VOICES: Corporate lobbying goes from fake to fraud

jack_bonner.jpgBy Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

As the Yes Men have shown withtheir impersonations, misrepresentation is sometimes the best way toconvey a larger truth. That same lesson has been demonstrated, albeitunintentionally, by the lobbying firm Bonner & Associates, whichwas just exposedas having forged letters from non-profit organizations to members ofCongress expressing opposition to the climate bill. In this case, thelarger truth is that much of the support that corporate interests claimfor their policy positions is bogus.

The story came to light thanks to the Charlottesville (Virginia) DailyProgress, which revealedthat the office of Rep. Tom Perriello had received letters urging himto vote against the climate bill from two local civil rightsorganizations -- Creciendo Juntos and the Albemarle-Charlottesvillebranch of the NAACP -- that were discovered to be forgeries. Additionalfaked letters were later reported by two other members of Congress.

Soon it was revealed that the letters had been sent out by Bonner,which had been hired by Hawthorn Group to help in its work onbehalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity(ACCCE), a major coal industry front group. Bonner, which specializesin fabricating what it calls "strategic grassroots/grasstops" campaignsfor large corporations, apologized for the phony letters but insistedthey were the work of a rogue employee who has been terminated. Thishas not prevented a firestorm of criticism and calls from the likes ofMoveOn.org and the Sierra Club for a Justice Department investigationof the matter.

Environmental groups are entitled to their righteous indignation, butsome of this is akin to expressing shock that gambling is taking placein Casablanca. The entire point of the Astroturf work done by the likesof Bonner is to be deceptive -- to give the misleading impression thatthere is a groundswell of support for the policy positions of bigbusiness.

The Bonner firm, founded in 1984 by former Congressional aide JackBonner (photo), made its name creating bogus campaigns on behalf ofclients such as the banking industry (to fight proposals to lowerpermissible interest rates on credit cards) and the auto industry (tofight stricter fuel efficiency standards). In 1997 Ken Silversteinwrote a piecein Mother Jones describing Bonner as "a leader in the growing field offake grassroots" lobbying.

In other words, Bonner is in the business of generating communicationsto members of Congress that are "real" messages from fakeorganizations. The current case involves fake messages from realorganizations. It's too soon to tell whether this represents a newtactic by the firm or an employee simply got confused about whichaspects of the messages are supposed to be bogus. But either way, firmssuch as Bonner are helping large corporations co-opt politicaldiscourse.

Even more ominous are the supposedly spontaneous disruptions of townhall meetings being held by members of Congress. These confrontationsare being carried out by rightwing opponents of healthcare reform --such as the group FreedomWorks-- serving the interests of the for-profit medical establishment. It isbad enough when agents of business try to manipulate "civilized"communication with members of Congress; it is much worse when theybegin to act like storm troopers trying to intimidate elected officialsfrom diverging from the corporate line.