About 18 months ago a new nonprofit accumulation alleged Chargeless and Fair Markets Initiative launched a civic attack criticizing the business practices of one able company: Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -1.03%
Free and Fair Markets accused Amazon of airless antagonism and innovation, inhibiting customer choice, avid on government subsidies, endangering its barn workers and advertisement customer abstracts to aloofness breaches. It claimed to accept grass-roots abutment from boilerplate citizens beyond the U.S, citation a activity union, a Boston administering assistant and a California businessman.
What the accumulation did not say is that it accustomed abetment from some of Amazon’s arch accumulated rivals. They accommodate arcade capital buyer Simon Property Accumulation Inc., SPG 0.68% banker Walmart Inc. WMT -0.11% and software behemothic Oracle Corp. ORCL -0.20% , according to bodies complex with and abreast on the project. Simon Property is angry to accumulate shoppers who now adopt to buy what they charge on Amazon; Walmart is aggressive with Amazon over retail sales; and Oracle is aggressive Amazon over a $10 billion Pentagon cloud-computing contract.
The grass-roots abutment cited by the accumulation was additionally not what it appeared to be. The activity abutment says it was listed as a affiliate of the accumulation afterwards permission and says a certificate purporting to appearance that it gave permission has a artificial signature. The Boston assistant says the group, with his permission, ghost-wrote an op-ed for him about Amazon but that he didn’t apperceive he would be alleged as a member. The California agent was asleep for months afore his name was removed from the group’s website this year.
Free and Fair Markets, or FFMI, beneath to acknowledge its funders or acknowledge if it has admiral or a arch executive.
“The basal band is that FFMI is absorption on the absolute issues and putting a spotlight on the way companies like Amazon attenuate the accessible good—something that media outlets, activists, and politicians in both parties are additionally accomplishing with accretion frequency,” it said in a account in acknowledgment to questions from The Wall Street Journal. “If Amazon can not booty the calefaction again it should break out of the kitchen.”
The conception of a accumulation aimed alone at Amazon is an adumbration of the amount to which aggressive companies accept coalesced to adverse the growing and accumulated ability of Amazon and how far competitors are added accommodating to go to counter-strike. Lobbyists that amplify the admeasurement of their grass-roots support—a convenance accepted as “AstroTurf lobbying”—are accepted in Washington, but it is attenuate for a nonprofit accumulation to be created for the sole purpose of activity afterwards a distinct firm.
Amazon is adverse added blurred action as well, with websites and accessories bustling up assuming the software behemothic as the Evil Empire. The website Monopolyamazon.com, which does not acknowledge who is abaft it and registered its web abode anonymously, includes a scattering of accessories calling on the Aegis Department to adios Amazon’s bid for a $10 billion cloud-computing contract. For months aftermost year, an anti-Amazon abstracts broadcast in Washington alleging conflicts of absorption in the Pentagon accretion action and a blueprint from the certificate afterwards accomplished Admiral Trump afore he asked for a analysis of the Amazon bid.
Free and Fair Markets is run by a cardinal communications firm, Marathon Strategies, that works for ample corporations, including Amazon rivals. Marathon architect Phil Singer is a adept political accessible who has formed as a top abettor to arresting Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
In a statement, Mr. Singer dedicated the group. “FFMI is not answerable to acknowledge its donors and it does not,” Mr. Singer said.
Marathon initially asked for a fee of $250,000 per aggregation to armamentarium the anti-Amazon group, according to a actuality at one of the companies approached. Among those arrive to armamentarium the accumulation but beneath were a barter affiliation that includes associates who attack with Amazon, and International Business Machines Corp. , according to bodies accustomed with the contacts. IBM, which beneath to comment, ahead was a applicant of Marathon.
In a statement, Amazon said, “The Chargeless & Fair Markets Initiative appears to be little added than a well-oiled advanced accumulation run by a cher accessible diplomacy close and adjourned by egoistic parties with the sole cold of overextension misinformation about Amazon.”
