Coal group, grassroots firm knew of forged letters before climate vote

Working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), the firm Bonner & Associates has acknowledged that it sent about a dozen forged letters to three House Democrats who were seen as critical swing votes.

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The head of the ACCCE also acknowledged learning of some of the forgeries the day before the vote, a discovery he said “appalled” him.

But neither the firm nor the coal group informed the members or the misrepresented companies about the forged letters ahead of the vote.

Steve Miller, ACCCE’s president and CEO, said he assumed Bonner & Associates would inform the members of the phony correspondence but regretted his group did not do more on its own to inform them of the forgeries.

The letters included the letterhead and signatures of members of local chapters of the NAACP, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and groups representing Hispanics, veterans and senior citizens.

Freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) received a letter from a Charlottesville AAUW chapter that had been closed and was signed by an AAUW official who is dead.

Jack Bonner, the president of Bonner & Associates, told the House Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence on Thursday that around June 22 the firm had discovered that a temporary employee had sent letters to Congress falsely representing local chapters of the NAACP, AAUW and other groups. The firm fired the temporary employee, whose name hasn’t been released.

The panel has been investigating the forged letters since their discovery last summer. It released the results of its investigation at a hearing on Thursday.

The House voted on the bill on June 26, meaning Bonner knew of the forgeries as many as four days prior to the vote.

Bonner said his company did not inform the three members who received the letters because it wanted first to contact the organizations it falsely claimed were opposing the climate bill. Bonner acknowledged, however, that the firm didn’t try to contact the organizations until after the vote. Representatives from the groups said they didn’t hear about the forgeries until weeks later.

Bonner said he also should have told the members who received the letters they were forged.

“I am personally very sorry that I did not go up to the three members contacted and sit in their offices until I could talk directly to somebody and tell them what happened,” Bonner said. He said the firm reached out to the organizations it falsely represented in the days following the discovery of the forgeries. A Bonner & Associates employee had a lengthy conversation with a representative from the NAACP on June 31, after the House vote.

Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for AAUW, said, however, that she did not learn her group was a victim of the forgeries until late July when she read a newspaper account of the faked letters.

Bonner described Bonner & Associates as a grassroots firm that does not lobby and said that he wasn’t aware when the vote would take place or that the three members who received the letters could prove critical to the measure’s success or failure.

“I had no idea whether the members were swing votes or not,” Bonner said.

But Democrats on the select panel said the three members in question were well-known as swing votes prior to the House floor debate. Ultimately, the climate bill, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), passed on a 219-212 vote.

Markey, who is the chairman of the House global warming panel, read an e-mail from Hawthorn Group, the subcontractor that actually hired Bonner & Associates on behalf of ACCCE, directing the firm to target seven members.

The “miscommunications,” Markey said, “went right to the heart” of the debate, because they targeted key members and represented constituencies that could be more vulnerable to increases in energy prices.

The select panel’s investigation into the forgeries also became a broader examination of how the clean coal group has lobbied the climate bill.

Miller, ACCCE’s president, insisted the group did not oppose the bill, but only sought to make changes to it, including the addition of cost controls to keep energy prices from rising precipitously.

But Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) read a Bonner & Associates training document laying out a script that its employees should read to constituents. The training document implies the climate bill could double energy prices.

Bonner said he wasn’t sure the text was actually used in live calls. Miller said his group was not aware of and did not know the training document was used and that it never claimed the climate bill would double electricity rates, although the group believes it will raise them.

Markey said it was in the “coal industry’s interest” not to inform the members that the letters were fake.

“You are kind of giving the Sgt. Shultz defense: ‘I see nothing. I know nothing,’ ” Markey said.

Inslee said ACCCE, which represents coal producers and major coal users, had created a “climate” in which the forgeries occurred by working to deceive the country about a supposed lack of consensus on climate change.

Both Miller and Bonner said they have implemented new practices designed to prevent a similar situation from occurring. Bonner, for example, said the firm has hired American University political science Professor James Thurber to act as an independent ethics adviser.

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Miller noted ACCCE paid the law firm Venable to investigate the forgeries. He said he and two other senior leaders at the group received “substantial” financial penalties as a result of the incident.

ACCCE is also refusing to pay the $43,500 Bonner & Associates was to receive for its grassroots work.