GOP-linked front group using local issue to smear stimulus plan
Muriel Kane
Published: Friday March 20, 2009

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A decades-old controversy over expansion of Chicago's O'Hare Airport has recently become the focus of a public relations campaign by a front group with close ties to the Republican Party. The airport issue is apparently being promoted to arouse opposition to the Obama administration's stimulus program, even though there is no indication that any stimulus funds will be used in the project.

The group which began promoting the issue in January gives no indication on its website of its leadership or finding sources. However, its contact information shows that it is run by a "grassroots" public relations firm with a history of promoting Republican front groups -- most notably Freedom's Watch, which was created in 2007 to drum up support for the Iraq War.

Chicago's heavily congested airport has been a source of major delays in air travel for many years, but all the proposed solutions have had problems of one sort or another. The O'Hare Modernization Program, which will add several more runways and a new terminal, has repeatedly been stalled by local opposition, particularly from the towns of Bensenville and Elk Grove Village, where several thousand residents will be displaced by the expansion.

The project had finally appeared to be underway at the start of 2009, when fresh opposition broke out from a group called Stop-OMP.

The Stop-OMP Campaign

The PR campaign mounted by Stop-OMP is not only far slicker than anything seen previously but is also aimed at a national audience. In January, for example, Stop-OMP issued a press release condemning the project for its planned relocation of a Bensenville cemetery.

The cemetery story, which was widely picked up by newspapers across the country, carried the inflammatory title, "Chicago Threatens Religious Rights Across the United States." It quoted a priest as saying, "Should it come to pass, this act would be nothing more than state-approved and state-sponsored religious desecration by Chicago."

In February, Stop-OMP announced the formation of a coalition which would bring local activists together such old-line anti-tax groups as Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the National Taxpayers Union. By then, the airport expansion was being derided as a $20 billion boondoggle and a "Runway to Nowhere."

According to a February 17 Stop-OMP press release, "Last week in Washington, D.C., Bensenville President John Geils participated in a press conference sponsored by CAGW targeting pork barrel waste in the stimulus bill, where the OMP was identified as the largest taxpayer pork project ever. While not completely successful in eliminating the threat of the bloated OMP as a recipient of stimulus funds, the coalition of taxpayer watchdog groups and President Geils were successful in encouraging Congress to trim the amount available for airport development from $5 billion down to $3 billion and finally down to $1.1 billion. "

By March, Stop-OMP had succeeded in having a resolution introduced in the Georgia Legislature condemning the project as "ill-conceived and premature," even though their own press release conceded that there was no evidence that any stimulus money would actually be spent on the airport.

Stop-OMP quoted the Georgia legislator who introduced the resolution as saying, "Here is a public works project that's riddled with allegations of corruption. As an extension of the Rod Blagojevich investigation, crony contractors are being charged with fraudulent bid-rigging schemes, and Chicago's mayor wants upwards of $20 billion from the American taxpayers to pay for it? If that's not pork, I don't know what is."

An old dispute

The Stop-OMP press releases are clearly intended to convey the impression that the airport modernization program is new and unwarranted -- a "bloated" and unnecessary "pork project" being forced on local residents against their wishes -- and to focus that sense of outrage on the Obama administration's stimulus program.

However, the truth is that the entire controversy been dragging on for years, and Stop-OMP is very much a newcomer on the scene. For example, John Geils, president of the small blue-collar town of Bensenville, which faces the loss of hundreds of homes if the expansion goes through, has been battling the plan for well over thirty years.

A lawsuit over the cemetery relocation was filed on May 30, 2003, CNN reported on the controversy in 2004, and when the FAA approved the project in 2005, Bensenville, Elk Grove Village, and the church which owns the threatened cemetery immediately took legal action in an attempt to halt construction. By 2006, even the lawn signs opposing the project were already old and tattered. (See image above.)

This raises the question of why the issue is being hauled out again now. Why are national anti-tax groups getting involved? And who is behind Stop-OMP?

