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Exclusive: Fox-backed seniors group exposed as conservative front

By Sahil Kapur
Thursday, December 17, 2009 12:01 EDT
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Group’s founder formerly headed firm bankrolling Beck, Hannity projects

WASHINGTON — The seniors group American Seniors Association (ASA) describes itself as a conservative alternative to the AARP and has attracted notable press coverage this year for its opposition to health care reform. A Raw Story investigation, however, reveals that the group has a massive web of affiliations to right-wing activists, think tanks, politicians, media and executives — signaling ideological motivations than extend well beyond serving the interests of seniors.

ASA extensively linked to Tea-Partiers and right-wing movements

ASA was originally founded in 2005 under the name National Association for Seniors Concerns (NASCON) by former NAPA Auto Parts executive Jerry Barton, who made an initial investment of $500,000. The group is listed as a coalition member of the Internet Freedom Coalition, a group that opposes “net neutrality” and has received at least tens of thousands in funding from the conservative think tank Institute for Liberty.

The group’s ties to the right-wing Tea Party movement are evident as the Institute for Liberty has officially co-sponsored some of its activities, as well as those of Glenn Beck’s so-called 9/12 Project, both of which have organized anti-health-reform rallies comprising deeply offensive Holocaust imagery. Members of the Institute for Liberty have also hosted Tea Party events.

ASA has been endorsed by a flurry of Tea Party organizations across the country — including the Santa Clarita Tea Party, the Mount Vernon WA Tea Party Patriots, the New Jersey Tea Party Coalition, and the United American Tea Party.

These loyalties, along with the group’s posturing and its leaders’ activities prior to its founding, suggest that ASA is co-opting the sympathies of seniors — a very organized constituency that votes in large numbers — to advance a much broader right-wing agenda.

ASA has on numerous occasions echoed conservative claims about the health reform bill that have been widely debunked, including that it will encourage euthanasia and materially cut Medicare benefits.

Sponsor of Glenn Beck, heavily promoted by Fox News

The ASA, which was described by its founder as having 40,000 members nationwide this August — but which was also described on its website until recently as “representing hundreds of thousands of members” — remains dwarfed by the AARP’s mammoth roster of 40 million members.

But Fox News has touted ASA’s opposition to health reform legislation, repeatedly billing ASA as a burgeoning political force and serious threat to the AARP and offering the group considerable attention and air-time.

In August, FoxNews.com published two very similar stories in a span of eight days. On August 10, they ran a story headlined: “AARP Faces Backlash From Seniors Over Health Care Reform Stance.” A week later, on August 18, they published a similar story favorable to ASA called: “AARP, Losing Members Over Health Care, Faces Challenge From Grassroots Senior Advocacy Group.”

AARP allegedly lost at least ten thousand members after endorsing the House health care reform bill — but this hardly puts a dent in its total membership.

Both articles quoted Stuart Barton, Jerry Barton’s son and President of ASA since its founding in 2007. Barton heavily criticized health reform and slammed AARP for supporting it. Fox News also invited Stuart Barton on the air to discuss his group’s opposition to the bill.

Following Fox’s coverage, CBS News published a story in August saying that “up to 60,000 people” have quit AARP as a result of its support for health reform, and “many are switching to the American Seniors Association.” The CBS story led to controversy, as several blogs — including Media Matters, Dissenting Juice and Think Progress — disputed its characterization of ASA as a serious competitor to AARP. The New York Times did not present ASA as such.

The Bartons’ other connections to Fox News raise additional questions regarding conflict-of-interest.

Jerry Barton’s former organization NAPA Auto Parts currently sponsors Fox News’ Glenn Beck program. NAPA is the chief sponsor of Beck’s “The Christmas Sweater” film (which, as Raw Story reported, failed badly to attract viewers in major metropolitan areas). The automotive parts company has also aided Beck’s 9/12 Project.

Links to GOP & conservative figures

ASA’s founder, Jerry Barton, has notable connections to Republican politicians.

“Barton is a longtime supporter of conservatives and their causes,” reported Brian McNicoll of the right-leaning think tank Heritage Foundation for TownHall.com in 2005. “He served as finance chairman for one of Mitch McConnell’s Senate campaigns. He has worked with John Linder, Johnny Isaacson and Saxby Chambliss.” (Linder is a Republican Congressman from Georgia, and the latter two are Georgia’s Republican senators.)

