Drug industry hit on lobbying effort

Health advocates file complaint alleging `deceptive tactics'

March 19, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A health care advocacy group filed a complaint yesterday with the State Ethics Commission charging that the pharmaceutical industry violated Maryland law with a "deceptive" lobbying effort to defeat legislation before the General Assembly.

The Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative Education Fund claims that representatives of the industry schemed to influence lawmakers on prescription drug legislation without registering as lobbyists.

The complaint alleges that Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) conspired with a lobbying firm to hide activities by posing as a nonprofit consumer group. PhRMA "has employed blatantly deceptive tactics - in the guise of a consumer organization - to do the bidding of the pharmaceutical industry," the complaint says.

Industry officials denied any wrongdoing.

The Sun reported March 9 that PhRMA hired Bonner & Associates of Washington to derail several prescription drug bills. To achieve this, Bonner & Associates teamed with an obscure Michigan-based nonprofit group, The Consumer Alliance, to generate opposition to the bills.

The apparent goal behind the partnership was to make legislators think there was a groundswell of grass-roots opposition from consumers.

Bruce Lott, a PhRMA spokesman, issued a statement late yesterday defending PhRMA's association with Bonner & Associates and Don Rounds, president of The Consumer Alliance. Lott also denied that anyone violated state ethics laws.

"These allegations ... are unfounded and directly contradict the actions already taken by PhRMA, Rounds, and Bonner & Associates to fully comply with the law," the statement says.

The education fund claims that neither Rounds nor Bonner & Associates was registered with the Ethics Commission when the campaign to defeat the legislation - designed to lower drug costs to the state Medicaid program and 1 million uninsured residents - began last month.

Rounds and Jack Bonner, who heads Bonner & Associates, registered as PhRMA lobbyists March 8, according to Ethics Commission records - the day after a reporter interviewed them about the campaign.

State ethics laws require that most organizations, and people who lobby on behalf of those organizations, register with the Ethics Commission.

The complaint also accuses PhRMA of hiring another lobbying firm to generate opposition to the legislation. That firm, Cullari & Associates, based in Hershey, Pa., created The Maryland Partnership for Quality Health Care to help defeat the bills. Neither the lobbying firm nor the partnership is registered with the commission. Lott said he didn't believe those two groups had to register because their activities were minimal.

"They have got these front groups, and the drug companies should be ashamed of what they are doing," said Vincent DeMarco, education fund executive director.

Suzanne S. Fox, the executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said she could not discuss the complaint or even confirm that one has been filed.

Fox said that a person found guilty of violating state ethics laws could face up to $5,000 in fines if a complaint is found to be valid.

DeMarco's group also contends that Bonner & Associates violated ethics laws by apparently misrepresenting itself to hide its affiliation with PhRMA.

Late last month, Bonner & Associates sent out faxes on The Consumer Alliance letterhead to dozens of community leaders. The leaders were asked to sign a petition to stop the poor and disabled from losing access to affordable prescription drugs.

The fax did not mention the pharmaceutical industry or specific legislation. Some lawmakers have criticized the tactic, saying it was designed to mislead.

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