Coal Caught in Dust-Up

Industry Group Quick to Distance Itself From Scandal

Posted August 4, 2009 at 5:57pm

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry lobbying powerhouse, is moving quickly to distance itself from the scandal that erupted after it was revealed that Bonner & Associates sent falsified letters opposing the House climate change bill on behalf of the group.

“We recognize that while this is a very serious matter, [climate change] is also a very important issue that the country needs to be paying attention to,— said Joe Lucas, senior vice president of communications at ACCCE.

“We’re going to continue to engage and we’re going to focus on those issues,— he added.

The industry group, which has a campaign budget of about $45 million, went into damage control mode almost immediately, reaching out to the member organizations victimized by the forged letters, meeting with Members of Congress and setting up a review process of how it handles its third-party advocacy efforts.

“We are clear that No. 1, we believe that we have very high standards with regard to our grass-roots program at this point,— Lucas said.

“We are putting all options on the table to do all things necessary, and to even raise those standards to ensure not only will nothing like this happen in the future, but to have our program become a standard of excellence,— he added.

Formed a year ago, ACCCE is a consolidation of the Center for Energy and Economic Development and Americans for Balanced Energy Choices.

The group’s 48 member companies run the gamut from electricity generation and transportation to coal production companies, including such giants as Southern Co., Duke Energy, Caterpillar and Allegheny Energy Inc.

So far, ACCCE has verified that 12 falsified letters were sent to House Democratic Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.), Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) and Christopher Carney (Pa.) before the June 25 vote on the bill. Dahlkemper and Carney voted against the measure.

The group is continuing to review whether any more of the nearly 50 letters sent by Bonner & Associates were forged.

“It is one of those things where you trust but verify,— Lucas said.

A newspaper report Friday first disclosed that Perriello’s office had received forged letters that were made to look as if they had come from two Charlottesville, Va.-based advocacy groups, a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a Hispanic organization, Creciendo Juntos. In fact, they had been created and sent by Bonner & Associates.

The letters were sent amid the heated climate change debate this spring, when ACCCE rallied some 30,000 people to make calls to Members of Congress.

Through its consultants at the Hawthorn Group, the ACCCE was also soliciting third-party grass-roots organizations in key states to send letters to House Members.

Hawthorn subcontracted the third-party letter-writing campaign to Bonner & Associates in June.

Headed by Jack Bonner, the firm is considered a pioneer in “AstroTurf— grass-roots lobbying. Started in 1984, Bonner & Associates has worked for a variety of interests, including the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Diabetes Association.

ACCCE learned of the falsified letters at the end of June after Bonner & Associates told Hawthorn that it had identified forged letters through its own internal auditing process.

Bonner & Associates said in a statement that a temporary employee responsible for the letters was fired.

Jack Bonner did not return calls for comment.

Hawthorn Group fired the firm after learning of the letters. Bonner & Associates has not been paid for the work it did on behalf of ACCCE, and Hawthorn Group is still “in discussion— over whether it will pay the firm, according to Hawthorn Group’s Harvey Valentine.

Hawthorn Group has been a consultant for ACCCE since 2000, when the predecessor group, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, launched a grass-roots initiative.

ACCCE’s principal contact at the consulting firm is Hawthorn Group Executive Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Suzanne Hammelman. Hammelman is married to ACCCE’s chief lobbyist, Paul Bailey.

Bailey, who joined ACCCE in February and previously was a consultant to the association, does not manage the group’s contact with Hawthorn, according to ACCCE’s Lucas.

“We have very specific policies in place that deal with the interactions and the management of the Hawthorn Group, which I manage, and how there is interaction with Paul’s involvement on the national government affairs side,— Lucas said.

Hawthorn Group remains a consultant to ACCCE.

“Given their track record, the Hawthorn Group has done great work for the past 10 years,— Lucas said, acknowledging the more than 100,000 constituent contacts with Members of Congress that Hawthorn has facilitated.

Environmental groups have quickly moved to pounce on ACCCE’s involvement in the letter snafu.

The Sierra Club placed ads in publications, including Roll Call, featuring cartoon characters such Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood saying that “Dirty-Energy Washington Lobbyists couldn’t get any real-life supporters to defeat comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, they made them up instead.—

The group has also written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for an investigation.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Michael Oko said that “revelation exposes what we’ve been saying for a while, that the opposition is trying to use scare tactics and dirty tricks to promote their agenda.—

The NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund will both be bringing the issue to the forefront during the August recess.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a co-author of the climate change bill, has also opened an inquiry. Markey, chairman of the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee, sent a letter to Bonner & Associates asking a dozen questions. Bonner has until Aug. 12 to respond.

Markey has not yet asked ACCCE about its involvement with the letters, but that could be only a matter of time.

Markey spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder said the Congressman is taking it “one step at a time— and that he expects Markey will wait until he gets the answers back before taking further action.

Despite the fallout of the letter-writing campaign, ACCCE maintains that it is business as usual for the industry group. The coalition is sticking with its plan to launch a nationwide lobbying campaign Tuesday called America’s Power Army.

The program will try to get grass-roots activists involved in key coal states and will include advertisements and an online component.

ACCCE will also continue its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill during the August recess and into the fall when the Senate takes up the climate change bill.

ACCCE’s Lucas said that nothing is off the table in its lobbying arsenal — including more grass-roots letters.

“We’re going to take every measure to ensure however we choose to engage our grass-roots apparatus that it’s done with the highest standards of quality,— Lucas said.

ACCCE spent $904,000 on federal lobbying during the first half of 2009.

Quinn Gillespie & Associates was the main outside lobbying firm for the coal industry group. The firm billed $260,000 in lobbying fees for the six first months of 2009 before terminating the contract with ACCCE.

The Podesta Group registered to lobby on behalf of ACCCE in July, billing $50,000 for the second quarter of 2009.