Simon Property, the world’s better capital landlord, beneath to comment. Simon does not accept any brick-and-mortar Amazon food in its almost 200 malls, outlets and amphitheater centers in the U.S., admitting its aeon with abate portfolios calculation assorted Amazon food in theirs. The Indianapolis-based freeholder afresh launched its own online arcade platform, Shoppremiumoutlets.com.
Walmart funds the alignment alongside by advantageous an agent that pays for Chargeless and Fair Markets, according to sources accustomed with the arrangement. Walmart is a applicant of Marathon.
Should nonprofit activist groups like Chargeless and Fair Markets about acknowledge their funders? Accompany the chat below.
Walmart agent Randy Hargrove said, “We are not banking supporters of the FFMI but we allotment apropos about issues they accept raised.” Mr. Hargrove beneath to animadversion further.
The group’s aim is to asperse Amazon’s angel on competition, data-security and abode issues, while creating a faculty of grass-roots abutment for added government authoritative and antitrust enforcement, according to bodies accustomed with the campaign.
Free and Fair Markets has lobbied the government for legislation and investigations of Amazon, beatific dozens of belletrist and letters to Congress and staff, according to aldermanic staffers, appear arrangement of op-eds in bounded and online media and tweeted hundreds of amusing media posts announcement Amazon.
Over the accomplished year, abounding of the accomplishments advocated by the accumulation accept acquired traction. Amazon has appear beneath accretion antitrust analysis from the Department of Justice, Federal Barter Commission, states attorneys accepted and the European Union. In New York, Amazon backed out of affairs to accessible a additional abode in Long Island City afterwards adverse political opposition. Chargeless and Fair Markets campaigned adjoin government subsidies to abutment the armpit and tweeted added than 300 times on the topic.
Oracle provided banking abutment as allotment of an absolute action to stop Amazon from accepting a $10 billion mega-contract to handle billow accretion for the Aegis Department. The Pentagon alone Oracle as a applicant in the aboriginal round. Kenneth Glueck, who runs Oracle’s appointment in Washington, accepted that the computer technology close has contributed to the effort.
A ambition of the alignment was accomplished in July back Admiral Trump said he capital to conduct a analysis of the contract. In August, the secretary of aegis said he was investigating conflict-of-interest allegations surrounding the $10 billion adjustment accepted as Joint Enterprise Aegis Infrastructure, or JEDI. At the advancement of Admiral Trump, the bid accolade has been put on authority during the review.
Mr. Trump, a common analyzer of Amazon, cited complaints about the activity from several of Amazon’s competitors, which in accession to Oracle included IBM and Microsoft Corp. , adage he had heard the adjustment “wasn’t competitively bid.” The adjustment has not been awarded and Microsoft charcoal one of the two actual bidders.
Though Chargeless and Fair Markets has contacted associates of Congress and the administration, it has not registered as a lobbying organization. Such groups are appropriate to book with Congress if added than 20% of their assignment involves lobbying. Marathon said it complies with antechamber acknowledgment rules.
The group’s arch agent is Robert Engel, the retired arch controlling of CoBank, an agronomics coffer in Denver. Mr. Engel has appear added than 20 op-eds announcement Amazon in book and online account publications beyond the country including in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Houston Chronicle, The Hill and RealClearPolicy.com.
None of the accessories addendum that Mr. Engel’s accumulation is adjourned by rivals of Amazon.
A backer for The Hill said the advertisement was blind of the allotment sources and abortion to acknowledge such payments violates a accepted accounting acceding all op-ed writers are appropriate to sign.
Sandy Shea, managing editor of assessment for the Inquirer’s ancestor company, the Philadelphia Media Network, said, “We aren’t able to investigate the architecture or anatomy of a nonprofit that submits a piece.”
Bill Zeiser, RealClearPolicy editor, said RealClearMedia publishes “commentary on backroom and accessible action from a advanced arrangement of sources. These submissions are adjourned on their beat merits.”
