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October 30, 2009

Shame on You! Fraudulent Letters Hearing

By: Julian Carmona, Intern for the Global Warming and Energy Team

Yesterday the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (EIGW) held their (previously postponed) hearing on fraudulent letters sent to Congressmen by supposed “grassroots” organizations opposing the Waxman-Markey House climate bill (H.R.2454 American Clean Energy and Security Act). The fraudulent letters were supposedly from grassroots organizations representing the elderly, veterans and ethnic minorities, some of which included the NAACP and the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The letters were exposed as fraudulent by the Charlottesville Daily Progress out of Charlottesville, VA. The source of the letters was Bonner and Associates, a grassroots firm that was hired by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE).

The hearing was called by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), who is the chair of the House committee. The original hearing was scheduled for October 15th, but ranking member Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) asked for postponement in order to review the witnesses’ testimonies, as they had not submitted them in time.

The hearing on Thursday included a recounting of the events leading up the discovery of the fraudulent letters, and a verbal excoriation by Markey and Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) of witnesses from Bonner and ACCCE. The witnesses on the panel included Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA), Jack Bonner of Bonner and Associates, Steve Miller of ACCCE, Lisa Maatz of AAUW and Hillary Shelton of the NAACP. While Rep. Sensenbrenner and Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) spoke during introductions, the panel was dominated by Markey and Inslee, who were the only representatives present when it came down to questioning the witnesses.

Jack Bonner testified that a temporary worker at his organization drafted up the fake letters and sent them out over the 6 days that he was employed there. Once the temp worker was discovered, Bonner immediately fired him and refused to pay for his services. When questioned, Bonner seemed to deflect the wrongdoing away from any of his permanent employees and place all blame on the temp worker, and himself. He testified that he attempted to contact all parties involved in the fraud and enlisted the help of ACCCE to reach out to all congressmen who received the letters. He also stated that he wrote up new codes of ethics for temporary employees and put in a strict level of oversight for all lobbying material sent to Congress. Steve Miller from ACCCE took the same apologetic tone with the committee, often repeating that he should have reviewed the letters carefully and acted faster in remedying the situation once the letters were found to be falsified.

According to Chairman Markey and Inslee, the fraud went further than a simple lack of oversight, and could have had grave affects on the passage of climate legislation. When Rep. Perriello testified, he stated that the fraudulent letters made it difficult to gauge the opinions of constituency. Hillary Sheldon and Lisa Maatz had the same problem with the letters. They testified that the fraudulent letters that supposedly represented the NAACP and AAUW confused both the members of their organization and congressmen they lobbied about their stance on climate legislation. Sheldon went further to request that a statement showing NAACP support of climate legislation because of its disproportional impact on communities of color be included in the record. Maatz found the letters offensive, as they used the name of an administrator who had died before the legislation was drafted.

Markey and Inslee insisted that the fraud was just a small part of a deliberate campaign to kill climate legislation. They pointed out that the fraud was perpetrated and discovered two days before the vote on the house bill. But, the organizations and representatives that were defrauded or received the letters were not notified until as much as 1 month after the hearings took place. Sheldon testified that he was notified of the fraudulent NAACP lobby letters on July 31st, while the vote for Waxman-Markey took place on June 26th. ACCCE attempted to place blame on Bonner and reiterated that they support a reduction in carbon emissions. But, Markey, a co-author of the House bill was not swayed, and repeatedly questioned ACCCE’s arguments and logic. Markey expanded upon Perriello’s statements, stating that fraud not only hinders the ability of Congress to do its job, but is also an affront to the democratic process and puts climate change legislation in jeopardy, which he insisted was a goal of the ACCCE.

Markey also made the assertion fraud was still occurring, as ACCCE was using Bonner to spread deliberate lies about legislation. He brought up a training memo that ACCCE gave to Bonner to use on lobbying calls which stated that electricity bills would double if climate change legislation was passed. Markey and Inslee agreed that this was as much a fraud as the letters were. Miller tried to repeat that ACCCE supported climate change legislation that reduced carbon emissions, but his explanations fell short. Markey brought up the fact that ACCCE was spending millions of dollars targeting representatives who were “on the fence” about the legislation to get a “no” vote. Included in this effort was a payment of $43,500 to Bonner and Associates to find groups representing minorities, the elderly and veterans in districts of swing members to write letters to their representatives in opposition of the bill. This obviously contradicted Miller’s supposed support of the bill.  

Markey concluded the hearing by expressing his disappointment in ACCCE and Bonner’s inability to prevent the letters from going out, and their slow response in attempting to contain the problem. Markey included in the record that ACCCE’s primary goal was to stop the Waxman bill from passing. He evidenced this with the training memo and a series of phone call transcripts that showed ACCCE’s desire to target specific representatives to elicit a “no” vote. He recommended that ACCCE spokesman, Steve Miller, go to naysayers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and reiterate that the ACCCE supports working with congress on climate change legislation and that climate change is a threat that must be addressed. He even went as far to suggest that Miller make a public apology. Most importantly, Markey emphasized that misinformation that had been represented by the training memos and the fraudulent letters often makes its way onto the floors of Congress and can hinder a healthy debate over Climate Change legislation.              


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