The lobbying firm that sent forged letters opposing the House climate bill to at least three members of Congress was working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, one of the top Washington, D.C.-based coal industry advocacy groups.
A total of 12 forged letters were sent out to three House Democrats -- Reps. Tom Perriello of Virginia and Kathy Dahlkemper and Chris Carney of Pennsylvania. Both Carney and Dahlkemper voted against the House climate bill (H.R. 2454), while Perriello supported the measure and has faced a storm of criticism from Washington Republicans and some constituents in the wake of its passage.
ACCCE, which represents a number of major electric utilities and coal producers, said it had no knowledge of the forged letters until after they had been sent out by an employee of Bonner & Associates.
"We are outraged at the conduct of Bonner & Associates," ACCCE President and CEO Stephen Miller said in a statement yesterday. "Based upon the information we have, it is clear that an employee of Bonner's firm failed to demonstrate the integrity we demand of all our contractors and subcontractors."
ACCCE revealed yesterday that one of its contractors, the Hawthorn Group, had subcontracted with Bonner & Associates to conduct outreach to community-based groups in several congressional districts. ACCCE was aware of this arrangement, but it was Hawthorn that was responsible for managing Bonner's work.
A newspaper report Friday first disclosed the forged letters sent to Perriello's office, which were made to look as if they had come from two Charlottesville-based advocacy groups. But the letters were signed by individuals that had no affiliation to the organizations and the letters had instead been traced back to the D.C.-based lobbying firm Bonner & Associates.
"Obviously, we're learning more everyday about the fake letters and we are looking forward to the results of Chairman Markey's investigation," Perriello spokeswoman Jessica Barba said in response to the ACCCE disclosure.
According to a background document provided by ACCCE, it was Bonner & Associates that had first identified the letters through the internal review process and had informed Hawthorn Group about the situation. Hawthorn then informed ACCCE about the matter on June 24 -- more than a month before it was reported by the media.
In an interview, Miller said as soon as ACCCE was informed of the situation, it immediately contacted Hawthorn and was told that Bonner would reach out to the community organizations and to the congressional offices that received the letters. "As we continued to inquire about that during July, that was the message we receive from Hawthorn," Miller said. "It was not until the press accounts Friday afternoon that we learned this matter had not been dealt with."
Miller added that ACCCE did not communicate directly with Bonner about the situation, but it was informed that the employee responsible for the letters had been fired.
Additionally, Miller said he paid a visit yesterday to the Capitol Hill offices of the members who received the false letters and would seek face-to-face meetings or phone conversations with those lawmakers. The House is on recess until Labor Day.
ACCCE will also reach out personally to the organizations whose names were used in the letter, Miller said.
Congressional investigation begins
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and one of the main authors of the climate bill, sent a letter yesterday to Jack Bonner of Bonner & Associates asking a dozen lengthy questions about the letters.
Among other things, Markey asked Bonner to disclose who hired it to lobby on their behalf, how much it was paid, in which congressional districts it operates in, the extent of its activities in those districts as well as information about the employee that was responsible for the mailing of the letters.
"This fraud on Congress distorts the legislative process and disserves the American people," Markey wrote. "It represents a serious breach that needs to be fully understood as to the extent and scope of these wrongful acts."
Markey's letter went out before ACCCE revealed its connection to the matter and it does not mention the group. Bonner has until Aug. 12 to respond.
But ACCCE's involvement in the matter immediately drew a sharp rebuke from environmentalists, with one prominent environmental group calling for both Congress and the Justice Department to dig into the matter.
"Both the coal industry's ACCCE and Bonner have denounced the sneaky tactics and firmly placed blame elsewhere," the Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "It is clear that the Department of Justice and Congress may be the only ones that can really figure out who is responsible for these dirty tricks."
Adding, "Big Oil, Big Coal and other special interests have already spent more than $100 million to kill a comprehensive clean energy jobs and climate plan. By faking these letters, Bonner and the special interests they represent admit that an army of lobbyists and hundreds of millions of dollars still can't overcome real grassroots power."
The group yesterday sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging for an investigation into the matter (E&ENews PM, August 3).
The letters have only further escalated what has already been a highly charged political debate over the climate legislation. Besides Markey's investigation and similar calls from the Sierra Club, a number of other left-leaning advocacy groups and commentators had pounced on the issue, charging that the letters were part of a campaign by some industry groups that used inaccurate information to attempt to defeat the climate bill.
The Sierra Club this week will run print ads in Washington, D.C.-based political publications that depict Bigfoot, aliens, Pinocchio and other fictional characters under the banner "The Coalition to Kill Clean Energy Jobs."
States the ad: "When Dirty-Energy Washington Lobbyists couldn't get any real-life supporters to defeat comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, they made them up instead."
But ACCCE's Miller said he still believed that the controversy would not overshadow the group's effort to articulate its position on the climate bill as the debate turns toward the Senate.
"I continue to have faith that when a problem like this occurs and it's not your wrongdoing yourself, but you're willing to step up responsibility for making it right, people will recognize that here in Washington," Miller said. "I hope and believe that if you're wiling to do that and come forward in this kind of situation, you will continue to be able to make credible arguments."
Click here to read one of the forged letters.