Investigations LGBTQ

Brewing Hatred: Coors Beer Company Markets to Women, Latinos, LGBTQ Communities as Coors Family Attacks Their Rights

Zoe Greenberg & Brie Shea

As women, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos gain political and consumer power, Coors and its competitors have scrambled to target these groups. But the family behind the company continues to pump millions of dollars into powerful anti-choice, anti-immigrant organizations.

In a Coors beer ad released in 2011, two men dance suggestively behind the familiar script of the Coors Light logo. One of them, wearing a pink button-down shirt, holds his beer can aloft with one hand and his dancing partner’s thigh with the other. A small blue box near the bottom corner boasts that Coors was named by the Human Rights Campaign as one of the best places to work for LGBT Equality. In the center of the page, above the dancing men, Coors boldly proclaims: “Out Is Refreshing.”

Coors Light is the second most popular beer in the United States, bringing in more than $2.3 billion of the $101.5 billion beer market in 2014, according to the market research firm IRI. The Coors family is one of America’s oldest and largest beer dynasties, and the brewing companies that still bear their name—MillerCoors and Molson Coors—rake in billions each year. (Coors merged with Molson, a popular Canadian brewing company, in 2005, and the two companies created a joint venture called MillerCoors in 2008.) Molson Coors had $4.15 billion in net sales in 2014 alone.

To maintain that success, Coors has recently developed product lines and ad campaigns designed to cater to three key increasingly profitable markets—women, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos. As these groups gain political and consumer power, Coors and its competitors have scrambled to transform beer, once a blue-collar, bro-identified product, into a multicultural cash cow.

But a new Rewire investigation shows that although the Coors marketing messages and company policies have changed, the family behind the company continues to pump millions of dollars into powerful anti-choice, anti-immigrant groups, financing efforts that are directly hostile to the diverse customer base the Coors companies are trying to win over.

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Coors Foundational Giving 2009-2014

Conservative groups to which the Coors foundations have contributed at least $50,000 between 2009 and 2014.

Blue denotes anti-immigrant organizations

Red denotes anti-choice organizations

Green denotes anti-LGBT and anti-choice organizations

Orange denotes anti-immigrant and anti-choice organizations

* Individual contributions from Jeffrey Coors and John Coors, not family foundations

Organization Total

Independence Institute

$2,768,403

American Enterprise Institute

$900,000

Heritage Foundation

$800,000

Institute for Justice

$540,000

Pacific Legal Foundation

$510,000

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

$380,000

Cato Institute

$375,000

Donors Trust

$372,000

Philanthropy Roundtable

$360,000

Mountain States Legal Foundation

$355,000

Ethics and Public Policy Center

$335,000

Leadership Institute

$335,000

Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies

$270,000

ALEC

$240,000

Institute for American Values

$200,000

Independent Women’s Forum

$190,000

State Policy Network

$185,000

Landmark Legal Foundation

$170,000

Reason Foundation

$150,000

Texas Public Policy Foundation

$150,000

Barry Goldwater Institute

$160,000

Property & Environment Research Center

$140,000

Intercollegiate Studies Institute

$130,000

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CO)

$120,000

Southeastern Legal Foundation

$110,000

Americans for Prosperity Foundation

$100,000

James Madison Institute

$100,000

Media Research Center

$100,000

Competitive Enterprise Institute

$90,000

Young America’s Foundation

$90,000

American Studies Center

$80,000

Prometheus Institute

$80,000

Institute for Energy Research

$75,000

Heartland Institute

$70,000

Center for American Values

$65,000

National Center for Public Policy Research

$60,000

Cascade Policy Institute

$55,000

National Catholic Bioethics Center

$55,000

Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives

$50,000

Women Speak Out PAC (SBA List)

* $50,000

Center for Equal Opportunity

$50,000

Foundation for Government Accountability

$50,000

Independent Institute

$50,000

National Center for Policy Analysis

$50,000

The Coors family foundations have contributed at least $12.5 million to conservative organizations in the past six years alone, making the Coors one of the most formidable right-wing donor families on the national stage today.

Much of the family’s money is channeled through two private foundations: the Adolph Coors Foundation (founded in 1975) and the Castle Rock Foundation, which merged with the Adolph Coors Foundation in 2011. The foundations gave approximately $36.8 million total in grants in the past six years, meaning their conservative spending made up at least a third of their overall giving.

According to Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the public messaging from the Coors companies is in clear conflict with the private giving of the Coors family members.

“If the company is truly investing in women and minorities, which is going to cost the company money as an investment strategy, and the [Adolph Coors] Foundation is investing in things that appear counter to supporting women and minorities, then that’s a conflict,” she told Rewire. “You can’t invest in women and minorities on the one hand, and do anything that appears to be divesting from women and minorities on the other hand.”

The Coors beer companies and the Coors family say there is no conflict—because they operate separately. The family foundation’s website reads, “The Adolph Coors Foundation is a family foundation and not connected in any way to the brewery.”

