Astroturf King Jack Bonner's Long History of Deceitful "Grassroots" Lobbying

Wed, 2009-10-28 17:28Jim Hoggan
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Astroturf King Jack Bonner's Long History of Deceitful "Grassroots" Lobbying

As you’ll recall, Bonner & Associates – the D.C. Astroturf shop busted for mailing at least a dozen forged letters to Congress this summer prior to the House vote on climate and energy legislation – has found itself under the media spotlight lately, struggling to defend its sullied brand.

Tomorrow morning, Rep. Edward Markey’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming will hold a hearing on the Bonner and Associates forged letter scandal and it can’t come soon enough.

But the forgery scandal is just one example in a long career of anti-democratic Astroturf jobs for which Jack Bonner’s firm is responsible.

Public relations firms like to try to shape the news, not appear in the headlines themselves. Jack Bonner knows this as well as anyone in the business, and is rarely quoted in news stories, preferring to keep a low public profile. But when his firm was caught sending forged letters to Congress this summer while working on contract for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) and its parent company the Hawthorn Group, Jack Bonner ended up in the uncomfortable position of defending his own firm rather than the interests of his corporate clients.

The gaffe appears to have cost Bonner a great deal of business, including the lucrative contract with Hawthorn.

Sources close to Bonner’s operation say that the firm furloughed several key staffers in the wake of the ACCCE scandal, informing them that there is currently not enough business to keep them on staff. And Jack Bonner’s much-anticipated appearance before the Congressional committee to answer questions about his firm’s role in the forgery scandal will not likely help the Bonner firm’s portfolio, either.

Jack Bonner and his ‘Associates’ are well-known Astroturf specialists, working from the shadows to manufacture the appearance of grassroots support for the agenda of major corporate clients, who pay the firm large sums to generate such ‘citizen outrage.’ The firm doesn’t publicly disclose its current clientele, but several past clients have been identified in news stories and books.

Author Sharon Beder revealed in her book Global Spin that past Bonner clients include tobacco giants Philip Morris and U.S. Tobacco Co.; the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association; the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute; military contractor McDonnell Douglas; nuclear industry and military services giant Westinghouse; chemical companies Monsanto and Dow Chemical; and the major Detroit auto companies Chrysler, Ford and General Motors (who hired Bonner to help derail Congressional efforts to raise fuel efficiency standards back in the 1990s). 

Other past clients include the coal barons of the Western Fuels Association; the American Sugar Alliance; Northrup Grumman (makers of the B-2 bomber); and the defunct Electric Utility Shareholders Alliance (a front group for big utilities that fought against electricity deregulation); to name only a few.

Operating out of a technologically sophisticated D.C. office, Bonner’s hired hands – mostly temporary employees and interns who are paid low hourly wages – crank out hundreds of phone calls and letters to Congress each day. Bonner reportedly refers to his own firm as a “white collar sweatshop.”

The firm runs what is, essentially, a glorified telemarketing scheme, designed specifically to mimic genuine communications from citizens to their elected representatives in Congress.

Big Business clients call on Bonner when they cannot drum up enough genuine support for their corporate agenda among regular working Americans. Then Bonner’s minions start robo-dialing individuals from target lists in key constituencies, and once they confirm a target is willing to contact their elected official on the issue, the Bonner temps coach the caller on how to voice ‘their’ opinion, reading from pre-written rap sheets, and they immediately patch the caller through to the target Congressman’s office, or orchestrate the delivery of a pre-written letter, usually via fax or email, which then appears to come from the individual or group, rather than from Bonner’s office.

“Some guy in a pinstripe suit telling a senator this bill is going to hurt Pennsylvania doesn’t have the impact of someone in Pennsylvania saying it,” Jack Bonner once told Newsweek, describing why his Astroturf campaigns work better for many corporate clients than the more conventional practice of hiring D.C. lobbyists to roam the halls of Congress.

One such Bonner client is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry front group fighting vigorously against Congressional efforts to put a price on carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for man-made climate change.

A recent poll sponsored by the Center for American Progress shows that, in swing states, 63 percent of voters support the climate and energy legislation currently being considered in the Senate, which will create much-needed green jobs and begin to foster American energy independence.

Bonner was hired by ACCCE’s parent, the Hawthorn Group, to foment a fake “grassroots” campaign against federal action on climate and clean energy, a position quite contrary to the real polling data.

