protesters are real.
on Demand, a Beverly Hills company that’s an outspoken player in
the business of hiring protesters, boasts on its website that it
provides its clients with “protests, rallies, flash-mobs,
paparazzi events and other inventive PR stunts. ... We provide
everything including the people, the materials and even the
according to a lawsuit filed by a Czech investor, Crowds on Demand
also takes on more sordid assignments. Zdenek Bakala claims the
company has been used to run an extortion campaign against him.
has accused Prague investment manager Pavol Krupa of hiring Crowds
on Demand to pay protesters to march near his home in Hilton Head,
S.C., and to call and send emails to the Aspen Institute and
Dartmouth College, where Bakala is on advisory boards, urging them
to cut ties to him. Bakala alleges that Krupa has threatened to
continue and expand the campaign unless Bakala pays him $23
on Demand founder Adam Swart and Krupa neither confirmed nor
denied that they are working together. They declined to answer
specific questions about Bakala’s allegations, though Swart, in an
emailed statement, called the claims meritless.
only will I vigorously defend myself against the allegations in
the complaint but I am also evaluating whether to bring my own
claims against Mr. Bakala,” Swart said.
is growing in the business of paid protesting and other forms of
“astroturfing,” the practice of manufacturing the appearance of
Donald Trump, whose campaign reportedly hired actors to cheer at a
2015 rally, has repeatedly claimed that protesters – most recently
those fighting the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice
Brett M. Kavanaugh – are being paid by liberal billionaire George
Soros and other moneyed interests.
on Demand isn’t the only outfit that hires paid protesters, though
it is perhaps the most open about what it does, said Edward
Walker, a UCLA sociology professor who wrote a book on
astroturfing, “Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in
are hundreds of lobbying firms and public affairs firms that do
this work, though not all in the same way,” he said. “Some only do
a little bit of this grass-roots-for-hire, but things adjacent to
this are not uncommon today.”
example, the ABC News program “Nightline” reported in 2014 that a
beverage-industry-backed group was hiring people to protest a soda
tax measure, and posted an ad on Craigslist offering to pay $13 an
California political consultant Garry South, who was a campaign
strategist for California Gov. Gray Davis, said it’s long been
common for campaigns and political parties to pay people a few
bucks or perhaps provide a meal in exchange for attending a rally.
He recalled a 2002 rally in San Francisco where he said that
tactic was used.
turns out, the San Francisco Democratic Party, to bolster the
crowd, had basically gone down to skid row and paid people $5 or
something to tromp up to Union Square,” South said.
he sees a big difference between that kind of activity and the
paid protests allegedly organized by Crowds on Demand.
different is the commercialization of the process,” he said. “It
just contributes to the air of unreality that exists in this day
and age with essentially not being able to believe your own eyes
or ears. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy. But it probably
inevitably was going to come to this.”
if the tactic is increasingly common, Walker said Crowds on Demand
seems to stand out for how open it is about its line of work.
the company’s website, it boasts that it staged a rally supporting
an unidentified foreign leader visiting the United Nations. “The
concern was ensuring that the leader was well received by a U.S.
audience and confident for his work at the U.N. We created
demonstrations of support with diverse crowds.”
“case study” on Crowds on Demand’s website says the company was
hired to “cripple the operations” of a manufacturing business
owned by a convicted child molester. In that case, Crowds on
Demand says it was hired by a competing manufacturing business –
one that ultimately bought the molester-owned rival “for 5 percent
of its previous value.”
lot of times, companies don’t want to be known for using this kind
of strategy,” Walker said. “Crowds on Demand, they’re more out
about it. ... It is strikingly brazen.”
the Bakala case, Crowds on Demand is accused of spreading
misinformation through a website, putting on protests and
organizing a phone and email campaign targeting several U.S.
institutions with ties to Bakala, who got an MBA from Dartmouth’s
Tuck School of Business and had an estimated net worth topping $1
billion earlier this decade, according to Forbes.
all part of a years-long dispute, one that’s been the subject of
inquiries by the Czech government and the European Commission,
involving a formerly state-owned coal mining company called OKD
that Bakala took over in 2004.
website StopBakala.org, which Bakala alleges was set up by Krupa,
Swart and Crowds on Demand, accuses Bakala of bribing officials to
buy the government’s stake in the mining company for a low price,
breaking a promise to sell company-owned apartments to employees
and then taking excessive profits out of the company, which filed
for bankruptcy in 2016. A Krupa investment fund is a shareholder
in the company.
who holds U.S. and Czech citizenship, says in his lawsuit that all
of those allegations are false and are part of Krupa’s extortion
campaign. He alleges that Krupa offered to cease his campaign if
Bakala paid $23 million for OKD shares owned by Krupa’s investment
are pursuing a campaign of harassment, defamation, and
interference in the business affairs of Zdenek Bakala, which they
have expressly vowed to expand unless he pays them millions of
dollars,” Bakala’s attorneys wrote in the suit, which names Krupa,
Crowds on Demand and Swart as defendants.
a statement, Krupa Global Investments spokeswoman Barbora Hanakova
called Bakala “an untrustworthy person” and implied the U.S.
protests against Bakala have been “inconvenient for him” and have
ruined “his attempts to whitewash his reputation.”
far, it’s not clear the alleged campaign has had much effect.
Elliot Gerson, an executive vice president at the Aspen Institute,
said in an emailed statement that the institute has received calls
and emails from “individuals associated with Crowds on Demand” and
that the nonprofit’s general counsel has spoken with Swart “about
this campaign of harassment.”
the beginning, we assumed that these manufactured communications
were linked to political issues in the Czech Republic and Mr.
Bakala’s high profile in that country,” Gerson said. “Nothing we
received has altered our views about Mr. Bakala.”
Baldwin, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a partner at the
law firm Drinker Biddle, said the case raises interesting
questions about the business of paid protesting, in particular
what due diligence a company like Crowds on Demand must do to make
sure it is not defaming its targets.
other campaigns, Crowds on Demand appears to have been hired to
advocate for or against policy matters – a practice that many
might find distasteful but that probably isn’t legally actionable.
In this case, though, the company is accused of making false
accusations against an individual, leading to the lawsuit’s
allegation of defamation.
you’re presented with information that your message may be false
or defamatory, do you have an obligation to not be the messenger?”
Baldwin said. “That’s a key question for someone in this business.
At what point do you have an obligation to verify the truth or
veracity of the claims?”
declined to comment about what type of due diligence his company
performs before getting involved in a campaign.
lawsuit, filed in federal court in South Carolina, also alleges
violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt
Organizations Act, or RICO, a law originally intended to target
organized crime syndicates. Bakala alleges that Krupa, Swart and
Crowds on Demand have violated that law by participating in an
extortion scheme against him.