And a spokesperson for Molson Coors echoed that message in an email to Rewire.

“We respect the rights of the family members or their foundations to choose their own political affiliations and activities,” the spokesperson said. “However, their contributions are their own and are not connected to the activities of the company. The culture at Molson Coors is based on respect, integrity and diversity.”

Rewire did not receive a response to our questions from MillerCoors, the other major Coors brewery. The Adolph Coors Foundation declined to comment.

Despite this asserted independence, public records show that Coors family members—including those who control the family’s charitable foundations—retain substantial ownership and control of the for-profit companies that carry their name.

Marcel Kahan, a professor of corporate law at NYU Law School, reviewed the most recent Molson Coors proxy filing for Rewire. He estimated that Coors family members and their entities own about 27 million of the total shares outstanding, or approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total votes in the company.

“They clearly are the most powerful single shareholders here,” he told Rewire. “They have significant influence because they are the directors, and they are the largest shareholders.”

In addition to owning large chunks of the Coors companies, Coors family members are involved in both the company and the foundation at leadership levels.

While some family members work at the companies, and others serve on the foundation, Peter H. Coors and William Coors hold senior positions at both. Peter H. Coors is the chairman of the MillerCoors Board, the vice-chairman of the Molson Coors Board, and the president and chairman of the Adolph Coors Foundation, according to 2014 tax filings. (A spokesperson for Molson Coors told Rewire that although Peter H. Coors fills these roles on the Adolph Coors Foundation board, John Jackson, a Colorado native and former consultant, actually leads the foundation. Tax filings list Jackson as the executive director/secretary of the foundation.) William Coors sits on the board of the Adolph Coors Foundation and is a director emeritus of Molson Coors, a position through which he provides consulting and advisory services, according to a 2015 proxy filing.

Four other Coors family members are on the board of the Adolph Coors Foundation, including Jeffrey Coors, CEO of Graphic Packaging Company, a major supplier of packaging for Molson Coors and MillerCoors.

At least three Coors family members—Christi Coors-Ficeli, Peter J. Coors, and David Coors—are currently employed by the brewing companies. All three are the children of Peter H. Coors (the chairman of the Adolph Coors Foundation) and the siblings of Melissa Coors Osborn, another family foundation member.

These ties undermine the claims that the company and the family are unconnected, said McElhaney, of the Haas Business School.

“There’s no question that optically, the family is very inter-linked with the actual company itself, particularly because it’s a family-owned company,” she said.

A Model Corporate Citizen

Just as the nation’s political parties have been forced to reckon with America’s shifting demographics, the nation’s major beer companies now have to appeal to the same groups if they want to stay profitable.

We and our US joint venture with SABMiller—MillerCoors—have increased our marketing to both women and minorities in recent years because they represent key consumer groups that will help drive the future growth of the beer industry,” Molson Coors spokesperson Colin Wheeler said in an email.

The increasing buying power of Latinos, women, and the LGBTQ community offers potentially major windfalls for beer companies. With nearly 33 million people of legal drinking age, and an estimated $1.5 trillion in buying power in the United States, Latinos represent a market that has until recently been underserved by mainstream brewers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos are a relatively young and growing population; by 2045, they will make up 25 percent of the population of legal drinkers in the country. The preferred adult beverage of the Latino population is beer, as noted in a recent report from the research firm Technomic.

In 2014, the U.S. LGBTQ community’s buying power was an estimated $884 billion and rising, according to Witeck Communications.

Women also have growing purchasing power, controlling $5 to $15 trillion in annual consumer spending in the United States, as reported by Nielsen. But as a group, they currently make up only one-fifth of the beer drinking population around the world.

In light of these numbers, Coors and its competitors have devoted themselves to a straightforward, and exceptionally profitable, goal: Get women, Latinos, and gay people to drink more beer.

The goal has spurred new marketing strategies by the major players in the beer industry. In 2008, one such competitor, Anheuser-Busch, introduced Budweiser Chelada, a version of the “michelada,” a popular Mexican drink that combines beer, tomato juice, lime, and spices. A press release promised, “The beers also pair well with traditional Latino dishes such as ceviche, chicken enchiladas and tamales.”

Coors Ad

The goal of selling more beer to Latinos has spurred new marketing strategies from major players in the industry. (McCann Copenhagen, Noche Latina, Bud Light)

Molson Coors also launched its own special beer lines targeting these new demographics.

In 2011, Molson Coors released a beer in the UK specifically for women, called Animée (French for “lively”). Based on almost three years of research about what women want, the beer was sparkling, pink, and advertised as “bloat resistant.”

Melissa Cole, a beer critic for the Guardian, wrote at the time: “Despite having some pretty pictures of hops on the bottle, if anyone can identify anything even approaching a normal beer flavour in any of these drinks I’ll eat my hat.” The brand was taken off the market 12 months after it was released.

