By LOUIS FLORES
Somos El Futuro, a group supposedly committed to advancing legal and economic issues for Latinos, is accepting sponsorship money from a controversial multi-level marketing company, Herbalife Ltd., which watchdog experts and investors accuse of being a pyramid scheme.
Once word of Herbalife's controversial sponsorship of a conference organized by Somos El Future became public, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had her office issue a statement in which she criticised Herbalife's sponsorship of the SOMOS 2014 fall conference, according to a report in Capital New York. The fall conference is taking place now, during a four-day week-end at the Condado Plaza Hilton, an ocean-front hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
At one conference-related press conference, participants called for an increase in the minimum wage, even though one of the complaints against Herbalife's business model is that may defraud its sales force of income. A short, documentary-style video posted to YouTube evidences what many say to be true : sales workers, who are called distributors or supervisors, are unable to make back the money they pay to buy into the business opportunity that Herbalife sells.
Somos El Futuro's officials were contacted, but they did not immediately answer a request for comment.
In spite of inauthentic outrage by Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, many of New York's politicians are appearing at the SOMOS 2014 fall conference, in spite of allegations that Herbalife exploits Latinos in its sales force. Amongst the government officials, who are attending the SOMOS 2014 fall conference, are : Council Speaker Mark-Viverito (D-Harlem), Public Advocate Tish James (D-New York City), Assemblymember Marcos Crespo (D-The Bronx), Assemblymember Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn), and Mecca Santana, the Chief Diversity Officer for New York State.
One of Herbalife's most vocal critics are leaders with the national headquarters of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LUCLAC, led by Brent Wilkes, the national executive director. Mr. Wilkes has published an essay in The Huffington Post, criticizing Herbalife for exploiting hundreds of thousands of Latinos in the Herbalife's sales force.
To counteract such criticism, Herbalife has made contributions to some of LULAC's local chapters, creating division within LULAC. Herbalife has also made contributions to other Latino organizations, in order, some say, to thwart criticisms from those groups. Some of those Latino organizations, which have received contributions from Herbalife, include the National Puerto Rican Coalition, the National Hispana Leadership Institute, and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, according to a report in The New York Post.
To further defend itself from criticisms, Herbalife has retained the consulting firm that employs New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's ex-wife, Jennifer Cunningham. Herbalife has previously made contributions to lobbying groups that then make campaign donations to states' attorneys general, including to Attorney General Schneiderman. The contributions to Latino groups, the activities of lobbyists, and the retention of the consulting firm that employs Attorney General Schneiderman's ex-wife point to a desperate lobbying operation by Herbalife to quash criticisms of and investigations into its business practices.
Several regulatory and judicial authorities are reportedly investigating Herbalife for allegations of fraud and for being a pyramid scheme. In addition to investigations by authorities, Herbalife is the target of a $1 billion short bet by a Wall Street hedge management company, Pershing Square Capital Management.
One of the other SOMOS 2014 fall conference sponsors, Airbnb, has been criticised by some lawmakers for complaints that Airbnb is reducing the affordable housing stock in New York City by converting apartments into rooms-for-hire in a hotel-like service.
The news publication City & State, which was not a sponsor of the conference but had dispatched journalists to report about the conference, was criticised for selling advertising to Airbnb. Some media critics faulted City & State for not raising the issue of the controversial Herbalife sponsorship. In an e-mail to Progress Queens, the editor of City & State, Morgan Pehme, vigorously denied that City & State took any money from Herbalife. In a subsequent response, Mr. Pehme explained that many topics did not come up during interviews conducted by City & State. One way that City & State generates revenue is by sponsoring conferences or special-themed events, some of which have involved lobbying firms, such as Bolton St. Johns, when City & State sponsored a NY-Canada Trade Summit, for example. Mr. Pehme vehemently denied that sponsors or advertisers compromised its journalism, calling such a question "blind conjecture," adding that City & State columnist Seth Barron had previously written about the issue, even though Mr. Barron's report was posted on his own, independent Web site, a distinction lost on Mr. Pehme. Other responses by Mr. Pehme can be found in the postscript to a prior article.*
An online version of a printed program produced by City & State for the SOMOS 2014 fall conference did not feature any advertisements by Herbalife, but in a full-page ad by Somos El Futuro on page 27 of the program, Somos El Futuro thanked Herbalife amongst other sponsors. Furthermore, the inside back page of the special program featured a full-page ad by Airbnb.
When news publications sponsor events or conferences in connection with other corporations, those news publications have a financial interest in overlooking controversies involving other corporate sponsors, media critics say. In the case of Herbalife, only three news outlets have thus far reported about the controversy that Somos El Futuro accepted Herbalife as a sponsor : the Web site City Council Watch, which is independently operated by Mr. Barron ; Capital New York ; and Progress Queens.
Apparently, all other news outlets are unwilling or uninterested in reporting, or conflicted to report, about the Herbalife's sponsorship conflicting with Somos El Futuro's objective.
There has been discussion about the creation of a political party, being tentatively called the Latino Equality Party, to advance issues important to Latinos. In last week's state-wide elections, Gov. Cuomo created a sham political party, called the Women's Equality Party, to help him win reëlection by appealing to women voters. The Women's Equality Party was deemed a sham by many, because, amongst other reasons, 11 of the 17 candidates, who were endorsed by the Women's Equality Party, were men. No word yet if, based on how Somos El Futuro looks the other way to its sponsors' business practices, whether 11 of the 17 Latino Equality Party's first round of candidates, if the party is indeed constituted, would be Herbalife distributors.
This article was updated to include references to each of a raise in the minimum wage and to the concept of a Latino Equality Party, as well as to add a correction (*) requested by City & State.