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Supposed Grassroots Campaign Smearing Amazon Exposed as Work of Rivals

A supposed grass-roots campaign to expose Amazon’s unsavory business practices has been revealed to be the work of the company’s largest rivals.

The Free and Fair Markets Initiative (FFMI), which boasted the support of everyday citizens (like members of a labor union, a professor from Boston and a businessman from California) took aim at Amazon for its role in “stifling competition and innovation, inhibiting consumer choice, gorging on government subsidies, endangering its warehouse workers and exposing consumer data to privacy breaches,” according to a report released Friday by the Wall Street Journal.

However, the group neglected to reveal that its membership was bolstered by Amazon mega-rival Walmart, along with Simon Property Group (the largest shopping mall operator in the country) and software company Oracle, which has locked horns with Amazon over a $10 billion cloud-computing contract with the Pentagon.

FFMI is run and managed by a New York-based strategic communications firm called Marathon Strategies, which counts Walmart as a client. Founded by politico Phil Singer (who aided Hillary Clinton on her 2008 campaign), Marathon reportedly invited a number of trade associations and companies to join and support FFMI, to the tune of $250,000 apiece. Some of those trade groups included members whose businesses were in direct competition with Amazon.

While FFMI declined to answer the Journal’s questions about where its funding comes from or who leads its operations, the publication’s digging revealed startling inconsistencies even within its grassroots membership.

The California businessman, Aubrey Stone, founder of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, passed away months before his name was finally removed from the FFMI website this year. And Benyamin Lichtenstein, a business professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who agreed to let FFMI ghost-write an op-ed under his name, said he wasn’t made aware that he’d be listed as a member of the group. Perhaps most damning was the revelation that a signature had been forged on a document giving permission to list the Service Employees International Union Local 721, representing more than 95,000 workers in Southern California, as a member of FFMI.

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The ire and animosity directed toward Amazon, which unseated Walmart as the world’s largest retailer in May, are nothing new. In fact, the two corporate retail giants have been embroiled in an arms race for months, culminating not just in a barrage of innovative new tech rollouts, but cutting words on Twitter.

In May, after Amazon magnate Jeff Bezos publicly called for the company’s competitors to match its employee benefits and $15 minimum wage in letter to shareholders, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, Dan Bartlett, clapped back at Bezos by tweeting, “Hey retail competitors out there (you know who you are) how about paying your taxes?”

Though Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove told the Journal that the company does not financially support FFMI, he admitted that Walmart shares the concerns about issues the group has raised.

Simon Property Group declined to comment, though the Journal reports that none of the group’s 200 malls or shopping centers across the country contain any Amazon stores.

Oracle’s Kenneth Glueck, who heads up the company’s office in Washington, admitted that Oracle contributed to FFMI’s campaign to stop Amazon from getting the Pentagon’s cloud computing contract.

While Oracle’s mission ultimately failed (the company was booted from consideration during the first round of bids, and the contract negotiations are still up in the air), FFMI’s considerable, concentrated efforts to influence Washington insiders have made headway.

The group has lobbied the government to pursue legislation and investigations that would put Amazon in federal cross-hairs. It has sent countless letters to congressional staffers, published a multitude of op-eds and levied an all-out war on social media against the e-commerce titan.

In recent months, Amazon has become the subject of antitrust investigations by the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, the European Union and states attorneys general. Surely deepening those blows are this week’s revelations that the company boosted its own private label products to the top of search results on its online marketplace, effectively giving the company’s own wares an unfair advantage over goods sold by third-party vendors.

Despite the FFMI’s well-documented efforts to sway political interests, the group has not registered as a lobbying organization. Marathon told the Journal that it is in compliance with disclosure rules, which dictate that a group must file its status with Congress if more than 20 percent of its work involves lobbying on behalf of special interests.