Forged letters went unreported

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A coal group and two contractors knew about forged lobbying letters sent to three House Democrats before a vote on climate legislation, but the lawmakers were in the dark, documents obtained by a congressional committee show.

The documents, reviewed by The Associated Press, offer a look into the millions of dollars spent on grassroots lobbying efforts. Federal lobbying law does not require public disclosure of such efforts to gin up pressure from lawmakers' constituents.

A hearing before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was put off at the last minute after Republicans complained they hadn't received testimony in advance.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has acknowledged that the firm it hired through a subcontractor, Bonner & Associates, sent forged letters critical of the climate legislation purportedly from local nonprofit groups to the congressional offices.

Bonner blamed the fakes on a temporary employee, now fired.

The coal group disclosed new details in a letter to the committee chairman, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and one of the bill's chief sponsors.

The coalition said that on June 25, it contacted its primary grassroots lobbying contractor, the Hawthorn Group, and "demanded that Bonner promptly make contact with the affected member offices and organizations." In a separate letter to Markey, Hawthorn said it instructed Bonner that same day to notify the lawmakers.

But Bonner didn't call any of the lawmakers until after the June 26 vote, when the House narrowly approved the climate bill.

In a letter to Markey, Bonner's lawyer said Bonner left messages for two of the lawmakers — Reps. Tom Perriello, D-Va., and Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa. — on July 1, but didn't reach them until July 13. The other lawmaker to receive the forged letters, Rep. Chris Carney, D-Pa., wasn't contacted at that time "due to a miscommunication," the letter says.

Bonner declined to comment to the AP on the delay.

The coal group, a consortium of coal and electric power companies, takes some of the blame for the delay. In a letter to Markey, it said it should have acted to ensure that Bonner "completed these notifications or should have conducted these notifications itself before the scheduled vote."

Perriello ended up voting for the bill; the other two lawmakers voted against it.

Bonner's lawyer told the committee that the fired employee had been working for the firm just eight days when the forged letters were discovered. The firm said it paid temporary employees an hourly wage but also bonuses for letters they generated within an assigned congressional district. The fired employee picked up a bonus of $350.

Bonner billed Hawthorn for $43,500 but has not been paid; the coal group told Hawthorn not to pay the bill, according to a letter from Hawthorn. A document from the coal group indicates it paid Hawthorn about $7 million last year for grassroots lobbying services and about $3 million through the first six months of this year.

The coal group said that as part of its outreach effort on the climate bill, more than 4,000 calls were made to members of Congress between June 24 and June 26, the day of the vote.

Hawthorn hired Bonner to focus on lawmakers in seven congressional districts, including the three who received the forged letters, and to solicit support from veterans, minority and seniors organizations. The documents include an email from Hawthorn to Bonner, with the subject line, "Ready to Rumble," on the seven targeted House members.

After Perriello's name, the e-mail reads, "note that we are looking at him as a possible champion, so anything we can do here to help that would be good." Lobbyists often refer to lawmakers who will carry their cause in Congress as "champions."

The documents include talking points provided by Bonner to prospective groups, such as, "Hi, xyz, I am working with seniors/retirees to help stop their utility bills from doubling," and asking if the group would like to join other seniors groups in writing a letter. If the group were receptive, Bonner would fax it a draft letter. The organization could then make changes to the text, sign it and send it back for transmission to Capitol Hill.

Because of time pressure, the company's lawyer said, "logos were copied from the organization's Web sites and inserted onto draft letters."

In all, Bonner generated 58 letters under its contract with Hawthorn. Initially, the number of forged letters was thought to be 12, including an NAACP Virginia chapter and a Virginia Latino advocacy group. But the coal group said a review by its law firm raised concern about the authenticity of two other letters, from a seniors center and a veterans organization.

Bonner's lawyer said in the letter that the firm is starting a five-point plan to avoid a repeat of the forgeries, such as 100 percent callback verification to groups that have signed letters, ethics training for temporary employees and an independent ethical standards adviser.


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