Researcher Uncovers 'Critical Race Theory' Astroturfing Campaign

Berman and Company admitted it is the organization behind a campaign protesting against New York City schools curricula.
June 11, 2021, 6:08pm
Dalton-School
Image: Emily Michot/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Rick Berman, an infamous right-wing lobbyist whose organizations have been accused of several astroturfing campaigns—and who is known as "Dr. Evil"—revealed that his firm is behind an organization that claimed to be a grass-roots movement against New York City's prep schools focus on "diversity education."

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Last week, the New York Post reported on a "group of parents" that was planning to show billboards showing messages such as "DIVERSITY NOT INDOCTRINATION" and "WOKE SCHOOL? SPEAK OUT." The Post's story is centered around and features Prep School Accountability, which describes itself on its official website as "a group of concerned parents." 

"In recent years, a new orthodoxy has emerged at our schools, dividing our communities based on immutable characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. As a result, the core tenets of high-quality education—uniting all children and families through a love and appreciation for learning and community spirit—have gone by the wayside," the Prep School Accountability website reads.

Prep School Accountability is soliciting parents to share their stories "If you or your child have witnessed concerning content or been part of a troubling experience regarding NYC prep school curricula" via a form. The group did not respond to an email sent through that form.

Nowhere on the site is there any reference to Rick Berman and his right-wing lobbying firm Berman and Co. The site mentions the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), but specifies that PrepSchoolAccountability.com is not affiliated with FAIR. FAIR told Motherboard that it “has no affiliation with and does not support the Prep School Accountability organization or this campaign in any way.”

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On Thursday, a researcher who specializes in open source intelligence investigations, published a post detailing evidence that he claimed showed Berman and Company was behind Prep School Accountability. 

The researcher, who goes by Z3dster, found a handful of non-public author pages on the Prep School Accountability website, which is built with WordPress. The author pages belonged to: 

  • Charlyce Bozzello, whom the researcher identified as the Communications Director for the Center for Union Facts, an organization that is also run by Rick Berman. A Twitter account with the same name describes herself as “Just a New Yorker who left NY and can't remember why.” 
  • Someone with the last name Petriccione, who appears to be Christy Petriccione, a Communications Associate at Berman and Company, according to a profile found here.

When Motherboard reached out to Berman and Company's email address displayed on the firm's official site, Bozzello responded. 

In her email, she included a statement attributed to Berman: "With support from a diverse group of concerned parents in New York, we launched the Prep School Accountability project. The schools’ defensive response to such an uncontroversial message—teach students how to think, not what to think—shows the overwhelming need for the project. It also explains why most of the parents supporting this project chose not to be identified right now for fear of retaliation or being 'canceled.' As the group grows, we expect more parent supporters will choose to be identified publicly."

Do you have more information about this campaign? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, lorenzofb on Wickr and Telegram, or email lorenzofb@vice.com.

As Fox News reported on Monday, the group founded by Berman drove at least one van in front of a New York City prep school. Fox News described the group as "some fed-up parents here in New York City taking it to the next level" and as "anonymous parents." The Fox News segment does not mention Berman or his firms. 

A New York Post also published a follow-up story reporting on the vans showing up at several schools. Just like in the first story, there is no mention of Berman, and the campaign is described as a "$10,000 campaign, which was coordinated by an anonymous group Prep School Accountability."

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A Twitter account called @uwsparents posted a video of the van on the same day. The account has 7 followers and is following 2 accounts, and was created in May 2021. The person or persons behind the account did not respond to a Tweet asking to establish contact in order to ask for comment. 

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Z3dster also lays out evidence showing apparent fake Twitter accounts linked to the campaign. 

"This is fairly cut and dry inauthentic behavior: the site isn’t who they say they are and their followers aren’t who they appear to be," he wrote.

It looks like Twitter agrees. As of Friday, the official Twitter account of the Prep School Accountability group was suspended. A Twitter spokesperson told Motherboard that the account “was permanently suspended” for violating the platform’s manipulation and spam policy.

Bozzello, Berman, and Company's spokesperson, did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether the organization used fake Twitter accounts to boost the campaign. 

It's unclear if the New York Post was aware of Berman's involvement. A spokesperson for the paper did not respond to a request for comment. The author, Dana Kennedy, said in an email that she was "not familiar with the information cited in your email."

The campaign appears to have gathered the support of some people. Bozzello sent a statement attributed to Andrew Gutmann. In April, Gutmann gathered the attention of Fox News and other conservative outlets when he wrote a letter to fellow parents at the Brearley school in Manhattan. Gutmann shared the letter with former The New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. 

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At the time, Guttmann announced he decided to pull his daughter from the school after seven years, complaining about the school's "antiracism initiatives," arguing that "Brearley’s obsession with race must stop." 

"I object to the charge of systemic racism in this country," he wrote in the letter. "I object to Brearley’s vacuous, inappropriate, and fanatical use of words such as “equity,” “diversity” and “inclusiveness.”

In the statement sent to Motherboard, Guttmann said that "Prep School Accountability is a much-needed parent-supported effort that has been applauded by parents across the city. I support the parents behind this initiative and have connected with them about our shared concerns over what's going on in NYC's private schools. I hope to continue to work with the group to amplify the voices of parents who want to see diversity done better at NYC's independent schools and at schools across the country."

UPDATE, Jun. 11, 3:56 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add Twitter’s comment.

UPDATE, Jun. 15, 8:43 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to include a comment from FAIR.

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