09/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bonner & Associates Coached Employees To Lie To Generate Letters to Congress - Will Congress Reign In Such Astroturf?

An interesting and potentially explosive attachment was included with a letter sent to Congressional investigators by Steven R. Ross, an Akin Gump attorney working to defend his client Bonner & Associates, the D.C. public relations firm embroiled in an embarrassing scandal over forged letters sent from its offices to at least three Democratic lawmakers claiming to represent opposition to the Waxman-Markey climate and energy legislation from nine community groups. 

Attached to Ross’s letter, which was obtained by Talking Points Memo, is a set of “Talking points for ACCCE” distributed to the temp employees to guide their conversations with targeted groups whom they would be calling to drum up opposition to Waxman-Markey in key Congressional districts.

“Crucially, the talking points specifically instructed employees to lie to the community organizations they were calling, telling them they were working with seniors/veterans groups and that other seniors/veterans groups had written the letter they would be signing. They were in fact working directly for a coal industry front group, and the letter was written by Bonner and associates.”

The memo instructs Bonner employees, the “vast majority” of whom are temporary workers hired to generate calls and letters to Congress from pre-selected organizational targets, to “Relate to the group that you are approaching” and “Make the conversation personal.”

Ross’s letter and the list of “Talking points for ACCCE” that Bonner employees used to guide their conversations about the pro-coal contract provide a fascinating window into the world of astroturfing.

As Ross divulges, Bonner’s team does a lot of prep work to create draft letters for targeted organizations before they are even contacted to gauge their support for the cause.

Page 6 of the Ross letter says:

“Due to the time sensitivity of this contract and for the convenience of the organization, logos were copied from the organization’s [sic] websites and inserted onto the draft letters.  These drafts were then sent to the organization for their review, approval, and signature with the logo formatted as letterhead.”

Presumably, any "draft letters" created on behalf of organizations that disagree with the campaign are not sent out.  But recent revelations of forgeries originating from Bonner’s offices do not provide much assurance that this is a fool-proof system, a vulnerability which Bonner is now addressing with its new 'no forgery' policy.

Although the forged letters appear to have been the work of a single temp worker, many questions remain about the ACCCE/Hawthorn/Bonner campaign to drum up opposition to Congressional action on climate and energy legislation. Congress needs to continue investigating these firms to determine the full extent of the damage caused by their activities.

Despite the fact that Bonner & Associates learned that thirteen of the letters generated by one of its temporary staffers were forgeries four days before the Waxman-Markey vote on June 22nd, Bonner failed to discuss the forgeries with any of the lawmakers who received them until July 13th, seventeen days after the House approved the legislation.

Perhaps most critically, Congress should demand to know which firm developed the “Talking Points for ACCCE” document.  This one-pager instructs employees to lie to the community organizations they were calling, telling them they were working with seniors/veterans groups and that other seniors/veterans groups had written a letter they could sign onto. They were in fact working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry front group which retained Hawthorn Group and its subcontractor Bonner & Associates.

The clear solution to limiting the potential for this type of fraud emanating from Washington lobby firms is to end the astroturf loophole in the Lobby Disclosure Act, as pointed out by DeSmogBlog founder Jim Hoggan, and echoed by an unnamed Congressional staffer quoted in the New York Times’ coverage of the Bonner forgeries:

“Because of the way lobbying contact is defined in the act, you only have to register if you make direct contact with members of Congress,” said a Congressional staff member investigating the fake letters who asked that his name not be used while the inquiry was continuing. “The sham is that if you go spend $1 million to get other people to make those direct contacts, it’s not considered lobbying.”

Correct. It's considered astroturf, a shady practice that has no place in our democracy.