Although that particular strategy failed, the company was undeterred from its fundamental goal of getting more women to drink Coors beer.

“Animée was only one part of our plan to attract more female drinkers to beer, and attracting female drinkers remains a priority to get the category back into growth,” a spokesperson told Marketing Week when the brand was pulled.

Coors’ attempts to win Latino consumers have met with more success. In 2014, MillerCoors released the Coors Light Summer Brew, a citrus-flavored beer specifically targeting Latino drinkers. Coors also started including bilingual packaging on Miller Lite and Coors Light brands and running Spanish-language beer ads.

The company’s efforts have gone well past marketing, to encompass a range of real-world corporate policies and efforts directed at these three key groups. 

Coors extended benefits to same-sex couples long before equal marriage was legal, and supports trans employees wishing to transition, both with medical care and paid time off. MillerCoors is a corporate partner of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, sponsors Pride parades around the country, and was the first national sponsor of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, according to its website. Earlier this year MillerCoors chairman Peter H. Coors backed out of an event hosted by an anti-gay organization.

In recognition of the company’s work, the Human Rights Campaign has awarded MillerCoors a “100” rating in their Corporate Equality Index ten years in a row. EDGE Media, a network of LGBTQ publications, called Coors a “model corporate citizen.”

The Coors companies have donated thousands of dollars to Latino community groups, including the Coors Hispanic Employment Network, a nonprofit based in Golden, Colorado that works to “support Hispanics in career development and employment opportunities.” Another program, called “Coors Lite Líderes,” provides grants, networking events, and online resources “to help up-and-coming Latino leaders to go further.” Each year the organization awards a $25,000 grant to a leader and his or her project, which must benefit the Latino community.

The Coors companies have introduced gender-inclusive workplace policies, as well.

In 2009, Molson Coors launched the Violet Initiative, a task force led by senior women in the company to increase the number of women ready to move into leadership positions and to make Molson Coors a desirable place for top-level women in the industry.

According to an annual report, the company introduced “flexible work arrangements” in 2010 to encourage work-life balance. MillerCoors has its own program to cultivate female leaders, including an annual Women’s Development and Networking Summit for women across the beer industry.

In a video, MillerCoors lays out its gender-related goals for the next five years. In 2014, 28 percent of managers were women, it explains; by 2020, the company hopes to have 34 percent of managers be women.

“This is a got-to-do if we’re going to be successful as a corporation now,” Scott Whitley, the president of the company, says in the video. “I think with the strong pipeline of talent we have among our female employees, we have a great opportunity. We’ve got to make sure we’re removing the obstacles and the challenges that might get in the way of people realizing their aspirations.”

“Learn to Speak English”

At the same time as the Coors companies are prioritizing outreach to women and Latinos, the Coors family is funding some of the most influential anti-choice, anti-immigrant organizations in the country.

The family’s support for right-wing causes is longstanding.

In 1973, Joseph Coors helped establish the Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s most famous right-wing think tanks, which has taken credit for many of George W. Bush’s policies. Around the same time, the Coors family helped establish and fund the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank that used anti-gay organizing to build political power for the Christian right.

And the family’s politics were squarely reflected in company policies.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, a broad coalition of unions, members of the gay and lesbian community, and immigrant rights activists boycotted the company because of its low wages and discriminatory hiring. Consumers, activists, and the press summarized these practices in a single menacing symbol: the Coors polygraph test.

“Prior to my employment, I was required to submit to a polygraph (lie detector) test,” David Sickler, an organizer of a 1977 brewers strike, said in a sworn affidavit. “Have you had sex with one or more persons?” Sickler recalled being asked. “What kind of sex?”

“I felt degraded, humiliated, and angry at this unwarranted invasion of my privacy,” Sickler said.

Other employees remembered similar questions. “What is your sex preference?” one recalled. “Have you ever done anything with your wife that could be considered immoral?” “Did you have relations with your wife last night?”

Many of the questions danced around one fundamental concern: “Are you a homosexual?”

The polygraph tests, which were used to screen job applicants in a company that had more than 10,000 workers by the time the practice stopped, were deployed to intimidate non-white applicants as well.

In a sworn affidavit from 1977, Frank Abeyta spoke about the multiple polygraph tests he was forced to take as a prospective employee because, he suspected, the company could not believe he had no criminal record as a Chicano man.

“I feel that this whole month of harassment was unnecessary and I was subjected to it because I am a Chicano and they were trying to discourage me from seeking employment with their Company,” he said.

The polygraph tests helped fuel the boycotts. While they raged, the Coors family foundations continued to support religious-right groups like the Institute for American Values, an organization dedicated to the values of heterosexual marriage, thrift, and anti-gambling; the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell’s conservative Christian organization; and Intercessors for America, a Christian fundamentalist group that focuses on prayer and fasting to end abortion and the “gay agenda,” among other things.

