Category: Spin Doctors

Lanny Davis and Metabolife

My Rolling Stone piece on Michael Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis, who also represents a high-level Russian Mafia associate, is up. You can read it here.

[Apologies for repeating this post a second time, but after I posted an earlier draft, I realized, as I often do, that this might be something worth publishing.]

I’ve been aware of Davis for a long time, ever since his days representing a sleazy San Diego firm called Metabolife.

Metabolife was founded in 1995 by a man named Michael Ellis, an ex-cop who had a felony record for a meth lab bust in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. While on probation, Ellis had a brilliant idea. He realized that, thanks to a loophole in the law, he could sell speed legally. Thus was born Metabolife.

Metabolife’s pills contained ephedra, the herbal form of the stimulant ephedrine, which is a key ingredient in methamphetamine. It was legal to sell ephedra at the time,  thanks to a law sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, who dabbled in the vitamin business as a young man.

Hatch’s law deregulated the dietary supplements industry. Dietary supplement makers no longer had to show their products were safe. Under the law, Metabolife had no duty to report even the deaths of its customers.

Sales took off. Revenues at privately-held Metabolife had soared to more than $360 million in four years, but the company had a problem: People who gobbled its pills sometimes wound up in the hospital — or worse. One user’s heart rate zoomed to 300 beats a minute. Some turned into psychotic speed freaks. A Government Accounting Office report found Metabolife’s pills caused 18 heart attacks, 26 strokes, 43 seizures and five deaths.

When Congress started to investigate whether Ellis“put sales above safety,”  Metabolife hired Lanny Davis, who was then with the DC powerhouse firm of Patton Boggs. (Interestingly, Cohen worked for the same firm, now known as Squire Patton Boggs, after Trump’s election.)

I wrote a story for The Associated Press in 2004 pointing all this out:

“Patton Boggs earned millions helping project reassurances to Congress and its customers that Metabolife products were safe,” I wrote. “In mid 2002, Patton Boggs lobbyist Lanny Davis wrote a senator whose subcommittee was investigating Metabolife that the company had received only 78 ‘unproven, anecdotal allegations’ of strokes, heart attacks, seizures and deaths.”

Prosecutors alleged company founder Michael Ellis lied about Metabolife’s safety record in a 1998 letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which Patton Boggs attorneys helped him draft. (One former and four current Patton Boggs attorneys were subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in San Diego. A judge ruled they had to testify.)

Here’s a snippet of the FDA letter:

Screen Shot 2018-08-23 at 5.18.49 PM

That wasn’t true. The FDA finally banned sales of ephedra in 2004, saying it was linked to 155 deaths, including 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Ellis was eventually convicted of lying to the FDA; Metabolife pleaded guilty to tax evasion.

The conclusion is this: Davis and Patton Boggs helped Metabolife as it covered up a health crisis. Before I get a nasty letter from Mr. Davis, let me say that there’s no evidence that he did anything wrong or acted unprofessionally. But credibility matters, and after years of representing shady clients, Davis’ may find his credibility in short supply when he needs it most.

The Ben Stein-Ray Lucia Mutual Admiration Society

Actor and corporate pitchman Ben Stein charges more than $50,000 for a single speech, according to his page at the Keppler Speakers Bureau.

If that’s the case, I would love to know how much he charges San Diego money manager Ray “Buckets of Money” Lucia for making numerous appearances each year at Lucia’s free seminars and lauding him in The New York Times as a “guru.”

Update: Lucia in 2020 settled SEC charges that he misrepresented his “Buckets of Money” investing strategy; Stein was not charged with wrongdoing.

Let’s face it: it’s Stein, not Lucia, who was the big draw at the “Buckets of Money” seminars. Stein has made a career out of being a bow-tied smartypants ever since he famously played a dull economics teacher in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He even sued over his signature look in this lawsuit in which he describes himself as “the most famous economics teacher in the world.” In the public’s mind, Ben Stein is what an economist looks like.