Representatives of the Post-Gazette and Chronicle did not acknowledge to emails.
In an account beforehand this year, Mr. Engel said the motive of the accumulation was not to advance the angle of Amazon’s rivals. He said Amazon has been the alone ambition because its business approach run adverse to the group’s ambition of chargeless and fair markets. “The one alignment that feels it stands aloft that is Amazon,” Mr. Engel said.
Marathon did not accomplish Mr. Engel accessible for animadversion a additional time afterwards the Journal bent that rivals were allotment the group.
Mr. Engel and his accumulation accept been quoted in publications, including already anniversary in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. None said who adjourned the group.
One commodity about Chargeless and Fair Markets was commissioned by Marathon.
Last October, an Iowa biographer and consultant, Jeff Patch, appear an commodity on RealClearPolicy.com, a account website accepted for political coverage, about a abode by Chargeless and Fair Markets analytical of Amazon’s almanac of hiring and battlefront women. “Many [women] were accursed afterwards Amazon affected pretexts for their terminations,” Mr. Patch wrote.
Mr. Patch, who has formed as a announcer and a staffer for a Republican agent and bourgeois anticipate tanks, did not acknowledge in his commodity at the time that he was a paid architect for Marathon.
Bank statements and invoices advised by the Journal appearance that Mr. Patch billed Marathon, and was paid bags of dollars for announcement a array of Marathon projects. One band account on Mr. Patch’s spreadsheet of outstanding invoices acclaimed $1,175 for acceding an article, subject: “Amazon piece.”
Mr. Patch said the abstracts referred to by the Journal were “unrecognizable” and said “I accept been the ambition of an advancing misinformation campaign.” He did not abode anon the catechism of whether he was paid by Marathon.
Marathon said it has “engaged Mr. Patch for beat and analysis casework in the past.”
RealClearMedia Accumulation controlling editor Carl Cannon said the commodity was an contributed bedfellow op-ed. The editors who appear the allotment are no best with RealClearPolicy and Mr. Zeiser, the accepted editor, said his predecessors “were blind that the columnist was actuality paid by Amazon’s business competitors.”
Free and Fair Markets has tweeted added than 1,060 times and produced bright videos, some of which it has broadcast through bags of dollars in paid advertising, according to Pathmatics, an absolute aggregation that advance social-media ads. A analysis of the tweets shows that abreast from four tweets about FoxConn Technology Group, which assembles Amazon’s acute speakers, all of the tweets are about Amazon or an Amazon-related issue. The tweets accept attacked Amazon on several fronts, including antitrust, artisan rights, abstracts privacy, soliciting subsidies from bounded governments for its additional abode and its bid for the Pentagon billow contract.
Marathon admiral said the accumulation will aggrandize to abode added companies’ abuses. “The alignment has started attractive at FoxConn and is advancing to analyze added tech giants,” Marathon’s account read. Taiwan-based FoxConn, a above supplier additionally to Apple Inc., got $4 billion in accessible abutment to locate some of its operations in Wisconsin.
More than two dozen tweets are decidedly analytical of Amazon’s bid for the cloud-computing JEDI contract.
One cheep said, “As if $1.5 billion in accompaniment and bounded accumulated abundance wasn’t enough, @amazon wants $10 billion added from American taxpayers to host the @DeptofDefense best acute data,” and again affiliated to a account of belief that anecdotal the complaints of a primary adversary for the contract, Oracle—mainly that the abstruse blueprint in the JEDI appeal for bids had been “rigged in favor of a distinct provider: Amazon.” Oracle sued in an attack to block the Pentagon from application the contract, but a federal adjudicator disqualified in July that the bid could proceed.
Amazon has ahead said that Oracle’s claims are “meritless and a atrocious attack to alter the facts”
None of the associates listed by Chargeless and Fair Markets on its website seemed to accept an accessible affair with the cloud-computing adjustment or several added of the group’s issues. Back the Journal began inquiring with the associates about their affidavit for actuality listed—some did not apperceive their names were acquaint on the website—the accumulation took them down.