The AFL-CIO boycott ended in the late 1980s, after the company agreed to remove some obstacles to union organizing, but the family’s conservative spending continued, along with generalized pushback from other groups. Throughout the 2000s, the Castle Rock Foundation continued to support political positions that were increasingly opposed to the companies’ public relations messages and internal policies.

According to Allyson Brantley, a PhD student at Yale writing her dissertation on the Coors boycott, the first significant public break between the political stance of the company and the family came in 2004, when Peter H. Coors, then 58, ran for Colorado Senate. As a candidate, Coors opposed abortion without exception, defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and supported Bush’s war in Iraq.

Brantley says that the senate run represents a turning point, because for the first time, the company sought to distance itself publicly from members of the Coors family.

“The company was very explicit about how they were unconnected from Peter Coors and his senate run,” Brantley told Rewire. “Although, the family was always involved in the money of the company and also the operations of it. It was hard to know where one ended and one began.”

Another turning point came in 2009, when the Adolph Coors Foundation appears to have shed any reticence caused by the controversies of prior decades, and began once again to aggressively fund national conservative organizations, according to Rewire’s analysis of tax filings and other public documents.

Since then, the family has become one of the major funders behind some of the right’s marquee battles in the culture wars, including the fight against the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.

Between 2009 and 2014, the Coors family foundations contributed $380,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nonprofit law firm that masterminded many of the challenges to the Affordable Care Act. That represents around 2 percent of the overall giving to the Becket Fund—one of the nation’s largest right-wing nonprofit groups—during that time, according to Rewire‘s research.

The Becket Fund’s most famous client is Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts supplies store that brought its objections to insurance coverage for contraception to the U.S. Supreme Court last year, and won. The Becket Fund has also represented other religiously affiliated nonprofits, such as Wheaton College, in an effort to eliminate insurance coverage for birth control for employees of religious institutions.

The Coors family, though, did not have just one horse in the anti-birth control race. Between 2009 and 2014, the family foundations also contributed $335,000 to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a neoconservative group dedicated to “applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” The center filed an amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case as well, arguing that for-profit corporations can exercise religious freedom, and therefore deny their employees access to birth control.

Molson Coors told Rewire that although the company’s health-care benefits vary by country, most employees have health care that provides birth control benefits and covers abortion.

The Coors family has also contributed thousands to right-wing women’s groups that seek, among other things, to eliminate legal abortion. In 2014, Jeffrey Coors and John Coors each gave $25,000 to Women Speak Out PAC, the super PAC arm of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List. The group’s stated goal is to “reduce and ultimately end abortion.”

Between 2009 and 2014, the family foundations also gave $190,000 to the Independent Women’s Forum, which the New York Times editorial board described as “a right-wing public policy group that provides pseudofeminist support for extreme positions that are in fact dangerous to women.” The IWF sent a spokesperson to testify against gun control laws in the aftermath of the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, claiming “guns make women safer”; opposed the Violence Against Women Act, arguing that it has been a source of “waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer resources”; and defended Rush Limbaugh when he called a college student a “prostitute” and a “slut” for her support of the birth control benefit.

In addition to funding anti-choice political groups, between 2009 and 2014, the Adolph Coors Foundation contributed nearly $120,000 to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), many located in the Coors’ home state of Colorado. CPCs are anti-choice facilities that try to persuade women not to get abortions, often by claiming that abortion causes breast cancer or sterility (it doesn’t). CPCs tend to use deceptive advertising to trick women into thinking they may be able to get an abortion if they make an appointment.

And, as much as Coors marketing spokespeople tout the benefits of bilingual advertising and scholarships for Hispanic students, the Coors family has a very different idea about how to spend the profits reaped from such careful multicultural advertising.

Between 2010 and 2011, the Castle Rock Foundation contributed $50,000 to the Center for Equal Opportunity, a small conservative think tank fiercely opposed to bilingual education. In testimony before the House Judiciary committee, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity said that to achieve assimilation, there are “ten basic principles” to which all Americans must subscribe. They included “learn to speak English”; “don’t have children out of wedlock”; “don’t demand anything because of your race, ethnicity, or sex”; and “don’t hold historical grudges.”

From 2009 to 2014, the Coors family foundations also contributed $800,000 to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank founded by Joseph Coors, which in recent years has become increasingly hostile to immigration. In 2013, a Heritage senior policy analyst named Dr. Jason Richwine wrote a study that argued against amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Dr. Richwine was subsequently fired when reporters discovered that he had written a dissertation arguing that Hispanic immigrants had I.Q.s that were “substantially lower than that of the white native population,” something he said should be taken into account when drafting immigration policy.

Between 2011 and 2014, the Coors family foundations contributed $60,000 to the National Center for Public Policy Research, another conservative think tank devoted to a white vision of America. In 2012, the group announced the creation of a “Voter Identification Task Force,” to push forward voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters. And between 2009 and 2014, the Coors gave $510,000 to the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has fought against bilingual education and state tuition rates for undocumented students in California.