What happened next has been well covered on the blogs and in the media, so I will just quickly summarize here.

According to Bonner and his lawyer, veteran Akin Gump attorney Steven R. Ross, a rogue temporary employee sent at least 13 forged letters to at least three Democratic lawmakers on ACCCE’s target list of swing votes on the House climate bill.  The fraudulent letters – which appeared to come from veteran, minority and senior citizen organizations – went undetected by Bonner managers overseeing the multi-day scam who, due to “short staffing and an increased volume of other work,” could not “devote full attention to quality control until after the project was completed and the letters delivered to Congress.”

At least that is the story Bonner and Ross supplied to Congressional investigators, who will press Bonner for more details tomorrow when the Committee holds their public hearing to look into the letter forgery scandal. Bonner’s decision to lawyer up by hiring D.C. powerhouse firm Akin Gump - a classic defensive posture often used to issue veiled threats of countersuits to dissuade investigators from looking deeper into the muck – may limit the investigator’s probing.

Bonner will not be the only one on the hot seat in the House hearing tomorrow. Yesterday it was reported that the Committee decided to expand the investigation recently in order to probe whether ACCCE failed to accurately report its lobbying spending to Congress. After reviewing ACCCE’s lobbying forms, Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to ACCCE inquiring whether its lobbying disclosure for 2008 and the first half of 2009 should have included work conducted by the Hawthorn Group. The Committee will look at whether Hawthorn Group work funded by ACCCE should count as lobbying under the law.

The answer is a no-brainer: of course this Astroturf campaign should count as lobbying. But expect to hear some impressive verbal gymnastics from ACCCE as they try to convince the Committee otherwise tomorrow.

Last week, I wrote about the 20-year, multi-million dollar campaign the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has waged against clean energy and climate policy. While the Chamber’s advertising and lobbying activities certainly impede honest debate in Washington, the duplicity of Astroturf campaigns such as those run by Jack Bonner pose an even greater threat to participatory democracy in the United States.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow
was correct when she called the Bonner/ACCCE forgery scandal the “most blatant fake grassroots corporate PR effort ever.” Maddow suggested that “political science textbooks across the country [ought] to be scrapped and re-written” to account for Bonner’s Astroturf scandal.

That would be a good start, but there is something else U.S. taxpayers might want to pursue besides updated textbooks.  In order to guard against the repeat of Astroturf scandals like the Bonner forgery episode, the U.S. Congress must pass legislation to close loopholes in disclosure laws that allow public relations firms like Bonner & Associates to operate in secrecy and without any accountability to taxpayers.

After all, environmentalists have to declare themselves when they knock on your door, and when they contact your political representatives to advocate on your behalf for better protection for the natural world (and for green jobs). Lobbyists also have to register - declaring the purpose for their political intervention and the identity of their clients.

Why should PR firms like Bonner & Associates be allowed to push their way into the public conversation without meeting the same standard?  Especially when the opinions they represent favor their (usually anonymous) corporate sponsors and run contrary to the will of the people who sincerely represent America’s grass roots – ordinary citizens pressing Washington to protect their jobs and the environment instead of the interests of Big Business.

Astroturf shops like Bonner & Associates have been working under cover of darkness since 1995, when they won an exemption from new lobbyist disclosure requirements. A band of conservative groups, led by the Christian Coalition, had argued that forcing Astroturf organizations to acknowledge their funding would amount to an attack on free speech.

But we’re not talking about “free” speech. We’re talking about paid speech. We’re talking about a concealed opportunity for corporations to pretend to have public support.

Jack Bonner might be in the doghouse for now, but he and others in the Astroturf business will keep coming back for more until Congress puts an end to their shady secrecy.

Astroturfing is wrong, plain and simple. Congress should make it illegal.

James Hoggan is a 35 year veteran in public relations and the author of the new book Climate Cover Up. 

Previous Comments

Great article. I fully agree with you, his firm’s activities are absolutely unacceptable. Such firms shouldn’t be exempt from the same standards as others involved in public conversation and they most certainly need to be required to disclose who their sponsors are.

The Public Relations industry really shouldn’t be trusted, right?. Once you have a paid advocate, he’s tarnished, correct? His job is to make someone or something look good. Truth is not a player anymore.

So the question is: Why shouldn’t I throw the whole industry in one big basket labeled propaganda and automatically suspect anything said?

A dozen fake letters? That’s it? What happened at ACORN was a scandal, this I’m not so sure.

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