WASHINGTON — Just four blocks from the White House is the headquarters of the Employment Policies Institute, a widely quoted economic research center whose academic reports have repeatedly warned that increasing the minimum wage could be harmful, increasing poverty and unemployment.
But something fundamental goes unsaid in the institute's reports: The nonprofit group is run by a public relations firm that also represents the restaurant industry, as part of a tightly coordinated effort to defeat the minimum wage increase that the White House and Democrats in Congress have pushed for.
"The vast majority of economic research shows there are serious consequences," Michael Saltsman, the institute's research director, said in an interview, before he declined to list the restaurant chains that were among its contributors.
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The campaign illustrates how groups — conservative and liberal — are again working in opaque ways to shape hot-button political debates, like the one surrounding minimum wage, through organizations with benign-sounding names that can mask the intentions of their deep-pocketed patrons.
They do it with the gloss of research, and play a critical and often underappreciated role in multilevel lobbying campaigns, backed by corporate lobbyists and labor unions, with a potential payoff that can be in the millions of dollars for the interests they represent.
"It is the way of Washington now — and that is unfortunate," said John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who has helped run several presidential campaigns. "Because if it's not dishonest, it's at least disingenuous."
In this case, the policy dispute is over whether increasing the minimum wage by nearly 40 percent to $10.10 an hour by next year would reduce poverty or further it.
Even if the legislation never passes — and it is unlikely to, given the political divide in Congress — millions of dollars will be spent this year on lobbying firms, nonprofit research organizations and advertising campaigns, as industry groups like the National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation try to bury it. Liberal groups, in turn, will be spending lots of money as they try to make the debate a political issue for the midterm elections.
The left has its own prominent groups, like the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute, whose donors include nearly 20 labor unions, and whose reports, with their own aura of objectivity, consistently conclude that raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense. But none has played such a prominent and multifaceted role in recent months as the conservative Employment Policies Institute.
The Employment Policies Institute, founded two decades ago, is led by the advertising and public relations executive Richard B. Berman, who has made millions of dollars in Washington by taking up the causes of corporate America. He has repeatedly created official-sounding nonprofit groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom that have challenged limits like the ban on indoor smoking and the push to restrict calorie counts in fast foods.
In recent months, Mr. Berman's firm has taken out full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and plastered a Metro station near the Capitol with advertisements, including one featuring a giant photograph of Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is a proponent of the minimum wage increase, that read, "Teens Who Can't Find a Job Should Blame Her."
These messages, also promoted on websites operated by Mr. Berman's firm, including minimumwage.com, instruct anyone skeptical about the arguments to consult the reports prepared by the Employment Policies Institute, most often described only as a "nonprofit research organization."
But the dividing line between the institute and Mr. Berman's firm was difficult to discern during two visits last week to the eighth-floor office at 1090 Vermont Avenue, a building near the White House that is the headquarters for both.
The sign at the entrance is for Berman and Company, as the Employment Policies Institute has no employees of its own. Mr. Berman's for-profit advertising firm, instead, "bills" the nonprofit institute for the services his employees provide to the institute. This arrangement effectively means that the nonprofit is a moneymaking venture for Mr. Berman, whose advertising firm was paid $1.1 million by the institute in 2012, according to its tax returns, or 44 percent of its total budget, with most of the rest of the money used to buy advertisements.
Disclosure reports filed by individual foundations show that its donors in recent years have included the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a longtime supporter of conservative causes. Mr. Berman and Mr. Saltsman would not identify other donors, but did say they included the restaurant industry. But its tax return shows that the $2.4 million in listed donations received in 2012 came from only 11 contributors, who wrote checks for as much as $500,000 apiece.
Mr. Saltsman, 30, who has an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Michigan and previously worked for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, drafts dozens of letters to the editor and opinion articles for newspapers, arguing that increasing the minimum wage would hurt more than help. Other special institute projects included a recent survey of lawmakers who support the minimum wage increase asking if they pay their interns — a report The Daily Caller, a conservative online publication, then released, calling out the lawmakers with unpaid interns as hypocrites.
The major reports released by the institute are prepared by outside academics, like Joseph J. Sabia, an associate professor of economics at San Diego State University, who has collected at least $180,000 in grant money from Mr. Berman's group over the last eight years to deliver seven separate reports, each one concluding that increasing the minimum wage has caused more harm than good — or at least no significant benefit for the poor.
"There is never a good time to raise the minimum wage," Mr. Sabia said at a briefing in the Longworth House Office Building late last month that was co-sponsored by the institute, as he laid out the findings of his newest report to Capitol Hill staff members and reporters. "You are not reaching the poor workers you want to help."
Mr. Sabia said in an interview late last month that his research conclusions were developed independently. "I don't write advocacy policy briefs," he said. His papers are also submitted to academic journals, which publish them after a peer-review process — a standard, he noted, that publications put out by left-leaning groups like the Economic Policy Institute often do not meet.
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What is clear is that the reports by the Employment Policies Institute are a critical element in the lobbying campaign against the increase in the minimum wage, as restaurant industry groups, in their own statements and news releases, often cite the institute's reports, creating the Washington echo chamber effect that is so coveted by industry lobbyists.
"Once you have the study, you can point it to it to prove your case — even if you paid to get it written," said one lobbyist, who asked not to be named because his clients rely on him to use this technique.
But some questions have been raised about the institute-funded work. Saul D. Hoffman, a professor of economics at University of Delaware, examined the employment data Mr. Sabia used for a 2012 paper funded in part by the institute. Mr. Hoffman concluded that the narrow cut of data Mr. Sabia picked was perhaps unintentionally skewed, and once corrected, it would have showed that the 2004 increase in New York State's minimum wage had no negative impact on employment — the opposite of the conclusion the institute had proclaimed in its news releases.
Mr. Berman, 71, a onetime auto mechanic turned labor lawyer and restaurant industry executive, rejected any suggestion that his reports were based on bias or faulty data.
"I get very upset when people say we are putting out junk science and twisted economics, because that happens to be our criticism of other people," Mr. Berman said in an interview at his office. Yet internal company documents show that members of Mr. Berman's team — at least when they have been involved in some of the other corporate-backed projects — have discussed ways to massage academic data to change outcomes.
For example, an academic study published by researchers at the University of Southern California concluded that soda had higher concentrations of high-fructose corn syrup than advertised. Mr. Berman's team, hired by the corn refining industry to defend its sweeteners, mobilized staff at his Center for Consumer Freedom to challenge the results.
"If the results contradict U.S.C., we can publish them," said an email sent to Mr. Berman and other staff in October 2010 from a Berman employee at the time, referring to the University of Southern California report. The exchange became public recently as a result of a lawsuit between the sugar and corn refining industries. "If for any reason the results confirm U.S.C., we can just bury the data." Mr. Berman said that the employee who wrote that email no longer worked for the firm and that such practices were not allowed at the institute.
Left-leaning groups like the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have filed legal complaints, arguing that the large payments to Mr. Berman's for-profit firm may violate the law, an accusation that Berman and Company strongly disputes.
What is most important, said Lisa Graves, the executive director of an organization responsible for the online publication PR Watch, is that newspapers detail Employment Policies Institute's corporate ties when they cite research it publishes. Such disclosure happened in less than 20 percent of the cases over a three-year period, an analysis by PR Watch found.
"They are trying to peddle an industry wish list, but mask it as if they are independent experts," she said. "They are little more than phony experts on retainer."
—By Eric Lipton of The New York Times