The Forger's Dilemma

What's an organization whose core mission is to create a false impression supposed to do when its hired agents add an additional, unauthorized layer of falsity to the scheme? That appears to be what tripped up the coal-industry front group, ACCCE, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. (If you are an energy insider, you may already have noticed the first layer of deception -- ACCCE as an acronym is clearly a rip-off from ACEEE, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the country's premier energy-efficiency think tank. ACCCE, however, is actually funded by the coal industry; its logo features a cute lump of coal with an electric plug stuck into it -- and no pesky emissions showing in between.)

ACCCE was fighting to kill the House climate legislation. It retained Washington's premier creator of misleading "astro-turf" campaigns, Bonner & Associates, to do what Bonner does so well -- generate an impression that Main Street America is violently against whatever legislation Bonner's clients don't like. Bonner makes no bones about the fact that it can create the impression of a groundswell regardless of the facts -- all that is required is enough of a retainer to pay its typically "temporary" employees to get on the phone and get enough local influentials and organizations to sign the letters that Bonner has written for its clients. Bonner firmly believes that if you spend enough hours on the phone, you can get enough organizations signed up for whatever position you have been hired to flack.

But apparently the "groundswell" that Bonner promised to generate against clean energy legislation wasn't quite strong enough, so Bonner's staff guy on the project resorted to forgery. He simply made up the names of officers at a dozen local organizations, copied their letterhead from the web, and sent letters to three members of Congress urging them to vote against the House climate bill.

When Bonner discovered the forgery (days before the House cast its vote), it did tell ACCCE "whoops, Houston, we have a problem here." It also fired the staff guy who had forged the letters. But neither Bonner nor ACCCE had the heart to tell the three members of Congress, Pennsylvania Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper and Chris Carney, and Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello, that it had generated fraudulent grassroots letters to them. Nor did ACCCE tell the organizations whose signatures had been forged about the misrepresentation. (Even today, ACCCE has refused to provide a complete list of the forgeries. We know in the case of Perriello that the local chapter of the NAACP and Creciendo Juntos were at least two of the forgeries.) This all reeks of what the Nixon administration used to call "plausible deniability."

Perriello ignored the fake advice and voted for the bill. Carney and Dahlkemper voted against it.

A former Bonner employee says that such forgeries are the inevitable result of how Bonner operates -- firing employees who don't meet their quota of signatures, regardless of how unpopular the position being taken might be.

ACCCE now says it is "outraged" by the deception. But when it learned about it, days before the House vote, it kept mum and allowed members of Congress to cast their votes on the basis of false information provided on its nickel. And ACCCE knew how Bonner operated -- the firm was first exposed back in 1997.

In response, the Sierra Club and have urged the Department of Justice to launch a formal criminal probe, and the firm is being investigated by the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming.

But you really have to wonder, when this is the relatively routine stock-in-trade of firms like Bonner, why members of Congress pay any attention -- they may not know that such letters are forged, but they're far too smart not to know how phony the "groundswell" of public opinion they allege to represent is. Maybe it's time to get serious about crime -- on K Street.