The public doesn’t know or care that Stein is a securities lawyer by trade whose credentials as an economist amount to having a famous economist for a father and a bachelor’s degree in economics. Never mind that to the folks I know in the finance world think Lucia and his “buckets” are a joke. Never mind that anyone at Goldman Sachs who starts blabbing about buckets of money will be shot at dawn.

I doubt that Stein truly believes that the “genius” of Ray Lucia is his bucket strategy. His genius such as it is lies in his salesmanship. Lucia understands that regular people don’t want to read financial reports and SEC filings. They want to see a man who plays an economist on TV. They want to hear jokes get some free advice about what to do with their retirement nest eggs. They want a show.

So they come for a show and they leave with a new money manager, Lucia’s son, Ray Jr. It will take a while before these unsuspecting investors realize that Lucia Jr. has drilled holes in their buckets of money with his company’s high fees and questionable investments such as non-tradeable REITs that earn Lucia huge commissions.

Stein provides his pal Lucia an additional, equally valuable service — repeatedly dropping Lucia’s name in his business columns in The New York Times and elsewhere. Stein’s shilling got him canned from the Times, so now he name drops Lucia in his American Spectator diary.

Stein will say almost anything if you pay him. He served as an expert witness for lawyers at Milberg Weiss until the firm went down under federal indictment for bribery and fraud. He has pitched Comcast, eye drops, cars, office equipment. So it’s no surprise that Stein praises Lucia as a “guru” or a “genius” in the same breath as Warren Buffet.

But this is a particularly insidious form of advertising. If you repeat something enough times, goes the old saw, it becomes truth. Especially when you can repeat it in The New York Times.

I happened to be sitting at Morton’s restaurant in Beverly Hills a few days ago with Mr. [Phil] DeMuth and with another financial adviser for whom I have high esteem, Raymond J. Lucia (for whom – full disclosure – I am about to give a speech or two urging people to save for retirement).

Ray and Phil said something like this to me: “You know there are not a lot of shows on TV that actually teach the viewer how to be a better investor. There is a lot of stock picking and predicting what can’t be predicted, but there is not a lot that tells the ordinary Joe or Jane how to save for retirement.”

Ray and Phil were right. And they will keep being right.
~ The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2005

I was recently on a panel with the stock guru Ray Lucia, who offered overwhelming data about how impossible it was to pick stocks, trade in and out of them and fare as well as the market. His data was terrifying.
~ The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2007

I checked with my investment gurus, Phil DeMuth, Raymond J. Lucia and Kevin Hanley. None of us could see how Mr. Madoff could do what his friends said he could do.
~ The New York Times, Dec. 26, 2008

I am to give a speech at a huge gathering hosted by my pal Ray Lucia. It is about investing. He has an immense crowd of well over 1,000 people today and my job is not really to sell them anything, but to give them a general overview of the economy.
~The American Spectator, May 2010.

Now, to pack and prepare to go see my pal Ray Lucia. Ray is simply the best wealth manager I know of. He knows more about personal finance than any other person I have ever met. His advice — lots of liquidity and very wide diversification — is so sensible it has saved me from suicide many a night. This guy is a lifesaver where managing money is concerned. We are colleagues, so I am not disinterested, but even before we were colleagues, I was learning from him and being guided by him.
~The American Spectator, June 1, 2010.

I have done the best I can, with the help of some true geniuses of finance like Phil DeMuth, Chris DeMuth, Ray Lucia, Anil Vazirani, J.W. Roth and, supreme above all of them, John Bogle and Warren Buffett, to invest wisely.
~The American Spectator, Aug. 12, 2011

If you don't care about your Facebook privacy then carry on

Update: “Mr Zuckerberg’s latest mea culpa is unlikely to be his last,” The Economist

Facebook settled with the Federal Trade Commission today, admitting that its repeated assurances to its 500 million users that it would puyour private information in a secure little box were lies. Mark Zuckerberg calls them “mistakes.”