“California taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the post-secondary education of adult illegal aliens,” the Pacific Legal Foundation wrote in an amicus brief.

The individual family members also have a long track record of contributing to anti-choice politicians, according to federal election commission records. Between 2008 and 2015, they gave at least $57,000 to Mike Coffman, a Colorado congressman who opposes abortion including in cases of rape or incest, and between 2005 and 2015, they gave $50,700 to Scott Tipton, another anti-choice Colorado congressman.

Though the family hasn’t publicly stated which Republican they’ll be supporting in the election season, Peter H. Coors gave $5,000 to the Right to Rise PAC, connected to Jeb Bush, in February. Last month, Bush told the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”

To be sure, not all of the family’s spending has a political bent: Between 2009 and 2014, the Coors foundations gave approximately $19 million to various community organizations, schools, and nonprofits.

But when it comes to supporting groups that undercut the inclusive stance of the Coors companies, the Coors family seems to maintain a position that was most clearly articulated by Peter H. Coors in 2004, when he was asked about Coors’ pro-LGBTQ practices.

That’s “just good business, separate from politics,” he said.

Sharona Coutts contributed to this report. Follow her on twitter: @sharonacoutts

CORRECTION: Due to a copy-editing error, a version of this piece incorrectly noted the location of Newtown. The piece has been updated to correct this.

Investigations Science

When Does an Error Become a Lie? The Case of the Missing Decimal Point

Imani Gandy

This is a story about Dr. John Thorp and a Missing Decimal Point, an odd mystery that raises questions about when an error becomes a lie, and when—in the context of court proceedings—a lie becomes perjury.

This is a story about the Case of the Missing Decimal Point, an odd mystery that, on my reading, exemplifies the problem with the bogus “science” that underpins the majority of anti-choice legislation. It’s a case that raises questions about when an error becomes a lie, and when—in the context of court proceedings—a lie becomes perjury.

Meet our protagonist, a certain Dr. John Thorp, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine; deputy director of UNC’s Center of Women’s Health Research; member of the editorial boards of the Obstetric and Gynecological Survey and the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology; and a member of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for more than 20 years.

And also, serial butcher of the facts when it comes to the safety of abortion care in the United States.

Thorp is important because he’s one of a small handful of peripheral doctors and scientists trotted out by lawmakers who are hell-bent on destroying the constitutional right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. States have paid thousands of dollars to Thorp and his ilk for their “evidence” in legislative hearings and court cases. Like climate change denialists, these “experts” turn up to contradict the overwhelming scientific consensus about abortion, creating the false impression of medical debate.

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Now, to this pesky Missing Decimal Point.

In multiple court cases, Thorp has presented an expert report that claims the complication rate from abortion is between 2 and 10 percent. The cases have all involved admitting privileges laws—laws that require abortion providers to be authorized by local hospitals to admit patients to their emergency rooms. These laws make zero sense for the following reason: they’re unnecessary because the staff at the emergency rooms admit patients to the emergency rooms. Admitting privileges for abortion providers are wholly redundant. They also reflect the antiquated “country-doctor” model of medicine under which a physician who performs the initial procedure would consistently provide care for any complications that may arise afterwards. It’s a model that does not reflect twenty-first century medicine as it relates to low-risk procedures like abortion: EMTs transport patients to the closest available emergency room usually without concern for whether the doctor who performed the procedure is authorized to admit patients to that particular hospital.

Undeterred by reason or reality, anti-choice lawmakers have consistently claimed that these laws are necessary due to false claims about the danger of abortions. Thorp has been one of the only witnesses willing to give evidence to support those claims. Specifically, he has claimed that the high complication rate justifies the admitting privileges requirements.

In connection with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, Inc. v. Van Hollen, the lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s admitting privileges law, Thorp supplied an expert report stating that the abortion complication rate range is somewhere between 2 and 10 percent, but could not point to a single study to back up his assertion.

This claim was contested by an expert for plaintiffs, Dr. Douglas Laube, as well as a neutral court-appointed expert, Dr. Serdar Bulun. They each reviewed several studies, none of which found a complication rate greater than 1.9 percent for both first- and second-trimester abortions.

To underline how important this is, Thorp provided a range, not an average. And his range began at a higher number than the very highest complication rate found by the other experts. To put this in perspective, the Guttmacher Institute—recognized as an authority on abortion statistics—says the complication rate in first-trimester abortions (92 percent of abortions are performed during the first trimester) is closer to 0.05 percent, a minuscule risk.

During the colloquy with the court, a formal on-the-record conversation that District Court Judge William Conley convened in an attempt to reach a consensus between Thorp, Laube, and Bulun about abortion complication rates, Thorp repeated his claim that the abortion complication rate is 2 to 10 percent. He did not waiver from this claim.

When pressed at trial, however—a mere two and a half hours after the colloquy with the court—Carrie Flaxman, an attorney for Planned Parenthood, dragged the truth out of him.