Beyond ASA’s professional ties, Barton is part of an extensive network of partners and affiliates in the conservative establishment.

Barton’s launching in 2005 of what was then known as NASCON was assisted by his former neighbor and right-wing radio talk-show host Neal Boortz. Boortz has written for the conservative websites NewsMax, WorldNetDaily and TownHall, and is known for a flurry of accusations about left-leaning policies that have gotten under the skin of liberals. Boortz has since called himself “a charter member” of Barton’s group, describing it as the “conservative counterpart to the leftist AARP,” which “doesn’t always look for the big-government solution to every issue facing older Americans.”

Soon after its launch, NASCON was hailed by numerous other prominent conservatives, including Sean Hannity of Fox News, Steve Forbes of Forbes Magazine and Drew Bond of TownHall.

Another associate of Barton’s is Phil Kent, a noted conservative figure who was described by the National Journal as Barton’s “spokesman” in 2005 and has been listed as a media contact for ASA as early as 2005 and as recently as December 2009.

Kent’s own website says he was the press secretary in 1981-1982 for segregationist Republican Strom Thurmond and has written several books attacking liberalism. He has also served as president of groups that have opposed affirmative action and favored stronger immigration controls.

ASA has waged other right-wing campaigns in the past

ASA’s stated purpose includes activism in four categories: 1) Medicare reform, 2) Social Security reform, 3) Illegal aliens and 4) Tax reform. Their stances on these issues do not stray from boilerplate conservative ideology favored by GOP leaders and the Tea Party movement. In 2007, ASA (along with many other conservative groups) waged a campaign to defeat legislation that would have granted undocumented workers a pathway to citizenship. Its founder Barton also supported the 2005 effort to privatize Social Security.

With another ideologically divisive issue — health care reform — on the table, ASA has returned to the spotlight. The organization strongly opposes Democrats’ healthcare bill, portraying it as a threat to the elderly. Fox News has extensively covered ASA’s interest in health reform, portraying it as a threat to the exponentially larger AARP.

Health reform and AstroTurf groups

The ASA’s pattern of behavior suggests that its motives go beyond simply creating a successful alternative to the AARP. The group’s actions and affiliations reveal deeper intentions, which appear to be bolstering right-wing ideology and the conservative movement. The “About Us” section on the group’s website reads:

We are driven by a uniquely American philosophy that starts with the understanding that government doesn’t tax and regulate “things.” It taxes and regulates “people.” Individuals like you and me…

At American Seniors Association, we don’t just take the government’s side like some other associations. We are not some big liberal bureaucracy here to try to scare you into going along with Big Government all the time or telling you what to think.

ASA isn’t the first organization that has presented itself as a conservative alternative to the AARP, while actually being invested in promoting right-wing corporate causes with little connection to seniors’ interests. A very similar group, the United Seniors Association, gained notoriety in 2002 by serving as a front for the pharmaceutical industry and also lending its support to Bush administration energy policies and a telecommunications issue important to AT&T.

Throughout this year’s health reform debate, various members of the media have exposed similar “Astroturf” groups like FreedomWorks and Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, which, like ASA, say they’re standing up for regular people but in reality are organized by a narrow and influential group of elites.

Questions about finances

The financial status of ASA also raises questions; the group appears to be run on a shoestring.

When ASA was incorporated in May 2007, the paperwork was handled by a lawfirm, Robertson & Gable, LLC, which specializes in discount incorporations. From then until last spring, the group’s address was 4555 Mansell Road, Suite 300, Alpharetta, GA 30022, which is a “virtual office” with no physical presence. The address that now appears on ASA’s website is 3700 Mansell Road, Suite 220, which also appears to be a virtual office.

Aside from maintaining a website and an 800 number for prospective members, it is not clear what ASA spends money on in its nominal purpose as a seniors’ organization or how much of its budget is actually devoted to its political activities.

Some of these questions might be answered by the federal tax form, known as Form 990, which ASA is required to file as a non-profit organization. However, a search at the Foundation Center does not turn up a filing for either 2007 or 2008. A current listing for the American Seniors Association at the South Carolina Secretary of State’s website — which provides summary totals of expenses and revenues for non-profits doing business in the state — has only blank spaces where the dollar amounts should appear, suggesting that there may, in fact, have been no such filings.

ASA’s main number led to an automatic voice-mail, and the group did not return multiple requests for comment by Raw Story.

Additional research by Ron Brynaert and Muriel Kane

 
 
 
 
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