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Center for American Progress — or corporate donors’ progress?

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Center for American Progress (CAP) has emerged as a leading liberal think tank. But what role do its corporate donors play in its policy positions?

This is the first in a series of articles by The Daily Caller News Foundation investigating this question — and TheDCNF has found that the progressive think tank used its influence and networking to forward corporate agendas.

CAP was founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta in 2003 as an alternative to the conservative Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and in its relatively short lifespan has gained much notoriety on the Washington, D.C. policy scene.

Podesta has been able to bring on other prominent former Democratic officials, such as Clinton Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner and former White House official Neera Tanden, who now serves as CAP’s president.

The liberal think tank has been active on virtually every major policy issue in the last decade, including energy and climate policy, as well as pushing federal health-insurance reform through backing Obamacare.

“As progressives, we believe America is a land of boundless opportunity, where people can better themselves, their children, their families, and their communities through education, hard work, and the freedom to climb the ladder of economic mobility,” CAP’s website reads.

“We believe an open and effective government can champion the common good over narrow self-interest, harness the strength of our diversity, and secure the rights and safety of its people,” the think tank’s bio continues. “And we believe our nation must always be a beacon of hope and strength to the rest of the world.”

Podesta recently took a position back at the White House as an Obama administration senior adviser. Before he left CAP, the think tank released a list of 58 corporate donors, including Google, General Electric and major insurance companies. The move was supposed to improve the institution’s image, but it was met with intense criticism from the left.

“Mr. Podesta, named a senior adviser to President Obama, is not currently a lobbyist and therefore does not have to worry about the Obama administration’s self-imposed ban on hiring lobbyists to administration jobs,” writes The New York Times. “But he will nonetheless arrive at the White House after having run an organization that has taken millions of dollars in corporate donations in recent years and has its own team of lobbyists who have pushed an agenda that sometimes echoes the interests of these corporate supporters.”

CAP argues, however, that only about $2.7 million of its $42 million budget last came from corporations or foundations run by corporations. And despite the criticisms over supporting their donor’s corporate agenda, CAP argues it is not under corporate influence.

“The Center for American Progress has always been fiercely independent — our views are shaped by what we think the best solutions are to improve the lives of all Americans,” said Neera Tanden, CAP’s president. “Donations, be they from individuals or corporations, do not guide or determine our work. Period. Indeed, we have advocated numerous policies that would impinge on corporate interests — from tax policy to government subsidies; our interests are simply to provide ideas to solve the country’s problems.”

While they may argue against corporate influence, a favorite talking point of the post-Occupy left, CAP’s policy promotion and lobbying efforts have indeed benefited at least some of its donors. As the NY Times wrote: “The defense contractor Northrop Grumman gave money to the left-leaning Center for American Progress … as the nonprofit group at times bemoaned what it called the harmful impact of major reductions in Pentagon spending.”

“Pacific Gas and Electric sent in a donation as Mr. Podesta championed government incentives to promote solar energy and other renewable sources that the California company buys more of than nearly any other utility,” the Times added. “The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly was also a donor because of what it said was the Center for American Progress’s advocacy for patients’ rights — and just as the debate heated up in Washington over potential cuts to the Medicare program that covers Lilly’s most profitable drugs.”

Exhibit One: The Greenwashing of BMW

CAP has billed itself as an independent voice that promotes progressive solutions to complex policy problems. But the disclosure of their corporate donors has called into question the extent of their “independence”.

BMW of North America has been a member of CAP since 2009. The auto group was having trouble promoting its “green” image and turned to the lobbying firm run by former German Foreign Minister and early leader of the German Green Party Joschka Fischer. As it turned out, Fischer’s firm had a strategic partnership with the Albright Stonebridge Group which is run by former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and features CAP distinguished fellow and former Clinton Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner. The former EPA chief also served as a climate advisor to President Obama.

BMW brought on Fischer’s firm in 2009 to develop a “sustainable and environmentally friendlier business,” reports the German newspaper Der Spiegel. It was likely through Fischer’s connection to Albright Stonebridge that got them in touch with officials from CAP.

It wasn’t long before CAP held an event in October 2009 called “Driving the Transformation” about eco-friendly transportation which was used to tout how BMW’s being  a leader in terms in being environmentally conscious. The event’s featured speaker was Norbert Reithofer, chairman of the board of management and CEO for the BMW Group.

“Reithofer emphasized that BMW is ahead of the clean car curve thanks to its 28 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 1997 to 2008,” reads a summary of the hearing. “For Reithofer, keeping up with society’s expectations for energy-efficient vehicles is the key to survive in the car industry over the coming years. Clean transportation is both a moral imperative and good for business.”

“And any good business knows to how diversify,” the summary continued. “Reithofer said the world’s ‘transportation future will require a mix of mobility options,’ including modern combustion engines, efficient diesel, and hybrids. He said that BMW is committed to pushing energy-efficient technology to the next level.”

The event also featured Fischer, who said that energy-efficient cars are one way the rest of the world can raise their living standards without contributing to global warming. CAP, however, did not disclose in the event’s summary that Fischer had been hired by BMW to promote their sustainability efforts or that he was partnered with Albright Stonebridge — a CAP donor.

This was not all CAP did for BMW, however, as the group also wrote articles touting the car company’s efforts to clean up its act and help make eco-friendly vehicles. In August 2011, CAP published a piece entitled “It’s Easy Being Green: Sustainable Motor Works.” BMW would have already been a member of CAP for about two years by then.

The article, which reads more like a BMW press release, talks about how BMW was focusing on leading the auto industry in “clean energy” and protecting the environment. CAP also mentioned how BMW’s South Carolina plant which is listed as number three “on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the 20 strongest on-site generation clean power users,” according to CAP.

It was leaked in 2012 that BMW had been part of CAP’s Business Alliance, which requires members to donate between $25,000 and $100,000 annually. The Business Alliance comes with many perks, including private meetings with CAP policy analysts and top officials and invitations to VIP events with federal officials.

What does this mean?

CAP used its influence and position as a progressive think tank to promote BMW’s green credentials. The liberal think tank is influential in environmental circles as it employs former EPA chief Browner — who also works at Madeline Albright’s firm.

Regardless of whether or not BMW is genuinely a leader in sustainability, CAP has greatly benefited from its partnership with BMW — getting donations from the company since 2009. All CAP had to do was promote the company’s environmental agenda.

Another thing this episode illustrates is the connections between Albright’s lobbying group and CAP. Both Podesta and Albright served under President Clinton and have since appeared at events together. Albright serves on CAP’s Board of Directors and even employs CAP fellows.

Former EPA chief Browner was a founding principal of the Albright Group, the predecessor to Albright Stonebridge, as well as a founding board member of CAP. Browner currently serves as a senior fellow at CAP and as a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge.

The Washington Free Beacon reported that CAP national security fellows Richard Verma and Brian Katulis both also work for Albright Stonebridge. Verma works as a counselor at Albright Stonebridge, working on global trade issues. Katulis works as a senior adviser at Albright Stonebridge dealing in international issues.

An Albright Stonebridge spokesman said “we regard the Center for American Progress as an important hub of policy development and analysis in Washington, and the Albright Stonebridge Group is proud to lend its support to CAP and contribute to its mission.”

CAP did not respond to requests for comment from TheDCNF.

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