“I want to turn back to your estimate of 2 to 10 percent complication rate, which you’ve now said in the courtroom for the first time is 0.2% to 10%; is thatam I getting that right?” Flaxman asked Thorp.

“Yes ma’am,” Thorp responded. “That thing misses a decimal.”

“You have a number of expert reports from other cases. They all miss a decimal, don’t they, sir?”

“They’re consistently missed [sic] the decimal,” Thorp replied.

That was Thorp’s scientifically rigorous explanation for his wildly inaccurate complication rate range: “That thing misses a decimal.” In other words, he inflated complication rates by a factor of ten and then continued repeating erroneous data.

That exchange led to a blistering opinion from Judge Conley.

“The court has several concerns with Dr. Thorp’s credibility,” Judge Conley wrote. “In light of the deep flaws in his analysis and his testimony, which often came off more as advocacy than expert opinion, the court finds little to credit Dr. Thorp’s opinions of the relative risks of abortion to child birth or comparable invasive procedures,” wrote Judge Conley.

Ouch.

Judge Conley went on to cast doubt over Thorp’s testimony in other cases, where states had also relied on his “expert” testimony to support bogus laws.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

September 2013: Thorp submits an expert report in the Alabama lawsuit claiming that the abortion complication rate is between 2 and 10 percent.

November 2013: Thorp gives a deposition in the Alabama lawsuit and discovers the missing decimal point. He would later testify during the Alabama trial that he discovered the error at this time.

March 2014: Thorp submits an expert report in the Wisconsin lawsuit containing the incorrect percentage points.

April 2014: Thorp also submits to the court in Alabama a declaration containing the incorrect 2 to 10 percent abortion complication rate.

May 2014:  In Wisconsin, Judge Conley holds a colloquy between plaintiff and defense experts at 8:00 a.m. on May 29 in an attempt to reach a consensus regarding abortion complication rates. During that colloquy, Thorp repeats the incorrect abortion complication rate.

May 2014: At 10:30 a.m.—an hour and a half after the colloquy with the court began, during which Thorp did not waiver from his claim that the abortion complication rate is 2 to 10 percent—Thorp takes the stand. During cross-examination, Thorp testifies that the 2 to 10 percent abortion complication rate is incorrect and that the correct rate is 0.2 to 10 percent.

July 2014: During the Alabama trial, Thorp testifies that he discovered the error with his complication rate—the missing decimal point—in November 2013.

“Dr. Thorp has not only been retained in a number of cases to provide testimony supporting abortion regulations, including similar challenges to admitting privileges requirements [in Alabama and Texas], but has also submitted amicus curiae briefs on his own behalf to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of abortion-related regulations.” (Emphasis in original.)

“His extensive involvement in lawsuits supporting abortion regulations calls into question his ability to separate personal beliefs from the medical science surrounding these regulations,” Judge Conley continued.

Shorter Conley: Thorp’s evidence is wrong, and he’s a biased witness. Pretty hard for an expert witness to recover from those blows. Indeed, Thorp seems to have become a liability for the state of Wisconsin.

It could have been worse, though.

As devastating as Judge Conley’s opinion is to Thorp’s credibility, he refrained from making any statements about Thorp’s honesty. He certainly could have, however, because on more than one occasion during the course of the Wisconsin lawsuit, Thorp submitted documents and offered to the court testimony containing false information.

And as we all know, knowingly submitting false information in a court has a special name. It’s called perjury, and it’s a crime. To be clear, we can’t know Thorp’s state of mind when he made these incorrect claims in Wisconsin in 2014. We asked him, via email, whether he could account for submitting erroneous information, but he didn’t reply.

Did Thorp make a simple mistake? After all, it would be very easy to type “2” instead of “0.2.” Or was there something more nefarious at play? If it were a simple mistake, why did Thorp continue to submit the erroneous information to more than one court after he was made aware of the mistake? More importantly, why did Thorp stick to the inflated complication rate when Judge Conley questioned him during the colloquy with the court?

Even the most cursory review of Thorp’s testimony raises serious ethical questions about the Case of the Missing Decimal Point.

Had Thorp been made aware of his mistake during the Wisconsin trial, and then made every effort to correct the misinformation, it would be easy to chalk up the Case of the Missing Decimal Point to human error.

But that’s not what happened.

In a phone interview with Rewire, Eric J. Segall, a professor at Georgia State University College of Law, who specializes in constitutional law, says Thorp’s repeated “errors” give the impression that there may be more at play than simple mistakes.

“If your facts are correct, it appears he misled the court in a kind of way that should get him into trouble. I think that’s pretty clear,” Segall said.

In fact, Thorp knew his previous testimony of an inaccurate complication rate was a gross exaggeration several months before he took the stand in May 2014 to advocate for Wisconsin’s admitting privileges law.