I’m posting this because this news might well be overshadowed by a well-timed leak to The Wall Street Journal that Facebook is hoping for a $100 billion initial public offering later this year.

The FTC complaint lists a number of instances in which Facebook allegedly made promises that it did not keep:

  • In December 2009, Facebook changed its website so certain information that users may have designated as private – such as their Friends List – was made public. They didn’t warn users that this change was coming, or get their approval in advance.
  • Facebook represented that third-party apps that users’ installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users’ personal data – data the apps didn’t need.
  • Facebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences – for example with “Friends Only.” In fact, selecting “Friends Only” did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.
  • Facebook had a “Verified Apps” program & claimed it certified the security of participating apps. It didn’t.
  • Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.
  • Facebook claimed that when users deactivated or deleted their accounts, their photos and videos would be inaccessible. But Facebook allowed access to the content, even after users had deactivated or deleted their accounts.
  • Facebook claimed that it complied with the U.S.- EU Safe Harbor Framework that governs data transfer between the U.S. and the European Union. It didn’t.

Carry on!


Anwar al-Awlaki's Death

The US is announcing the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who moved to Yemen where he waged jihad against his former homeland. Assuming this is true — and not a repeat of what happened in 2009 when Awlaki was falsely reported as dead — it’s a major blow against one of al Qaida’s superstars.

What made Awlaki so dangerous wasn’t his so-called operational abilities, as the U.S. is now claiming, although no one is actually bothering to ask what that means. Awlaki was an intellectual, not a fighter. What made Awlaki so dangerous was his somewhat unique ability to inspire disaffected Muslims in the West to take up arms in the cause of jihad.

Awlaki may have rejected the West, but he knew how it worked. He spent many years here in San Diego and spoke both Arabic and English beautifully. Recordings of his sermons are very popular. He also knew how to use the Internet to reach people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that U.S. counterterrorism officials started linking him to terrorism in the very same month that Awlaki started his now-defunct jihadist website.

What I always found fascinating about this so-called holy man got busted for prostitution twice in San Diego and was picked up by San Diego police for “hanging around a school.”  Maybe that’s why he needed his martyrdom, so he could wash his sins away. (I’ve written about him before here.  I also put together a comprehensive timeline.)

I won’t be shedding any tears for a man who plotted to kill Americans and praised the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan as a “hero.” But Awlaki wasn’t Osama bin Laden. He wasn’t an Iraqi insurgent or a Taliban trying to kill U.S. troops. Awlaki a U.S. citizen.

He knew his death would point out the hypocrisy of a country with a constitution that guarantees its citizens due process of law and then goes out and assassinates them in Yemen with a drone strike. He knew we would succumb to our fears.

Like it or not, he was one of our own.

Who is Jim McCarthy of CounterPoint Strategies?

????????ikoniIf you’ve found your way to this page, there’s a good chance that you’re a journalist who has just had the pleasure of meeting an unusually aggressive PR flak named Jim McCarthy.

Don’t let me scare you

First off, relax. If anything, the fact that you’ve run into Jim may be a good thing. This guy has represented some major league Wall Street crooks, so there’s a chance that you’re on to something.

CounterPoint’s current and former clients include:

  • Elliott Broidy, a wealthy California investor who pleaded guilty to paying $1 million in bribes to influence former New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
  • Ira Rennert’s Renco Group and its Doe Run subsidiary St. Louis, the largest lead producer in the Western hemisphere. Jim does not want you to watch this video about the company’s operations in Peru.
  • The Formaldehyde Council
  • The National Fisheries Institute (Think mercury)
  • Bond insurer MBIA.
  • The College Sports Council
  • Hedge fund founder Raj Rajaratnam, who was convicted of securities fraud. (Update: Raj Rajaratnam was sentenced to 11 years in prison.)
  • Dallas-based Kosmos Energy, majority-owned by private-equity firms Blackstone Group and Warburg Pincus.

