Lobbyists Caught in Fake Letter Campaign

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Filed under: Fraud and Deception, Propaganda and Disinformation

Coal Group Is Linked to Fake Letters on Climate Bill
by Stephanie Strom
The New York Times
August 4, 2009

05charity.inline.190A trade group representing coal producers and power companies says that it indirectly hired a lobbying firm that sent fake letters to lawmakers purporting to be from nonprofit groups opposed to climate-change legislation.

The group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in statement Monday that it was considering legal action against the lobbying firm.

On Tuesday, staff members across Capitol Hill combed through constituent mail in search of other fake letters. The search began after three members of Congress said they had received them.

A Washington lobbying firm, Bonner & Associates, has admitted sending the letters and said it had fired the person responsible.

The coal organization said it had hired the Hawthorn Group, a public affairs consulting firm, to lobby against the legislation, and Hawthorn in turn hired Bonner. The coalition said it was indirectly the client on whose behalf the letters had been sent, even though it deplored the tactic.

“We are evaluating all possible measures “” including potential legal action “” as part of our commitment to ensure that high ethical standards are followed when conducting outreach to community groups, elected officials and other members of the public,” the coalition said in a statement.

Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a sponsor of the climate bill, has begun an inquiry into whether the fake letters amount to fraud on Congress, and the Sierra Club has petitioned the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against Bonner for wire fraud.

An aide said Mr. Markey hoped to combat the tactic of astroturfing in which a professional lobbying effort is made to seem like a grass-roots movement.

Since Representative Tom Perriello, Democrat of Virginia, revealed that he received fake letters late last week, two more House members Christopher P. Carney and Kathy Dahlkemper, both Pennsylvania Democrats, have reported getting similar letters. The coal trade group said it thought the problem was limited to those three representatives and a dozen letters.

Mr. Perriello received letters urging him to vote against the environmental bill that purported to be from both Creciendo Juntos, a loose network of nonprofit organizations that provide services to Latinos in the Charlottesville area of Virginia, and the Albemarle-Charlottesville chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.

“We support making the environment cleaner, but the reason we are writing is that we are concerned about our electric bills,” the letter said. “Many of our members are on tight budgets, and the sizes of their monthly utility bills are important expense items.”

Hilary Shelton, the N.A.A.C.P.”™s senior vice president for advocacy and policy, called the fake letters “outrageous.” The group favors the legislation, which it believes will lead to jobs as well as environmental benefits.

Mr. Perriello ended up voting for the legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the House in June and awaits action in the Senate.

Jack Bonner, the lobbying firm”™s founder, said a temporary employee had been responsible for the fake letters and was fired.

“This should not have happened,” Mr. Bonner said in an e-mail message. “We had a bad employee, but through our internal checks, we found the problem and on our own initiative took the step to notify the affected group,” Creciendo Juntos.

Bonner & Associates did not contact the Albemarle-Charlottesville N.A.A.C.P., which was notified of the problem by Mr. Perriello”™s office.

Gwynn Geiger Hegyi, a partner at Bonner, attributed the letters to a “person on our staff” “” not a temporary employee “” in a July 22 letter to a member of Creciendo Juntos”™s executive committee, Tim Freilich.

Mr. Freilich disputed Ms. Hegyi”™s characterization of the matter as a mistake, saying: “Sending an e-mail to the wrong address with a click of a button, that”™s a mistake. They stole our logo, they stole our name, they used our address, they created a position with a title, they created a name to hold that title and they sent the letter to Congressman Perriello”™s office.

“This was a carefully constructed, deliberately forged letter designed to make it appear that it came from our organization “” not a mistake.”