Newspaper article International New York Times

Independent Researchers or Corporate Allies? Think Tanks Blur the Line

Newspaper article International New York Times

Independent Researchers or Corporate Allies? Think Tanks Blur the Line

Article excerpt

Think tanks are seen as independent, but their scholars often push donors' agendas, amplifying a culture of corporate influence in Washington.

As the Lennar Corporation, one of America's largest home builders, pushed ahead with an $8 billion plan to revitalize a barren swath of San Francisco, it found a trusted voice to vouch for its work: the Brookings Institution, one of the most prestigious think tanks in the world.

"This can become a productive, mutually beneficial relationship," Bruce Katz, a Brookings vice president, wrote to Lennar in July 2010. The ultimate benefit for Brookings: $400,000 in donations from Lennar's different divisions.

The think tank began to aggressively promote the project, San Francisco's biggest makeover effort since its recovery from the 1906 earthquake, and later offered to help Lennar "engage with national media to develop stories that highlight Lennar's innovative approach."

And Brookings went further. It named Kofi Bonner, the Lennar executive in charge of the San Francisco development, as a senior fellow -- a credential he used to advance the company's efforts.

Think tanks, which position themselves as "universities without students," have power in government policy debates because they are seen as researchers independent of moneyed interests. But in the chase for funds, think tanks are pushing agendas important to corporate donors, at times blurring the line between researchers and lobbyists. And they are doing so while reaping the benefits of their tax-exempt status.

Thousands of pages of internal memos and confidential correspondence between Brookings and other donors -- like JPMorgan Chase, the United States' largest bank; Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a global investment firm; the software giant Microsoft; and Hitachi, a Japanese conglomerate -- show that financial support often came with assurances from Brookings that it would provide "donation benefits," including setting up events featuring corporate executives with government officials, according to documents obtained by The New York Times and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Similar arrangements exist at many think tanks. On issues as varied as military sales to foreign countries, international trade, highway management systems and real estate development, think tanks have often become vehicles for corporate influence and branding.

"This is about giant corporations who figured out that by spending, hey, a few tens of millions of dollars, if they can influence outcomes here in Washington, they can make billions of dollars," said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, a critic of undisclosed Wall Street donations to think tanks.

Think tank executives reject any suggestion that they are tools of corporate influence campaigns and say they are simply teaming up with donors that have similar goals, like helping cities with economic development.

"We do not compromise our integrity," said Martin S. Indyk, the executive vice president of Brookings. "We maintain our core values of quality, independence, as well as impact."

But he acknowledged that the arrangement to appoint the Lennar executive as a senior fellow had created the "appearance of a conflict of interest."

At think tanks like Brookings, the majority of reports and events, with titles like "Five Evils: Multidimensional Poverty and Race in America" or "India at the Global High Table," have no obvious link to corporate donors.

The benefits afforded to corporations' backing of think tanks are strikingly evident, according to a review of documents from more than a dozen institutions.

The likely conclusions of some think tank reports, documents show, are discussed with donors -- or even potential ones -- before the research is complete. …

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