By Debbie Siegelbaum - 08/04/11 09:45 AM EDT
Dozens of lawmakers are objecting to their names being used in association with a for-profit organization that brings schoolchildren to the nation’s capital.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) recently circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter to members of the House and Senate, claiming their names were being used erroneously to drum up business for the Congressional Youth Leadership Council.
The CYLC, a former nonprofit educational organization that was later bought by the for-profit Envision EMI, has organized trips for more than 260,000 students to Washington over the last quarter-century.
“It started out innocently enough, when what was then a nonprofit educational program that brought students to Washington, D.C., placed the names of members of Congress on its Honorary Board of Congressional Advisers,” Ackerman continued. “However, the nonprofit sold itself to its for-profit company in 2007 and continues to use your name and the names of almost a majority of Congress for its own profitable and promotional advantage.”
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During the trips, students meet with lawmakers, attend panel discussions and explore the city, at a cost ranging from $1,500 to more than $2,300 for six- to nine-day programs.
Materials are mailed to thousands of students each year notifying them of their acceptance into the program.
Included in the packet of materials sent to students — chosen for their “outstanding academic achievements and demonstrated leadership potential,” according to the invitation — is a list of hundreds of House and Senate lawmakers on the company’s honorary congressional board of advisers.
The only problem is, lawmakers don’t remember ever agreeing to be on the board.
“Half the Congress is on; half the Senate is on. I’ve asked and people are saying, ‘I don’t know anything about it,’” Ackerman told The Hill. “You can’t get 200 members of Congress to agree to save the damn country. But a group they’ve never heard of? That’s a red flag right there.”
According to a list supplied by Ackerman, 42 House members have asked to have their names removed, including Reps. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), Peter King (R-N.Y.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Allen West (R-Fla.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
Lawmakers listed as current participants on the advisory board who have not requested to opt out include Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
Ackerman’s inclusion on the board was brought to his attention in February when a young constituent examining the packet of materials got in touch with him.
Further research heightened Ackerman’s concerns regarding the company — in particular, that the academic bar for participation is much lower than Envision EMI claims and that the company purchases mailing lists to spam thousands of possible consumers.
“They are a huge mail marketing company,” Ackerman said. “The letterhead and the mailing and the envelope and everything they do looks like it has some kind of quasi-government congressional seal … but it’s not congressionally approved.”
Regan Lamb, Envision EMI’s managing director of education, acknowledged that the company buys mailing lists, but only from honors societies and organizations that specialize in “pinpointing high-achieving students.” Teachers also nominate students for the program, she added.
Asked how much the company’s top executives earn, given the high cost per each of the 37,000 to 50,000 students who participate in any of Envision EMI programs each year, general counsel Ted Stern responded, “I don’t think that’s a relevant question.” He claimed that the company operates on low profit margins because of high overhead costs, but would not offer specific figures.
As an increasing number of lawmakers request that their names be removed from the honorary congressional board of advisers, both Lamb and Stern insist that every single lawmaker on the board initially agreed in writing to join.
They produced copies of letters signed by Ackerman in 2008, as well as Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), who also recently asked that his name be removed.
“I can’t imagine any member of Congress wanting to put their name up to somebody that is essentially a for-profit organization,” Farr said. “It kind of burns you when you find out they’re in it for profit and they’re kind of using misleading tactics to get people to join and spend a lot of money.”
Farr’s press secretary, David Beltran, said the congressman agreed to participate on the board several years ago, before concerns about the program led him to request that he no longer be associated with it.
Lamb maintains that lawmakers are asked every two to three years to confirm their ongoing participation on the board. While she expressed frustration that members are jumping ship, Lamb said the most important thing is not their board membership, but instead that students’ access to lawmakers continues.
“There’s a misperception of what we do and what our values are,” she said, adding that she wishes Ackerman had made contact with Envision EMI before sending out the “Dear Colleague” memo.
Ackerman, however, said he did reach out to the company.
“We did call them, obviously,” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, someone in [your] office agreed to go on it.’ I said, ‘Who?’ ‘Oh we don’t have the name, but somebody.’ Well, that’s their answer to everybody. They put your name on, and who questions it?
“My gripe with them is that it’s not on the level. Every member of Congress is the bait to lure these kids in.”