In November 2013, Thorp gave a deposition in connection with Planned Parenthood Southeast, Inc. v. Strange, the lawsuit challenging Alabama’s admitting privileges law. It was during that deposition that one of the attorneys for Planned Parenthood—the same attorney, Carrie Flaxman, who would question him at trial in Wisconsin—pointed out the error to Thorp. (He would later testify during the Alabama trial that he knew about the error in November 2013.)

Five months after Thorp knew about the error, he nevertheless submitted to the Alabama court a declaration signed under penalty of perjury which contained the same falsehoods.

That’s either mighty forgetful, monstrously careless, or worse.

This led Myron Thompson, the District Court judge who struck down the Alabama law as unconstitutional in a whopping 172-page order, to write a supplemental opinion in which he discussed at length the admissibility of certain expert opinions, including Thorp’s. In that supplemental opinion, Judge Thompson wrote that “Thorp displayed a disturbing apathy toward the accuracy of his testimony.”

“In his expert report, [Thorp] opined that the low-end estimate of the complication rate was two percent, based on an article that he had written with the same claim. In fact, the range supported by his article is 0.2%,” Judge Thompson wrote. “Although he was confronted with the error during his November 2013 deposition, he submitted a declaration to the court in April 2014 that again claimed the two percent figure.”

Ultimately, Judge Thompson would discredit Thorp’s testimony on complication rates entirely. “Other choices that [Thorp] made in developing his estimates seem to be driven more by a bias against abortion and a desire to inflate complication rates than by a true desire to reach an accurate estimate of the dangerousness of abortion procedures.” (Emphasis added.)

And months after Judge Thompson discredited Thorp, Judge Conley would follow suit, writing there were “multiple errors in Dr. Thorp’s citations to studies that purportedly supported this range, and his methodology in compiling these statistics lacked analytical rigor.”

This point cannot be understated: Thorp submitted documents containing erroneous information to the court in Alabama. After being confronted about it in November 2013, Thorp continued to submit documents containing the same erroneous information, not just to the court in Alabama, but also to the court in Wisconsin.

Furthermore, when Thorp had an opportunity to clarify his error during the colloquy between experts and Judge Conley in the Wisconsin lawsuit, he did not do so.

Given the facts, the solution to the Case of the Missing Decimal Point seems fairly obvious.

Thorp has proven that he is either too incompetent to serve as an expert witness in these admitting privileges law cases, or worse—that he is purposefully misleading the court.

Yet, as we have seen with Vincent Rue—who continues to be paid thousands of dollars by states looking to defend abortion restrictions even though, as Kathryn Kolbert writes in Slate, he was thoroughly discredited in the trial court phase of Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992—states looking to restrict abortion access have no qualms about hiring experts of dubious trustworthiness.

As such, despite Thorp’s questionable behavior in the Alabama and Wisconsin lawsuits, there’s no guarantee that the next state to litigate the constitutionality of an admitting privilege law won’t call upon Thorp and pay him thousands of dollars to offer his “expert” opinion about abortion complication rates. And there’s also no guarantee that Thorp won’t continue submitting erroneous information to courts in an attempt to, as Judge Thompson aptly put it, “inflate complication rates.”

That states are wasting thousands of taxpayer dollars litigating laws like these and hiring discredited consultants and experts, like those found in Rewire’s gallery of False Witnesses, illustrates the indefensible nature of admitting privileges laws.

Professor Segall agrees. “These laws are so unrelated to anything resembling a legitimate medical interest that the state has to continue to rely on data that its own star witness should have known wasn’t accurate.”

“This is one more piece of evidence that the state’s data is wrong and that states should stop defending these laws,” Segall said.

As more of these admitting privileges laws wend their way through the courts, it’s important to realize that many of the so-called experts upon whom anti-choicers rely traffic in agenda-driven science and are not trustworthy. (It’s no surprise that Thorp is featured in the False Witnesses gallery.)

If Thorp had made one mistake, it would likely not be noteworthy. Everyone makes mistakes. Certainly no one, even the most reputable expert in a given field, is immune to the occasional error. But at what point does an error become a lie? And when courts are involved, at what point does a lie become perjury?

And at what point should taxpayers hold their state attorneys general accountable for paying thousands of dollars to an “expert” who has supplied misinformation to and been discredited by more than one court?

In the curious case of John Thorp and the Missing Decimal Point, these questions demand answers.

Analysis Law and Policy

Businesses Must Improve Their Family Policies—For ‘Distressed Babies’ and All Workers

Sheila Bapat

Increasing support for family policy among lawmakers is encouraging—but what about the commitment of the private sector?

Policymakers across the country are starting to strengthen their support for a range of pro-family policies, including flexible schedules, paid sick days, and paid family leave. The New York State Assembly, for example, voted on Wednesday in favor of paid family leave, offering workers paid time off to care for an infant or ill relatives. If the bill is signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York will become the fourth state to offer paid family leave, behind California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

The state assembly’s vote on paid family leave comes just a week after the New York City Council expanded access to paid sick days. New York City joins San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Portland, Seattle, and Philadelphia as the only cities in the nation with paid sick leave ordinances.

This seeming increase in support for family policy among lawmakers is encouraging, but what about the commitment of the private sector? The past several decades have shown an overall decline in paid leave and similar pro-family policies, and today a mere 11 percent of private sector workers have access to policies like paid leave. All of this reveals that private sector support for family policy is still lacking—even though such policy has been shown to be good for business.

Responding to the New York City Council’s vote to strengthen access to paid sick days, the National Partnership for Women and Families released a statement correctly noting that the vote “to strengthen the city’s already historic paid sick days law is a testament to lawmakers’ strong commitment to workers, families, public health and businesses in the city.

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While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are expected to sign the respective paid family leave and paid sick day bills, real progress in achieving workplaces that enable work-family balance requires more commitment from employers, including in the blue state of New York.

A recent, stark example of employers’ lack of commitment to pro-family policies occurred several weeks ago, when Tim Armstrong, chairman and CEO of New York City-based AOL, said the following about changes to the employee 401(k) plan during a staff conference call:

We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan.

Armstrong’s comments did not concern family leave policy; rather, he was commenting on the need to change his company’s 401(k) benefits to offset two high-cost health-care procedures his employees needed. However, the sentiment Armstrong expressed reflects the tension between the pursuit of profit and employer-supported family policies in general. Armstrong was commenting on the cost of his workers’ health care when they faced serious complications in their pregnancies—and specifically, the fact that these complications encroached on profits. He expressed this frustration even though his workers had actually paid their health-care premiums so that they’d be covered in such an event. He held this view even though his company is profitable, with revenues of $2.3 billion in 2013. Armstrong himself earns more than $12 million per year.

To his credit, following public outrage about his comments, Armstrong restored the company’s previous 401(k) benefits and publicly apologized.

In terms of having a pro-family environment, AOL has been listed as among the 100 best companies for working mothers for offering “lactation rooms, backup dependent care and expansive parenting programs and leaves.” Armstrong’s recent comments notwithstanding, AOL is not generally considered a bad guy. Yet Armstrong’s comments show the perceived dissonance between being a profitable company and being a pro-family workplace, as well as a generally flippant attitude toward employees’ struggles.

One of the employees who Armstrong referred to is the husband of Deanna Fei, who expressed her disapproval of Armstrong’s comments at Slate. “I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a ‘distressed baby’ who cost the company too much money,” said Fei, whose child was born four months early after emergency surgery. “How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.”

A basic tenet of modern-day capitalism is that companies should limit or decrease costs as much as possible for the purpose of increasing profit. In line with this basic value, employers have no legal obligation to offer paid leave, health care, 401(k)s, or other benefits except when mandated to do so by policies like New York City’s new bill. Employer-sponsored paid family and medical leave in particular is very rare.

While local and national policies can help change these statistics, advocates believe that greater support from the private sector is critical as well. In fact, private sector resistance to more pro-family policy is bad for both workers and business over the long run.

“Business owners play a key role in confirming that family-friendly workplace policies like paid sick days and paid family and medical leave are win-win for employees and employers,” Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership, told Rewire.

“Win-win” is right: Paid leave in particular is a policy that has been shown to have a positive impact for business. For example, California’s paid family leave program was the first in the nation to be enacted in 2002. In addition to improving families’ economic security overall, enabling women to increase their working hours after returning from leave “with a concomitant increase in earnings,” the California paid family leave program has been found to reduce employee turnover and associated costs.

In addition, research from the Journal of the American Medical Association found:

[F]amily leave programs, in general, benefit businesses, and the pay-off for providing leave may exceed the cost of not providing it. In a study based on 2001-2002 data, loss of workforce productivity due to common pain conditions was estimated to cost $61.2 billion annually in the US with 76.6% of those costs attributed to loss of productivity from workers who report to work while in pain.

This research speaks to the importance of paid sick days, so that workers can take care of themselves while they or their families are ill, and then be productive once they return to work.

There are some employers that understand these benefits. Clothing designer and retailer Eileen Fisher is known for its strong family policy, and has also been described as “perennially profitable.” Costco is also known for stronger worker policies, and the Costco CEO’s endorsement of minimum wage hikes last year actually led to an increase in profits. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer doubled her employees’ maternity and paternity leave policies last year. While Yahoo!, like many tech companies, is not profitable, it is performing very well in terms of revenue.

Armstrong ‘s “distressed babies” sentiment is not one that will disappear any time soon, but the business leaders that do understand the benefits of pro-family policies can begin to lead the conversation.

As Shabo said, “By adding their voices to discussions about the need for these policies, business owners clearly demonstrate that the big business lobby’s opposition to common sense measures like these doesn’t reflect the views of all business owners in America, especially those small business owners and corporations that understand that higher wages and supportive workplace policies are good for business.”