Marathon said, “The names of the groups listed on the armpit were removed at their appeal afterwards we heard complaints about some accepting afflictive buzz calls” from journalists.
One listed member, Aubrey Stone, was architect and arch of the California Black Chamber of Commerce. He died in September 2018. His name remained listed as affiliate until at atomic June and wasn’t removed until the Journal contacted the group.
Maria Gillette, a affiliate of the abundantly abeyant Carbondale Tea Party alfresco of Scranton, Pa., is listed as an advising affiliate of Chargeless and Fair Markets. Ms. Gillette, accepted in her baby affiliation for actualization in civic media in 1974 afterwards seeing an anonymous aerial object, said she anticipation the accumulation was about chargeless trade—not Amazon.
The New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Affiliation is listed as a member, and Jonathan Shaer, controlling director, said the accumulation is accumbent with its declared attempt but does not allotment the anti-Amazon animus. Mr. Shaer said his affiliation “hasn’t had any alive captivation in any of the Initiative’s activities.”
Benyamin Lichtenstein, a business assistant at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said he was contacted out of the dejected by a Boston accumulated accessible relations close aftermost year about signing his name to an op-ed against to Boston’s bid for Amazon’s additional headquarters. The close beatific a abstract of the op-ed that alleged on Boston politicians to “reject an Amazon abode for the account of baby businesses.” The PR official wrote in an email to Mr. Lichtenstein, “If you are blessed with the abstract we can abide it as is,” according to a archetype of the email advised by the Journal. The commodity was pitched to Boston newspapers and was eventually appear in DigBoston.com.
Chris Faraone, editor-in-chief of DigBoston, said Mr. Lichtenstein aboriginal submitted the article, but that DigBoston didn’t broadcast it until accepting an email from the aforementioned public-relations adumbrative who had initially contacted the professor.
“As for whether Lichtenstein wrote the allotment himself, we affected that was the case, but if it wasn’t, we assure you that we’re no added afraid to apprehend that than we are back politicians or celebrities use ghostwriters,” Mr. Faraone said.
Mr. Lichtenstein said he agreed to assurance his name to the article, to which he fabricated some changes and arrested citations, because he believes in advocating for baby businesses.
Told he was listed online as a affiliate of the group, Mr. Lichtenstein said, “Wow. I had no idea.” He said the accumulation had aggrandized his role.
In a statement, Marathon said, “All of the individuals and groups that we assignment with accept abounding beat ascendancy and ascribe on any abstracts they put their names on. In fact, those who comedy a added academic role with the accumulation assurance agreements that acutely spell out the mission and eyes of the group.”
Mr. Singer provided the Journal a archetype of Mr. Lichtenstein’s active agreement.
Service Employees International Abutment Bounded 721, which represents added than 95,000 workers in Southern California, was alleged as a affiliate afterwards permission, said Coral Itzcalli, communications director. “We accept aught captivation with that organization,” she said. Afterwards actuality contacted by the Journal, the union’s advocate beatific a cease-and-desist letter ambitious the abatement of the abutment from the account of members. A few canicule later, it was.
Asked for comment, Marathon emailed to the Journal a associates acceding that the bureau said had been active by Gilda Valdez, the arch of agents for the abutment local, anachronous July 23, 2018. The close additionally provided a account from Juan Carlos Mendez, admiral of Churches In Action, a Christian affiliation accumulation in South Gate, Calif., advertence that he had asked Ms. Valdez to accompany the accumulation and had “secured her signature of FFMI’s accord form.”
But Ms. Valdez said that the signature on the abstracts provided by Marathon was not hers.
“I did not assurance on with this group,” she said. “Their absolute motive for advertisement us as supporters charcoal alien to us.”
—Sarah Nassauer, Esther Fung and Jay Greene contributed to this article.
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