The congressional investigation into the forged Bonner letters has exposed a number of clearly or potentially illegal activities conducted by or on behalf of the coal industry in its fight against the Waxman-Markey climate bill. But the documents released by the investigation also made plain that even the ostensibly legal astroturfing activities of the industry and its contractors are at best really, really questionable.
The documents show that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) hired contractors who reached out to community groups representing vulnerable constituencies and blatantly mislead those groups about their motivations. ACCCE paid a PR company, the Hawthorn Group, nearly $3 million in 2009 for “outreach to individuals and groups representing the interests of minorities, seniors, business, and veterans.” Hawthorn in turn hired Bonner and Associates to drum up letters from those groups. The plan, as an email between Hawthorn and Bonner confirms, was to send the letters to politically weak Democrats who were still on the fence about their vote on the climate bill.
The investigation shows that even the 45 supposedly “legit” letters that Bonner managed to generate from these groups were elicited under false pretenses. Bonner employees were provided with a script that directed them to identify themselves as “working with seniors” or “working with vets”—without ever mentioning that they were actually calling on behalf of the coal industry. Callers were then instructed to play on the economic anxieties of the constituency in question:
“Hi xyz, I am working with seniors/retirees to help stop their utility bills from doubling,” reads one script offered to Bonner employees.
“They wanted women because women make less money than men, so they would be vulnerable to an argument like that,” Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government at the American Association of University Women. “African Americans are historically disenfranchised, seniors live on fixed incomes, and we all know that veterans are having problems in this country. The notion then that they would take those groups, misrepresent us to swing-district representatives in an effort to sway the vote—it’s not just outrageous, it’s a deliberate tactic.” Maatz added: “This is something that was well thought out. If they couldn’t get us to do them for real, they just forged them.”
The AAUW’s name was fraudulently used on a letter to Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, purportedly sent from the organization’s Charlottesville branch, which has not existed for years. The letter cited the home address of the groups’ last president, and the name of the group’s long-time historian, Anne Waldner, who died in December 2008—before the Waxman-Markey bill even existed. The group has never taken a stance on climate or energy legislation. Another forged letter from the NAACP contradicts the national NAACP’s actual position on the bill, which it supported.
At the hearing, Select Committee Chair Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said that the entire ACCCE-funded astroturfing campaign was “based on scare tactics and misleading figures and had zero to do with educating the public on key issues.”
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wa.) pointed to the talking points Bonner used in phone calls seeking signatories for the letters. The scripts falsely claimed that if Waxman-Markey passed, it would cause electricity costs to double. “You spent millions … on disinformation,” said Inslee. ACCCE’s CEO Miller responded that they did not provide those talking points — though the document is headlined, “Talking points for ACCCE.” Considering the large sums ACCCE paid Hawthorn and Bonner, it strains belief that the lobby group would be unaware of the tactics that its contractors were well-known for employing, or that it would take no interest in how its money was being spent. “You remind me of the guy who hired a hit man and just said, ‘Take care of the problem,'” said Inslee, adding that the forgeries are likely “the tip of the iceberg of the deception that has occurred.”