Lobby Firm Sent Forged Climate Change Letter To Congressman

By Zachary Roth - July 31, 2009, 12:24PM

OK, this is a good one...

Freshman Democratic congressman Tom Perriello -- whose Virginia district leans Republican -- faced a tough decision last month over whether to support the climate change bill. As he was weighing the issue, he got a letter from a non-profit group in his district that focuses on issues of importance to Hispanics. The letter urged Perriello to oppose the bill because it could raise low-income members' utility bills. "Many of our members are on tight budgets and the sizes of their monthly utility bills are important expense items," it read in part.

But, reports the Charlottesville Daily Progress, the letter was a fake:
"They stole our name. They stole our logo. They created a position title and made up the name of someone to fill it. They forged a letter and sent it to our congressman without our authorization," said Tim Freilich, who sits on the executive committee of Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit network that tackles issues related to Charlottesville's Hispanic community. "It's this type of activity that undermines Americans' faith in democracy." The faked letter from Creciendo Juntos was signed by "Marisse K. Acevado, Asst Member Coordinator," an identity and position at Creciendo Juntos that do not exist.
The letter -- subsequently obtained by TPMmuckraker -- had actually been sent by someone at the D.C. lobbying firm Bonner and Associates -- a pioneer in "strategic grassroots/grasstops" lobbying whose clients have included Citicorp, Aetna, PhRMA, Dow Chemical, AT&T, and General Motors, among others.

And Perriello staffers soon dug out five other forged letters -- also obtained by TPMmuckraker -- urging the congressman to oppose the bill -- all purportedly from the local branch of the NAACP, whose president says he's "appalled" at the scam.

The paper adds:
The fake NAACP letters were faxed to Perriello's office from the Arlington headquarters of a company called Professional Risk Management Services Inc. A representative of the company said she had no knowledge of why the fax would have been sent from her office, adding that at least 60 employees have access to the fax machine.
But here's maybe the most infuriating thing. Bonner still isn't coming close to clean about the incident.

A partner with the firm traveled to Charlottesville to apologize to Creciendo Juntos' chairwoman, and has told the group that it has fired the employee who wrote it. But it hasn't said who hired it to work on the climate change bill -- and it doesn't have to disclose the information because it doesn't do direct lobbying of Congress. Bonner and Associates didn't return calls from the Daily Progress. Nor did it immediately return TPMmuckraker's.

This isn't the first time that they've been caught out blurring the lines between "strategic grassroots" lobbying and outright deception. As the Daily Progress notes:
The AARP Bulletin reported in 2006 that the "60 Plus Association" hired Bonner & Associates in 2003 to manage what it called an "Astroturf" campaign against prescription drug legislation in Minnesota and New Mexico, meaning that it was an artificial version of a grassroots campaign. Bonner & Associates hired callers to identify themselves as members of the 60 Plus Association and urge residents to ask their governors to veto the legislation. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer later admitted that it had paid Bonner & Associates to undertake the campaign, AARP reported.
And it engineered a similar scheme in Maryland. When it was revealed that a letter opposing an effort to lower the cost of prescription drugs actually came from Bonner and Associates, rather than a group of African-American charities, Bonner told a reporter: "It's a great exercise in the First Amendment."

It's worth noting that despite the letter to Periello, the climate change bill passed the House -- with Perriello's support.

Something tells us Periello wasn't the only wavering Democrat who got that fake letter. And there's more to this story that's going to get shaken loose sooner or later...

Additional reporting by Brian Beutler.

Late Update
: Bonner responds.

Later Update
: Rep. Ed Markey announces an investigation into the letters.

Lobby Firm Sent Forged Climate Change Letter To Congressman | TPMMuckraker