Bonner’s Latest Astroturf Admission (Plus More Fake Letters)

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Rep. Ed Markey’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has released a new batch of bogus letters sent to members of Congress by Bonner & Associates, including one the DC-based PR and lobbying firm previously told the committee was genuine but admitted on Monday was also a fake. The letters claim to be from representatives of local senior citizens groups concerned that climate change legislation will drive up energy costs for the elderly in an already “volatile economy.”  

Founded in 1984 by Jack Bonner, a former GOP Senate aide and Republican National Committee staffer, the company specializes in Astroturf campaigns—efforts to create the illusion of grassroots support around the positions of its corporate clients. The firm accomplishes this by, among other things, convincing citizens, nonprofits, and others to sign letters to lawmakers in support or opposition to various issues.

Bonner’s astroturfing techniques are dodgy in their own right, but the company took them to an even shadier level as the climate change bill authored by Markey and Henry Waxman neared a vote in the House. Bonner’s role in crafting the phony letters first emerged in July,   after the legislation had already passed, when a local paper reported that the firm had sent forged letters to Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello purporting to be from minority groups opposed to the climate change bill. It was later revealed that Bonner, working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, had targeted two other congressional Democrats, Kathy Dahlkemper and Christopher Carney, with this deceptive campaign. Both of the lawmakers, who represent districts in Pennsylvania, ultimately voted against the Waxman-Markey bill.

Jack Bonner has claimed that the letters were the work of a rogue “temporary employee” whom the firm fired when his or her actions came to light. ACCCE, meanwhile, has expressed “outrage” over the letters, even raising the possibility of taking legal action against Bonner.

Markey’s committee has been investigating the falsified letters since late July. According to a release issued by the committee on Monday:

The five letters revealed today brings the total number of fraudulent letters to 13, now representing 9 different community groups. The letters released today were staged to appear as if they were sent by groups representing senior citizen services like the non-profit Erie Center on Health & Aging. Previous letters already made public were from the Charlottesville NAACP chapter, Creciendo Juntos, a hispanic advocacy organization, the Jefferson Area Board on Aging, and the American Association of University Women.

In a statement, Markey drew parallels between advocacy efforts to derail health care reform and those opposing global warming legislation. “We’ve seen fear-mongering with our nation’s senior citizens with health care, and now we’re seeing fraud-mongering with senior citizens on clean energy,” he said. “Lately, democratic debate has been deceptively debased by fake facts and harsh rhetoric. We must return to an honest discussion of the issues, and ensure that this sort of campaign does not further poison the well of trustworthy debate.”

One [PDF] of the new letters released by the committee, sent to Perriello in mid-June, claimed to be from an official at Charlottesville, Virginia-based Senior Center, Inc. Markey spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder told me that Bonner had previously said this letter was legitimate, but informed the committee on Monday, via its lawyers at Akin Gump, that it was in fact a fake. An excerpt:

You are about to vote on important environmental legislation (the Waxman-Markey bill). We support making the environment cleaner, but the reason we are writing is that we are concerned about our electric bills. Many seniors, as you know, are on low fixed incomes. The cost to heat and cool our homes, run hot water and use other appliances is very important to those on a budget.

Our state gets 56% of its electricity from coal. We urge you to pass legislation that reduces greenhouse gases but at the same time protects consumers from unaffordable increases in the basic necessity of electricity.

We ask you to use your important position to help protect seniors and other consumers in your district from higher electricity bills. Please don’t vote to force cost increases on us, especially in this volatile economy. We urge you to make pro-consumer changes in the Waxman-Markey bill to protect seniors and all of your constituents from unaffordable energy cost increases.

This letter was one of 58 provided to Markey’s committee by the ACCCE and Bonner & Associates in response to its investigation. Of those, ACCCE has previously stated that 12 were falsified. Given Bonner’s admission on Monday, Markey’s committee is now wondering whether there may be other forgeries in the batch of letters in its possession. Just to be sure, Markey’s committee is now calling on Bonner and ACCCE to “fully verify whether the remaining several dozen letters were sent under false pretenses, or if they represent the views of the signers.”

Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.

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