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Florida Media Company Tries to Mislead Nonprofits, Public Citizen Finds

March 8, 2010

Florida Media Company Tries to Mislead Nonprofits, Public Citizen Finds

Public Citizen Files Affidavit Cataloging Company’s Attempts to Attract Business

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A Florida media company trying to silence its critics, such as an online message board operator Public Citizen is defending, has a history of trying to mislead nonprofits to get their business, an affidavit filed late last week shows.

While defending the message board operator, Public Citizen learned that Vision Media, a Boca Raton, Fla.,-based company that makes TV spots for nonprofit groups, has a history of misrepresenting itself to lure nonprofits into doing business with it. The company – and several predecessors that appear to be the same company – cold calls nonprofits, telling them they have been selected to appear in documentaries for “public television,” hosted by celebrities such as Hugh Downs, Walter Cronkite and Morley Safer.

The affidavit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is part of an ongoing case that began in March 2009, when Vision Media sued the operator of the Web site 800notes.com, which hosts online message boards, complaining about critical comments about the company. The operator, Julia Forte, contacted Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, an expert in Internet free speech, for legal help.

When Levy wrote a blog post about the case, Vision Media asked the court to issue a gag order to muzzle him, but the judge denied the request. Now Public Citizen is opposing the terms under which Vision Media is seeking to dismiss the case because they would permit the company to refile the lawsuit at any time. Levy filed the affidavit to bolster his argument that the company should not be permitted to file the case again.

“This suit was a harassment suit, filed to hassle the company’s critics, and it should be treated as such,” Levy said.

In the course of investigating the case, Levy learned that Vision Media had tried to solicit the nonprofit Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The nonprofit’s communications director, Jeff Cronin, was willing to provide details of his experience in an affidavit being filed in the case.

Since 2003, the employees of Vision Media and several other apparently-related companies have called Cronin or his colleagues, soliciting them to participate in programs prepared for “public television,” for a fee ranging from $15,000 to $26,000. But Vision Media has no apparent connection to PBS, the public television network, and the only evidence produced so far of spots actually running on television involves paid advertising on commercial channels.

“When I eventually spoke with … the producer of [the supposed] ‘National Medical Report,’ I questioned her about the similarities to WJMK [a previous soliciting attempt] and she said she was new and didn’t know what I was referring to. I challenged her to name one more program director or any other professional reference at any PBS station that I could call to verify that the series actually airs, and she could not. I told her CSPI would not be participating,” Cronin wrote in his affidavit.

Once The New York Times, The South Florida Business Journal, the “Consumerist” blog and Current got wind of the scheme, they published articles shining light on the solicitations. But after each bout of negative publicity, the names of the company, the television program and the host changed in the solicitations, calling into question the company’s legitimacy. Other company names have included WJMK, United Media and Great America HD. All companies used similar addresses, marketing materials and phone numbers, Cronin said.

 Cronin was able to identify the scam because of his extensive experience in communications, but he fears that smaller nonprofits might easily fall for it. Nonprofits that receive calls from companies with any of these names – or any new names that may be adopted – should beware, Levy said.

To read more about this case, visit https://www.citizen.org/pressroom/release.cfm?ID=3035.!!!

To read Public Citizen’s briefs, go to https://www.citizen.org/litigation/forms/cases/CaseDetails.cfm?cID=591. !!!