Aide says infiltrators have been at meetings
By Amy Bennett Williams
Who would spy on a couple of nonprofit human rights groups? Who would hire a professional infiltrator to sit in on the organizations' planning sessions? Who would attack them on the Web for their efforts to improve the lives of workers who pick produce for the world's largest fast food chains?
That's something the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student/Farmworker Alliance would like to know.
In recent months, they've been vilified online and in e-mails that can be traced to the Miami headquarters of Burger King, a company that's opposed the groups' efforts.
The alliance also identified a spy in its ranks.
Burger King spokesman Keva Silversmith says he knows nothing about any Burger King effort to spy on the Immokalee groups.
"I have no idea what should be secret about helping farmworkers," Silversmith says.
And unless the e-mails or postings came from the company's communications office, they're not official, Silversmith says.
"Are employees allowed to use our corporate Internet for personal e-mails?" he asked. "Yes, but only communications that come from this office can be considered representative of Burger King's official position."
The coalition works to improve the lives of its mostly immigrant members, many of whom do low-wage labor in Florida's fields; the alliance is a key ally. In recent years, the coalition has scored a number of hard-fought, high-profile victories. McDonald's and Yum! Brands, the world's biggest fast-food chain and restaurant company, respectively, agreed to a coalition-supported penny-per-pound pay increase for tomato workers. Yum! signed on in 2005; McDonald's in 2007. That penny more could add about $20 to a daily wage of $50, workers say.
The Coalition also is one of the nation's most respected anti-slavery groups, helping to prosecute six federal slavery cases, freeing more than 1,000 people and earning praise from FBI director Robert Mueller.
Last month, as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called for Senate hearings on farm conditions — now scheduled for Tuesday — the coalition launched a petition campaign. Backed with the threat of a boycott, it aimed to persuade Burger King and others, including the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an agriculture cooperative that also opposes the penny-a-pound raise, to pay it and to "eliminate slavery and
human rights abuses from Florida's fields."
That's when the trouble started.
‘Kind of scary'
Marc Rodrigues would never describe himself as a paranoid guy — not even an extra-careful type — but when the second batch of odd e-mails started rolling in, he got suspicious.
Rodrigues, 27, is an organizer with the alliance, made up mostly of people in their late teens to mid-20s working from a colorfully cluttered storefront office shared with the CIW.
It began normally enough. He got a call from Cara Schaffer, who said she was a student at Broward Community College. She wanted to plan an SFA event at her school. Great, Rodrigues said, and chatted with her about strategy.
"Then we were wrapping up the discussion, when out of nowhere she said, ‘What about the conference call coming up? Can I get on it?''' Rodrigues says. "I was a bit thrown off because of the way that she asked the question, but I went ahead and gave her the call-in information."
Curious, he recalls, Rodrigues looked her up on Google. In a matter of clicks, he learned that Cara Schaffer owns the Hollywood, Fla.-based Diplomatic Tactical Services, a security and investigative firm that advertises its ability to place "operatives" in the ranks of target groups.
What tipped Rodrigues off , he said, was how similar his conversation with Schaffer was to those he'd had some months earlier with another person claiming to be a student wanting to plan events at the University of Virginia.
"He called himself Kevin," Rodrigues says, "but his e-mail name was email@example.com."
That rang a bell with Rodrigues. In January, he remembered the Associated Press had obtained a memo from Burger King vice president Steven Grover, warning suppliers the chain might stop buying Florida tomatoes, which could have had a chilling effect on efforts to win a pay increase. Florida produces 90 percent of the nation's fresh winter tomatoes, according to the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange's Web site.
The source of the leaked memo? The same memorable e-mail address as "Kevin's," Rodrigues says: firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The whole thing with the stopcorporategreed e-mail was so weird, because if you're just some random student at UVA, how is it you have access to this internal memo from Burger King?" Rodrigues asks. A check of the e-mail's originating address showed it came not from Virginia, but from Davie, some 20 miles north of Miami.
