Over the summer, as the House prepared to consider sweeping climate change legislation, several lawmakers received letters on seemingly official stationery from the NAACP and the American Association of University Women. The letters warned lawmakers that the organizations had serious doubts about the bill Democrats were bringing to the floor.
But the letters turned out to be fakes.
"Those are not insignificant organizations in our country," Rep. Ed Markey, chairman of the House global warming committee and co-author of the bill, said at a hearing Thursday. "That really does put a thumb on the scale against clean energy technologies, and word would spread on the House floor, as to why particular members might be considering opposing the legislation."
The letters were sent at a critical moment last June: Energy companies were lobbying hard against the bill, especially its cap on carbon dioxide emissions, and some moderate Democrats felt squeezed. The phony letters could have made a big difference in the vote. In the end, the bill only eked through the House, 219-212.
The letters were traced back to a Washington lobby shop — Bonner and Associates, led by Jack Bonner.
"As founder and president of Bonner and Associates, I personally take full responsibility for what happened," he told the House panel.
"But let one thing be very clear," he said. "This improper activity was undertaken without the knowledge of anyone at our firm. It was the actions of one rogue temporary employee, acting on his own, against our company's policies and without the knowledge of anyone else at Bonner and Associates."
Bonner said the employee was immediately fired.
"The scapegoating of one employee is not necessarily going to solve this problem," said Lisa Maatz, public policy director for the American Association of University Women.
"Not only does AAUW join in a call for an investigation by the Department of Justice; we also encourage Congress to reconsider legislation to address this shockingly legal but unreported practice of 'AstroTurfing,' " she said, using a term to describe political actions that appear to be from organic movements but, on closer look, are corporate-funded PR campaigns far from the grassroots.
That's the real problem, committee member Jay Inslee (D-WA) said. Inslee blames corporate coal industry groups for trying to create a fake movement against the bill, for instance by scaring people into believing their electricity bills would double.
Inslee grilled Steve Miller, the head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, who said the group never intimated directly or indirectly that there would be a doubling of rates.
"You remind me of the guy who hired a hit man and said, 'Just take care of the problem. Don't tell me whether you're using a knife or a gun.' "
It's a corruption of the entire democratic process, Inslee and Markey said, when well-funded lobbying campaigns are willing to spread lies and falsify documents in order to stop a bill.