
In November, Checks and Balances started publishing dozens of stories about Norfolk-based Sentara, including one asking whether the hospital system’s proposed expansion could hurt another institution based in the same city: Eastern Virginia Medical School.
The stories began publishing shortly before EVMS made its first payment to Tigercomm for work that would total $150,000, according to an invoice obtained by The Post.
“They’re all the same entities,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign of Accountability, a nonprofit group that investigated several of Tigercomm’s outfits in 2017. Tax filings show that Renew American Prosperity, the nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Checks and Balances, has no employees and spends most of its money paying Tigercomm for “management” services.
How CBP Seeks Legitimacy
Presenting itself as a “Watchdog Blog,” which includes a “top stories” section and a “confidential tip line,” CBP goes above and beyond to disguise its work for corporate interests as news. Many media outlets appear unaware of CBP’s true lineage. A leading Virginia nonprofit news site cited CBP as “an investigative watchdog blog” and other outlets have further elevated the website.
The Virginia Mercury has already added an editor’s note to its CBP coverage to caution readers. We urge other outlets that have covered CBP to do the same.
How CBP Works: Following the Money
As we noted in the Washington Post story, Tigercomm, CBP, and Renew American Prosperity (RAP) appear to be essentially the same outfit. Tigercomm and RAP are both registered at the residence of Tigercomm president Mike Casey. Casey’s wife manages the finances at RAP. And all three organizations share the same mailing address. For all intents and purposes, it appears that the three groups operate as one.
The story also details how CBP’s attacks on Sentara Healthcare coincided with the start of Eastern Virginia Medical School’s (EVMS) six-figure contract with Tigercomm. The attacks that appeared on the CBP website echo an EVMS effort to fight reforms to its governance structure.
New Targets, Same Old Playbook
While Tigercomm and CBP’s work on behalf of EVMS is new, this playbook is all too familiar to us. Four years ago, CfA released a report detailing how the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI), an organization that describes itself as both a watchdog and a think tank, is nothing more than a Tigercomm project.
CfA’s investigation into EPI found that the group is not a typical watchdog or think tank: EPI does not disclose its annual tax return; it has no address beyond a post office box; its few employees appear to be scattered across the country; it is not registered with any Secretary of State office in states in which its employees appear to reside; and it does not release the names of any board members.
EPI’s founder and former executive director is Gabe Elsner, who previously worked for CBP and Tigercomm. Tigercomm’s clients include several solar companies as well as the Solar Energy Industries Association, all of which benefit from the narrative deceptively pushed by EPI.
Despite its opaque background, journalists have consistently quoted EPI as a legitimate source. News reports have rarely noted that EPI is not a registered non-profit and appears to be funded by companies that profit financially from its work.
Tigercomm continues to run the same playbook over and over again on behalf of their special interest clients for one reason: it works. Now that Tigercomm’s pay-for-play PR scheme to generate negative press of its clients’ opponents has been exposed, journalists should take note and include disclosures when citing CBP’s work.
Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.