When Rodrigues asked "Kevin" for a physical address to which he could send a packet, he never responded. It was the last Rodrigues heard from him.
And then Cara Schaffer turned up.
When The News-Press phoned Schaffer, she confirmed she owned Diplomatic Tactical Services but wouldn't talk about her involvement with the alliance, saying only that she'd made "a couple of phone calls." Then she hung up. Schaffer does not hold a private investigator's license; she applied, but was denied, Florida public records show. Broward Community College has no current enrollment record for her.
There isn't a known connection between Burger King and Schaffer, but Rodrigues wonders.
"Why would someone put an operative in the ranks of a nonviolent, peaceful group?
It's kind of scary and threatening that someone would hire a person like this to come after us," he says. "Normally I'm not the type of person to sit around Googling people's names, but there's definitely a level of threat and intimidation coming from Burger King when the simple fact is we're just trying to stand up for human rights."
Meanwhile, members had been noticing a growing number of hostile online posts about their efforts.
When articles or videos were posted on the Internet, someone using the e-mail name email@example.com often would attach comments CIW member Greg Asbed calls "libelous." The posts claimed the money from the Yum! agreement never reached the workers and instead, the coalition lined its pockets. (Yum! vice president Jonathan Blum vouched for the integrity of the transfer in a 2007 letter to Burger King: "At no time have we paid anything directly or indirectly to the CIW," Blum wrote).
Each post varied a bit, but this is typical: "The CIW is a self-serving attack organization with no real members or workers (that) creates conflict and spreads overly simplistic misinformation to unquestioning students. ... (It) reaps millions in cash from unknowing or duped supporters. ... The CIW has fooled thousands with its slick internet stories, collected millions in return and given the workers nothing."
This tactic is certainly not unheard of. Burger King's public relations firm, Edelman, worked the Internet on behalf of Wal-Mart.
"Edelman's gotten in trouble for some of its Internet work on behalf of Wal-Mart, specifically for having its employees pose as ‘grass-roots bloggers' on pro-Wal-Mart Web sites," says Diane Farsetta, senior researcher for the Madison, Wis.-based Center for Media and Democracy.
Edelman spokesman Derek Creevey directed The News-Press to a 2006 blog entry by the company's president and CEO, Richard Edelman: "Let me get the disclosure out of the way. Edelman is the P.R. firm working with bloggers as part of a Wal-Mart corporate image campaign. ... We are proud of our groundbreaking work in reaching out to blogs on behalf of our clients and proud of this work for Wal-Mart."
Last month, activist2008 sent an e-mail almost identical to many of the online postings to The News-Press, signed "Shawn Glass." A search of the e-mail's Internet Protocol address headers showed it came from Burger King's corporate headquarters in Miami. No one named Shawn Glass works there, according to the employee phone directory.
Silversmith denied that the e-mail was official BK communication, though he didn't deny it came from the company. "This is a non-corporate sanctioned opinion. The strident tone does not reflect Burger King, who wants to cooperate and bring real change to Immokalee," Silversmith says. "But obviously in a corporation of 900 people, you'd understand that some people get their passions aroused."
Sheldon Rampton, research coordinator for the Center for Media and Democracy, says often when corporations want to influence groups critical of them, they use clandestine practices. "Sometimes they get careless. (Schaffer) may not have thought anyone would Google her."
When corporations are caught, Rampton says, "They respond typically with denials (but) oftentimes, enough of a pattern is discovered that it becomes obvious to all but the deliberately naïve that this is happening."
Best-selling author Eric Schlosser says, "This would not be the first time a hamburger company has spied on someone who didn't agree with it."
Schlosser detailed McDonald's espionage in "Fast Food Nation."
"McDonald's had infiltrated London Greenpeace with informers, who regularly attended the group's meetings and spied on its members," he wrote.
"But it's unacceptable," he says. "Completely unacceptable."
Aide says infiltrators have been at meetings
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