The Freedom's Watch Connection

Stop-OMP's website gives no indication of the group's leaders or funding sources. The domain was registered anonymously through DomainsByProxy on January 7, 2009. The only indication of who might be behind Stop-OMP is the name of the contact person on its press releases: Jerry Mullins.

Mullins is a senior vice president with the public relations firm of Weber Merritt LLC and has served in that position as the contact person for a series of Republican Party-related groups. By far the most prominent of these was Freedom's Watch, a group formed in 2007 to drum up support for the Iraq war, which was headed by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer and funded by wealthy Republican donors.

Earlier that same year, Mullins had served as the contact person for GOPAC, a 527 that operates as a training ground for up-and-coming Republican office holders, which at that time was headed by Michael Steele, now chairman of the Republican National Committee. His name also shows up in connection with three different groups established to press for September 11 memorials, as well as with a terrorism museum in Denver founded last year by a wealthy McCain supporter.

None of the other personnel of Weber Merritt can be directly tied to Stop-OMP, but it may be significant that Robert Tappan is the firm's president for public affairs, with the job of "providing strategic communications counsel and public policy initiatives to clients."

Before joining Weber Merritt, Tappan had served from 2002 to 2006 as the Bush administration's Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, also spending the first six months of 2004 as Director of Strategic Communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority. He then became president of the Washington, DC office of the PR firm of Burson-Marsteller, with responsibility for overseeing its "grassroots" subsidiary, Direct Impact.

In an extensive 2007 investigation of Direct Impact, Raw Story found that it appeared to be closely tied to the GOP and had provided a revolving door arrangement for a number of Republican Party and Bush White House communications experts. For example, GOP campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, who most recently served as John McCain's 2008 campaign adviser, spent a year working at Direct Impact in 2003-04.

At the time of Raw's investigation, a former sister firm of Direct Impact had been identified as providing Freedom's Watch with web hosting. However, Tappan denied categorically that Direct Impact was connected with Freedom's Watch in any way. He told Raw Story, "Neither our firm, nor any of its subsidiary or affiliate companies, are involved with Freedomís Watch. To the best of my knowledge, none of our principals, including me, have been involved with this organization, either on a personal or professional level, at any time."

Less than two weeks later, it was announced that Tappan was joining Weber Merritt.

Weber Merritt's Republican connections

Although it has a few staff members with Democratic Party backgrounds, Weber Merritt appears to be closely tied overall to the GOP and its corporate allies. It boasts on its website of having set up a letter-writing campaign for the automotive industry to oppose any increase in CAFE standards, of having organized "grassroots" support for tort reform legislation, apparantly on behalf of of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and of having handled the public relations for the Dubai Ports World deal.

One of the firm's founding partners, Jim Weber, is the brother of longtime Republican strategist Vin Weber. In 2003 Weber Merritt became a subsidiary of the lobbying firm where Vin Weber is a senior partner, Clark & Weinstock.

Vin Weber himself is known to be extremely close to George W. Bush. He often served as an unofficial spokesman for the Bush White House and has been described as an ally of Karl Rove. Since 2001, he has also served on the board of directors of Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the anti-tax groups now prominently involved with Stop-OMP.

The other anti-tax group affiliated with Stop-OMP is the venerable National Taxpayers' Union (NTU), which has been battling government spending and the progressive income tax for the last 40 years. In 1988, NTU caused a sensation when it marshalled its supporters to protest a proposed Congressional pay hike by dumping 160,000 tea bags in front of the White House -- a form of opposition which appears to have inspired the current "tea party" protests against the Obama administration's stimulus plans.

Altogether, it seems probable that even if Stop-OMP does not have the prominence of a Freedom's Watch, it is unlikely to have been created without the knowledge and blessing of the highest levels of the Republican Party. It is equally unlikely that the local activists of Bensenville and Elk Grove Village -- who until recently depended on tattered lawn signs to press their cause -- would be able to afford Weber Merritt's slickly written press releases without the generosity of outside funders.

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