How a shady, right-wing p.r. firm tried to buy academic influence

On March 7, 2007, a "media and research" company called eSapience filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against C.V. Starr %amp% Co., the California investment firm helmed by Maurice "Hank" Greenberg. Most people remember Greenberg as the disgraced former head of insurance giant American International Group who stepped down in 2005 under a cloud of lawsuits. But he is also a mover and shaker in New York intellectual and philanthropic circles--honorary vice chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, past chair of the Asia Society, a major donor to academic and cultural institutions, among other posts. Clearly, Greenberg cares about his public image, and that's why his company hired eSapience, which, according to the suit, specializes in "designing and executing highly targeted strategic policy campaigns in support of high-stakes business issues facing the world's leading organizations." When, after a few months of work, C.V. Starr stopped paying the bills, eSapience sued, for some $2 million.

Breach-of-contract suits are hardly news. What makes this suit so interesting is not C.V. Starr's alleged actions, but the services eSapience was hired to perform. That's because, far from being a typical p.r. firm, eSapience, run by a clique of conservative, free-market academics, is in the business of buying and manipulating influence at the very highest levels of academic and intellectual circles--a cynical strategy laid out in deep detail by the lawsuit. The suit, in fact, is a Rosetta Stone into the extremes to which a group of right-wingers have taken the phrase "marketplace of ideas"--and it has exposed the lengths to which some people will go to buy intellectual influence.


Very little information exists about eSapience outside the suit. Its website, eSapience.org, goes directly to something called the "eSapience Center for Competition Policy" (eCCP), a sort of virtual think tank that organizes conferences, promotes papers, and even publishes a journal, all of which have a decidedly conservative, free-market bent (the journal's editorial board, for example, features a bevy of University of Chicago legal scholars and economists, including Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook). All of this seems dryly academic and above board--in fact, there is hardly any explanation of what eSapience itself actual is. Going by the website, one might conclude that it is a bunch of Hayekians with time to kill.

The lawsuit, though, shows otherwise. According to the suit, the firm, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a coterie of high-end academics--the chair is David Evans, a visiting professor at the University College London; a managing director is Richard Schmalensee, dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management; Richard Epstein, the highly regarded Chicago legal scholar, is an affiliate--who use their connections in academia, the media, and the business world to improve their clients' public image. (eSapience declined, through its lawyer, to comment for this article.) According to an accompanying confidential memo to C.V. Starr, obtained by THE NEW REPUBLIC, eSapience promises to "blunt and/or change the conversations that influential people, including public intellectuals, have about the set of issues we are asked to manage."

What did this mean for C.V. Starr? First, eSapience created two think tanks, the eSapience Center for Law and Business (eCLB) and the Barbon Institute (which focuses on the insurance industry); Epstein "ran" the eCLB, and Schmalensee was "chair" of the Barbon Institute. The Barbon Institute has a slick online presence, complete with papers, conference schedules, and other resources. No mention of eSapience appears on the site. Both are obviously fronts--the eCLB has no website (and no Google hits), while the majority of the resources presented on the Barbon site are grabbed from other sources.

One could assume that its events would be similarly flimsy covers, and the lawsuit admits as much, in prose startling enough to quote at length:

In the execution of The MRG/C.V. Starr Plan, sapience organized and hosted events through the eCLB, The Barbon Institute and other channels for Starr's, and in particular, Greenberg's benefit. ... The effort devoted to these events reflected the level of detail, sophistication, and status necessary to present Greenberg in the best light and to assure the presence and participation of key intellectual and public figures. Starr dictated the timing of these events--directing that they occur in the late summer and fall of 2006--and the intense effort required to accomplish the ambitious goals set out by the plan in a very short period of time. [italics in original]

ESapience planned and executed three such events, on September 12, 14, and 15, 2006. One of them, co-sponsored with the Federalist Society, took place in (where else?) Greenberg Lounge at New York University. Titled "Does Procedure Dominate Substance? Of Class Actions and Pretrial Motions," it appeared no different from the sort of stultifying but edifying conferences that happen several times a week on university campuses. The keynote speech was by the eminent lawyer David Boies; the participants were drawn from top-25 law schools. Two of the participants I contacted knew little beyond the fact that eSapience was a co-sponsor; they were certainly unaware that it had planned the event as part of a scheme to improve Greenberg's image. For them, it was just another academic klatch ("If Hank Greenberg thought this resuscitated his reputation, that is beyond my knowledge or understanding," says NYU Law Professor Samuel Issacharoff). Did the Federalist Society know of the eSapience-Greenberg connection? When contacted, Eugene Meyer, its president, would only say, "People have many motives for what they do and ours was to have a high quality, civil, and balanced discussion of the issue. We felt that was met."

Beyond the September events, eSapience also promised to use its existing "channels"--presumably the eCCP and its journal--to further sway opinion, and to "secur[e] a New York Times journalist who might be inclined to write an article related to the lawsuit filed by the new York State Attorney General's Office against Greenberg." It also hired Dan Senor, famous as the Bush administration's spokesman in the early days of the Iraq war, and Mark Corallo, John Ashcroft's former public affairs director, to help in the effort, though the suit doesn't explain their roles further. All this, while billing C.V. Starr at rates between $400 and $1,000 an hour, per person. In about six months, it had run up some $2 million in charges. No wonder C.V. Starr balked at paying.


Perhaps the most disturbing element of the entire project is revealed at the end of the confidential memo to C.V. Starr. Under the heading "Independent Channels" eSapience promises to "leverage our relationships with important and highly credible channels including AEI, AEI-Brookings, Hoover Institution, MIT, University of Chicago Law School and the Federalist Society, among others. These organizations will work with us to host conferences, Capitol Hill briefings (if appropriate), co-author papers, link to our Center web sites, and distribute our materials on their web sites, among other things." These organizations may or may not have known of eSapience's plans to abuse their intellectual standing. They clearly didn't get a cut of the profits.

Indeed, the really cynical aspect of the eSapience program is not that it seeks to influence opinion--after all, that's what any think tank, journal, or op-ed column seeks to do--but that it does so behind a thick veil of obfuscation and secrecy, manipulating legitimate academic endeavors to benefit a high-paying client. In the process, they not only do damage to the people they unwittingly involve in their efforts (not to mention their own academic reputations); they also do enormous damage to the very nature of academic and intellectual inquiry. Thanks to eSapience, academics and the public have reason to second-guess the conferences, authors, and papers they consume; in such a world, what's to stop free intellectual inquiry from grinding to a halt? Then again, given the radically free-market notions of eSapience's directors, perhaps they'd prefer it that way--Caveat cogitator, thinker beware.