Bonner & Associates forges documents in opposition to climate bill

BonnerThere are many people and organizations in the United States who oppose the American Climate and Energy Security Act (ACES), and many of them have mailed letters, written emails, and called their Representatives and Senators in an effort to convince their legislator to vote against ACES. Some of ACES’ opponents have deep enough pockets that they can afford to hire lobbying firms to lobby against the legislation, and did so. But someone took it much farther. Someone hired public relations and lobbying firm Bonner & Associates to mobilize the grassroots to contact their legislators, and according to a Charlottesville Daily Progress article, at least one Bonner employee forged letters from two minority groups in an effort to convince U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia to vote against ACES.

According to the article, six letters ostensibly from two minority groups within Rep. Perriello’s district were forged by one or more employees within Bonner & Associates. One letter was on letterhead from Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit group devoted to solving Hispanic issues in Charlottesville. The other five were supposedly from the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP. All six letters were from people who did not work at the groups and two claimed organizational titles that do not exist. S&R has obtained copies of the letters in question: Creciendo Juntos forgery and NAACP forgery.

The Daily Progress article reports that a partner with Bonner & Associates traveled to Charlottesville to apologize for the “mistake” and to inform Creciendo Juntos that the employee responsible had been fired. However, Creciendo Juntos executive committeemember Tim Freilich wrote in a letter to Rep. Perriello that:

This was not a “mistake.” This was a deliberately and carefully forged letter that used the logo, address and name of Creciendo Juntos without authorization. (from Daily Progress article)

Given Bonner & Associates’ history of astroturf lobbying and outright deception, it’s difficult to dismiss Mr. Freilich’s concerns.

According to the Daily Progress article:

The AARP Bulletin reported in 2006 that the “60 Plus Association” hired Bonner & Associates in 2003 to manage what it called an “Astroturf” campaign against prescription drug legislation in Minnesota and New Mexico, meaning that it was an artificial version of a grassroots campaign.

Bonner & Associates hired callers to identify themselves as members of the 60 Plus Association and urge residents to ask their governors to veto the legislation. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer later admitted that it had paid Bonner & Associates to undertake the campaign, AARP reported.

Furthermore, in an article originally published by the Baltimore Sun and reprinted at Common Dreams, Bonner & Associates was exposed as using similar tactics to oppose the prescription drug plan on behalf of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade group.

Although the tactics outraged some supporters of the prescription drug bills, those behind the campaign defended their actions as legitimate.

Welcome to the big leagues, they said.

“It’s a great exercise in the First Amendment,” said Jack Bonner, founder of Bonner & Associates, the Washington lobbying firm hired by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) to kill the legislation.

The Baltimore Sun article goes on to describe the basic way the campaign worked: Bonner & Associates faxed misleading letters on Consumer Alliance letterhead to people in various purchased databases and the returned signatures were then attached to a petition against the drug benefit that was presented to legislators. Furthermore, the contact that supposedly worked for Consumer Alliance was revealed to be a Bonner & Associates employee – after he lied to a reporter about his employer.

In a response to a request for PhRMA to be honest, the Sun article quotes Jack Bonner as saying “It’s democracy. That is what this is about.”

Since this story broke in the Daily Progress this morning, there has been a widespread and growing uproar about it.

Carl Pope of the Sierra Club issued a press release that said, in part, “the alleged forgery of letters from organizations dedicated to protecting their communities forces one to question who is really behind the efforts to block America’s progress towards a clean energy economy.”

Paul Blumenthal, blogged at the Sunlight Foundation that “this story was worth flagging as I’d imagine it is the clearest cut argument for [grassroots lobbying disclosure]” and “Bonner & Associates has not filed a lobbying disclosure report since 2001, so we have no clue which client is paying the firm to forge letters and lie to lawmakers.”

Senator John Kerry wrote a diary entry at Daily Kos that reads in part:

Nothing should surprise us anymore after we’ve seen powerful interests mislead about the science, twist the facts about climate change, resort to a whole host of tactics to try to hide a simple fact: the earth is in trouble because of manmade greenhouse gasses, our planet is getting closer and closer to a dangerous tipping point, and we must do something about this immediately.

But I have to say, this appears to be a desperate distortion too many….

This moment is too important, the crisis is too grave, to let our debate be distorted by under the radar screen gutter moves – this one the most egregious example yet reported.

A blog post at Blue Virginia compared Bonner & Associates to the Tea Party Patriots, who told their members to call legislators and lie about their residency. And the blog It’s Getting Hot In Here made their opinion of the tactics abundantly clear just by the title – “Fraud? Identity Theft? Impersonation? All In A Day’s Work.” And Wonkette is most assuredly not amused.

This story has also started to get some legs in the legacy media. Keith Johnson, writer of the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog, said the following: “The fight over impending climate-change legislation in Congress appears to be getting dirtier.” Johnson also pointed out that Bonner & Associates has worked against climate disruption policies in the past, specifically organizing a “web-based grassroots campaign ahead of the U.S. vote on the Kyoto Protocol in the late 1990s.” Mention of this has also shown up in The Hill’s Briefing Room blog.

Ultimately, though, whether Bonner & Associates will be punished for lying and forging letters on official letterhead will not be determined by activists, bloggers, or reporters. Jack Bonner and Bonner & Associates were accused of ethics violations for the group’s activities on behalf of PhRMA, but the charges were dismissed by the Maryland State Ethics Commission. If, as TPMMuckraker blogger Zachary Roth believes, additional letters turn up in other Representatives’ offices, then the probability that this was a single rogue, overzealous employee (as Bonner & Associates has claimed) goes way down. Similarly, there’s a chance that Bonner & Associates might potentially face one or more legal actions as a result of these letters. A case could probably be made for fraud and impersonation, possibly for trademark infringement. And I feel confident that lawyers could find more charges as well.

In that same vein, Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachussetts, Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, has taken an interest in this story:

My Select Committee will immediately begin an investigation of the extent and scope of this activity.

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