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FACTSHEET

In Name Only:

Phony "Consumer Advocate" Michael Johnson
Big businesses in California often need a front person for their efforts to undermine consumer protections. In recent years. insurers, HMOs and utilities have turned to Michael Johnson. Johnson is part of a cottage industry of impostors who present themselves to unsuspecting organizations and to the public generally as consumer activists looking out for the public interest. In fact, Johnson's political activities are funded by corporate sponsors looking to distance themselves from their own anti-consumer campaigns.

Portrait of an Impostor

Johnson worked briefly with consumer protection groups, but, since the mid-1990s, he has exploited his meager stint working alongside real consumer advocates in order to provide anti-consumer efforts with a more appealing veneer.

Johnson worked briefly for Public Citizen, a D.C.-based consumer group founded by Ralph Nader, and then for Harvey Rosenfield (now the President of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights) as a staff person at Voter Revolt after the group passed Proposition 103. After Rosenfield left, Johnson and other mercenary political operatives began selling Voter Revolt's name to anti-consumer campaigns.

At a 1996 press conference announcing the "terrible 200s," a trio of big business-backed ballot initiatives, Johnson told reporters he was a former assistant to Ralph Nader, and described himself as the "Policy Director" of Voter Revolt. In fact, Johnson's paycheck at that time came from the industrial interests behind those campaigns; the "Alliance to Revitalize California" and other insurance and business groups paid him a total of $107,115.48 during 1995 and 1996. In a deposition, Johnson identified himself as a "political consultant" employed by an offshoot of the Alliance to Revitalize California, and he admitted in an interview that he was actively pursuing insurance industry donations for one of the initiatives (SF Bay Guardian, 2/28/96).

Nader and Joan Claybrook, the head of Public Citizen, sued to prevent Johnson from misleading voters by suggesting that he represented their views on the initiatives. In December of 1995, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered Johnson's false and misleading statement in the official ballot handbook reworded.

Insurance industry shill

At Department of Insurance (DOI) hearings, Johnson-- while posing as a consumer advocate -- testified in favor granting insurance companies broad discretion in gouging consumers. What made Johnson's deception all the more galling was that he petitioned the DOI to receive compensation--reserved for public interest advocates under Prop 103--for lobbying on behalf of the insurance industry.

State records show that the DOI, under former Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush -- who later resigned in disgrace -- paid Johnson $13,095 for his "participation" in the proceeding, a rate of $150 an hour (Johnson is not a lawyer and has no training in insurance matters).

And when, in 1999, FTCR testified before California legislative committees in support of insurance consumer protection legislation, Michael Johnson was there, representing the insurance companies' interests once again. Although all of the state's major consumer groups supported the legislation, Johnson claimed that his pro-industry testimony was on behalf of consumers.

After the legislation passed, a few out-of-state insurance companies funded a petition drive to place the new laws on a statewide ballot as referenda (Propositions 30 and 31 on California's March 7, 2000 ballot). Mike Johnson became one of proponents and ballot signers of the referenda, as well as one of the insurance industry's spokespeople for the campaign.

Utility Companies' hired goon

Consistent with his pattern of posing as a consumer advocate in order to help defeat consumers' interests, Michael Johnson took $15,896 from the utility companies as their spokesperson in the industry's 1998 anti-Prop 9 campaign.

In 1998, FTCR joined with other California consumer advocacy groups in drafting and sponsoring a ballot measure to lower utility rates by rewriting anti-consumer legislation, passed by the California Legislature in 1996, that forced ratepayers to pay off the bad debts of the state's three private utility companies: Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric. More details of that issue can be found elsewhere on this web site.

A key part of the utilities' strategy to defeat the measure, Prop. 9, was to employ other individuals, like Johnson, to speak to the media and the public while the utilities spent $40 million in negative ads on television and radio.

Unhealthy Alliance

Johnson has turned up as a spokesperson for the California Association of Health Plans, a group that represents HMOs in the state.

In 1997,Johnson penned an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee in which he adopted the HMOs' position and attacked a handful of ballot initiatives and pending legislation. Once again, as is made apparent by the editor's description of the writer, Johnson has tried to pass himself off as a consumer advocate: "Michael Johnson is a consumer activist on insurance issues. He is a former policy analyst for Ralph Nader's group Public Citizen and worked on Proposition 103…and Proposition 200" ("Forces Behind HMO Regulation," November 7, 1997).

Then, in 1998, when the legislature took up the question of whether to hold HMOs liable for improperly denying benefits to patients, Johnson advocated against the legislation. Identifying himself to a TV producer as a medical malpractice consultant to the California Association of Health Plans, Johnson argued against holding HMOs accountable for improper denial of care.

Conslusion

The public trusts consumer advocates to defend the interests of ordinary people against the greed of corporations. Self-aggrandizing charlatans like Johnson prey on this trust for their own profit, striking a blow to the cause of consumer rights in the process.







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