Coal Group Reveals 6 More Forged Lobbying Letters

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A total of 12 forged letters -- all appearing to come from local groups unhappy with a climate-change bill -- were sent to three congressional offices this summer by a Washington lobbying firm, according to the pro-coal group for which the firm was working.

That is six more fraudulent letters than were previously known to have been sent by the firm, Bonner and Associates. The newly revealed letters were sent to Reps. Chris Carney (D-Pa.) and Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the trade group that hired Bonner and Associates.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) said his office had received six fake letters, purporting to be from a Latino social-services group and NAACP members in his district.

Bonner and Associates bills itself as one of Washington's premier firms for grass-roots lobbying, which often involves eliciting phone calls, letters or e-mails from constituents or groups in a particular congressional district.

On Tuesday, the firm was denounced by both the pro-coal group, whose president said it was outraged, and by the Hawthorn Group, an Alexandria-based public affairs firm that hired Bonner as a subcontractor in June.

Harvey Valentine, a spokesman for the Hawthorn Group, said it had been told that Bonner officials would check all letters before they were sent to Capitol Hill.

"It turns out that the quality-control mechanisms took place, but after [the letters] went to the Hill," Valentine said. "We were furious about this." He said Hawthorn had fired Bonner and Associates and had not yet paid it for its work.

Jack Bonner, the founder of Bonner and Associates, denied that his firm was fired and said it finished its work under the contract. In an e-mail Tuesday, he said that the letters were written by a "temporary employee who worked for us for 7 days [who] acted alone" and that "it was through our quality control effort that we found the problem and fired the employee on the same day we discovered it."

This saga of modern Washington -- in which an "American coalition" claiming 200,000 supporters still relies on a subcontractor to gin up favorable letters -- was set off by debate in the House over the climate bill.

The House legislation, since adopted, called for a reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but the pro-coal group was worried this would drive the price of electric power too high. It wanted Congress, among other things, to impose price limits. And it wanted other people to say so, too.

"Hawthorn was charged to find -- could we go out and find some of these community groups" that might also object to higher electric prices, said Joe Lucas, a spokesman for the pro-coal group.

On the coal group's behalf, Hawthorn hired Bonner and Associates. In all, the coal group estimated, Bonner and Associates was responsible for 46 or 47 letters that were sent to Congress.

On Monday, officials at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity said they had sought to speak with all the groups whose names were fraudulently used, as well as all three congressional offices that received the letters. The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has said it would investigate the letters.

The climate bill approved by the House did not include the price guarantee the pro-coal group had sought. Legislation is still pending in the Senate. In the House, Perriello voted for the bill. Dahlkemper and Carney voted against it.

A spokesman for Carney did not respond to calls for comment by Tuesday afternoon. A spokesman for Dahlkemper said the letters "did not have undue influence" on her decision.

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