I had the pleasure of dealing with Mr. McCarthy a few times when I was investigating one of those crooks, a guy named Elliot Broidy, so I decided to put together this handy-dandy guide for the perplexed:

Jim is president of CounterPoint Strategies, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. that specializes in an aggressive, combative style of crisis management. Jim is the real-life version of the fictional tobacco flak in Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You For Smoking. His job is to make your story about you.

He’s the son of liberal journalist and peace activist Colman McCarthy. The acorn fell pretty far from the tree in this case, although the dynamics of that relationship must be pretty interesting. Young Jim registered as a Republican at age 18.

Early in his PR career, Jim handled a variety of Fortune 500 and foreign government accounts for two public relations agencies in Washington, Ruder-Finn and Nichols-Dezenhall, the “brass-knuckled boys” of DC’s PR world.

Ready to pounce

In 1994, McCarthy started a boutique public relations agency, McCarthy Communications. McCarthy Communications reportedly billed one client, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe of central Michigan, $280,000 for a media campaign designed to force out the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Replying to a BIA spokesman who said he had never seen such tactics, McCarthy said, “I say to Mr. Hackler, welcome to the Beltway.”

A confidential McCarthy Communications proposal was obtained by The Washington Post. (See William Claiborne, “Tribe PR Drive Targeted BIA Head”, The Washington Post, Aug. 16, 1999)

McCarthy was hired by the Augusta National Golf Club in 2002 when the men-only club was under pressure by activist [[Martha Burk]] to admit women. McCarthy advised a “pugnacious” approach. “My clients appreciate that I like to get in the arena, take off the gloves and throw down,” McCarthy told Alan Shipnuck, who wrote a book about Augusta’s battle to keep women out. (See Taking on the Times”, Sports Illustrated, April 6, 2004.)

It’s the first time I’ve done this kind of media criticism as part of an overall strategy for a client, and I don’t know of any other PR firm that has done it. It’s pretty cutting-edge. Big PR firms are like large corporations in that they have always been afraid to take on the press directly, because there is this belief if you create an adversarial relationship, you will never be treated fairly again. But for a venerable institution like Augusta National to embrace that strategy, well, that has certainly opened some eyes. Now I’m trying to build media-crit-driven crisis management into stand-alone business. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be snapped up by a big, deep-pocketed PR firm.

In 2004, McCarthy co-founded Public Interest Watch, a Washington nonprofit heavily funded by Exxon Mobil. According to BusinessWeek, McCarthy’s ex-employer, renamed Dezenhall Resources, helped create PIW in 2002 specifically to prod the IRS to go after Greenpeace.

David “Nick” Nichols

Just as McCarthy had hoped, deep pockets did find him. McCarthy Communications was hired in 2004 to represent investor Kenneth Langone, who was named in a lawsuit by then-New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. On Langone’s behalf, McCarthy has repeatedly attacked the credibility of Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize winning business journalist for The New York Times, saying businesspeople regarded her with “pure contempt.” Apparently, Langone didn’t like it that Morgenson pointed out how Langone was a poster boy for executive overcompensation.

In 2008, McCarthy co-founded CounterPoint Strategies. McCarthy is the oversized face of CounterPoint, but behind the scenes is CounterPoint’s chairman, David “Nick” Nichols, a former investigative journalist who went on to found Nichols-Dezenhall, McCarthy’s old stomping grounds.

Before forming Nichols-Dezenhall, Nichols served as a campaign press secretary for New York City Mayor John Lindsay and then headed to Wisconsin where he served as a legislative staffer. Nichols also served for several as a senior media spokesperson for the Cuban-Haitian Task Force, which was charged with dealing with the thousands of refugees from Castro’s Cuba in the Mariel boat lift.

Share your McCarthy horror stories below: