Dan Burt has a talent for attracting attention. The media first noticed him as an attorney representing US companies in the Middle East from 1973 to 1975. In 1980, at the age of 37, he retired from his lucrative private law practice to take over a fledgling public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that had two employees. Today, Capital Legal Foundation has five attorneys and is one of the most visible advocates of the free market on the Washington legal scene.
It was Capital that filed suit against the government in 1978 for violating the Clean Air Act of 1970. Capital's lawyers had found out that the power plant that provides electricity for the very quarters in which Congress passed the Clean Air Act was in violation of the legal pollution limits; a suit was brought, and the government was forced to clean up its act—and the point was made that regulations are hard on everybody.
Early in his tenure at Capital, Burt started investigating other public-interest groups, especially radical liberal ones. A registered Democrat, Burt is disdainful of groups that purport to represent the public interest and then set out to handcuff businesses that employ middle- and lower-income people. In particular, he is annoyed with Ralph Nader. Burt complains that Nader is insulated from the effects of the onerous regulations that he seeks, oftentimes successfully, to have implemented. "He's rich," Burt says. "He doesn't understand what happens to the little guy when business is punished."
Burt set several summer interns to researching Nader and his groups. When Nader's organization refused to cooperate, Burt's resolution was strengthened, and his staff dug deeper. What they found out is making headlines and attracting the big guns of the media, though they are not always pointed at Nader. Investigation at the D.C. Department of Licenses and Permits revealed that Nader organizations he was investigating had not filed information returns or exemption requests required by law. One of the most startling charges made by Burt is that the Nader groups practice "stock churning"; when one of the Nader organization's negative public pronouncements depresses a company's stock price, they buy the stock during the downturn and sell when public confidence has returned, oftentimes when the original charges are proved false.
"The Nader network," says Burt, "is a huge lobbying and opinion-making conglomerate characterized by interlocking directorates, transfers of funds among fellow organizations, often shared personnel and facilities, and an abiding passion for secrecy." The secrecy itself doesn't bother Burt that much; it's the hypocrisy of Nader's policies that arouses him. He notes that Nader is always calling for more disclosure laws for corporations, "but he lobbied against disclosure laws for lobbying groups."
Burt's research on Nader "evolved" into a new book, Abuse of Trust: A Report on Ralph Nader's Network. Nader's people haven't denied the charges made against them; they just say it's all "old stuff." As to why the multimillion-dollar network doesn't register with the government, a Nader spokesman explained that the laws requiring them to do so are "bothersome and unconstitutional."
Burt grows livid discussing Nader's elitist attitudes. "He is absolutely indifferent to the costs of his laws and regulations for the tax victims," says Burt. "He, like so many other new liberals, just doesn't understand that if the pie gets smaller, the poor get screwed."
Not surprisingly, Burt and his organization are accused of being conservative. Burt counters that he is old-line liberal. He accuses Republicans of lack of compassion. "I'm a '60s kid," he says, "but I'm hard-headed about economics and business."
Among the other projects that Capital has taken on is a successful challenge to a court decision that $18 million in unspent funds from the defunct US Community Services Administration be handed over to newly created poverty boondoggles. Capital recently brought suit against the government to prevent the Commodity Credit Corporation from paying US banks $71 million on overdue loans to Poland. An initial court ruling held that Capital cannot sue, but Capital is appealing. Capital has also sued the government to change the law that prohibits housewives in Vermont from working at home on knitted ski apparel. It is attempting to lower the rates that are paid to lawyers who win consumer suits against the government and is trying to prevent the Census Bureau from selling tax-subsidized software to companies using its data. Capital won a battle with the dairy lobby, which was attempting to tax or restrict imports of casein, a cheap milk protein used in foods consumed mostly by the poor.
Burt is described by many, including himself, as eccentric. He loves the things that money brings and flaunts the difference between Nader and himself. "He wears combat boots, I wear Gucci." Burt has built one home in the D.C. area and is building another. He has sailed the Atlantic twice and worries that the concept of the "gentleman" has fallen into disrepute. His father was a butcher and a fisherman, so Dan had to win scholarships to England's Cambridge University and the University of Virginia Law School. He holds a degree in law from Yale.
The self-proclaimed "intellectual from the street" is making waves on the Hill. Nader's libel suits have scared off a number of would-be critics, but Burt doesn't scare that easy; he counters that his concern is for the poor who are hurt by regulation, not for others' opinion of him. The power structure on the right and the left both hate him. "That puts me in the radical middle," he says. It looks like a pretty good place to be.
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Nader Rater".