American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE)

Nominated for being embroiled in a fake lobbying scandal against the US Climate Bill and for trying to hide the extent of its lobbying activities.

Background

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) is the US coal industry’s public relations organisation. ACCCE spent at least $45 million on advertising in 2008 to convince Americans that “clean coal” is the solution to climate change. Yet at the same time the coal and electric utility industries spent over $125 million in the first nine months of 2008 lobbying Congress to delay global warming pollution reductions until clean coal technology is ready.

In response, five environmental organisations in the US – led by the Alliance for Climate Protection – have created the “Reality Coalition” to argue that “in reality, there is no such thing as ‘clean coal’.”

The Fake Lobby Scandal

In August 2009, it was revealed that ACCCE was embroiled in a fake letter writing campaign that had tried to undermine the US Climate Bill, also known as the Waxman-Markey Bill.

ACCCE had hired the lobbying consultancy, the Hawthorn Group to run a lobbying campaign against the Climate Bill. In turn, Hawthorn employed Bonner and Associates, an “astroturf-specialist” PR company that has a history of working for controversial industries such as big tobacco and Pharma, to orchestrate a grassroots uprising against the Bill.

In total Bonner and Associates and fellow subcontractor Lincoln Strategies sent legislators at least 199 letters, along with 4,000 phone calls on the Climate Bill. At least 12 of those letters are known to be fraudulent, purporting to be from groups opposed to the Bill.

The letters were drafted to appear as if they were sent by nine different groups, including senior citizens’ organisations, Hispanic groups, women’s advocacy groups and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. They even included forged letter heads and completely fictitious signatories.

One forged letter stated: “Many of our seniors, as you know, are on low fixed incomes. Some of our seniors have even received decreases to their social security payments, further making it a difficult choice to meet the basic necessities of life (food, prescription medication and the like). The cost to heat and cool their homes, run hot water and use other appliances is very important to those seniors on a budget. ... Our state gets 56% of its electricity from coal. We urge you to pass legislation that reduces greenhouse gases but at the same time protects seniors and consumers from unaffordable increases in the basic necessity of electricity.”

After the scandal broke, Congressman Edward Markey, one of the Climate Bill’s authors, said: “We’ve seen fear-mongering with our nation’s senior citizens with health care, and now we’re seeing fraud-mongering with senior citizens on clean energy.” An investigation by his committee found that, despite the fact that ACCCE had learned about Bonner’s forgeries two days before the critical vote on the Climate Bill, it did not notify Congress until several weeks later.

“The deliberate inaction prior to the House vote and the extended silence after the vote – some 40 days after ACCCE knew what had happened – raises serious concerns,” Markey wrote in a letter to ACCCE President and CEO Stephen L. Miller.

After the revelations caused national outrage, ACCCE and Bonner claimed the forgeries uncovered were the work of a rogue employee who was fired. But when further forgeries were found, the evidence suggested it was a much more concerted and widespread effort.

During a congressional hearing into the forgeries, Markey said: “Some here today will claim these letters can be attributed to a temporary employee, when, in fact, this fraud chiefly resulted from a systemic lack of oversight and quality control, mixed with a substantial disregard for the facts.”

Also a leaked document sent to Congressman Markey’s office on behalf of Bonner and Associates, included a set of “talking points” that specifically instructed employees to lie to the community organisations they were calling. They were told to say they were working with seniors/veterans groups and that other seniors/veterans groups had written the letter they would be signing, whereas in fact they were working directly for a coal industry front group.

The memo instructed Bonner employees, the “vast majority” of whom are temporary workers hired to generate calls and letters to Congress from pre-selected organisational targets, to “Relate to the group that you are approaching” and “Make the conversation personal.”

Despite the scandal, ACCCE announced that it was to continue using the Hawthorn Group for a new $1 million campaign to win support from Senate Democrats to overturn action on climate at the Senate. The new PR project intends to use 225,000 volunteers dubbed “America’s Power Army”, who will visit town hall meetings and other functions attended by members of Congress and ask questions about energy policy.

Third Party Letter Writing is “Not Lobbying”

In October 2009, Edward Markey’s Committee announced that they were widening their inquiry into the fake letters into non-disclosure of lobbying. This is important as transparency rules in the US mean that all lobbying activity must be declared on a central register. The Committee asked ACCCE whether its lobbying disclosure for 2008 and the first half of 2009 should have included work conducted by the Hawthorn Group, to coordinate efforts to fight the Climate Bill.

ACCCE paid Hawthorn Group more than $7 million in 2008 and nearly $3 million in the first half of 2009 to lobby on its behalf, yet ACCCE’s lobbying records did not reflect this. From April to June of 2009, the crucial months running up to the vote, ACCCE paid Hawthorn $975,000 for activities related to the climate Bill. However, during the same three-month period, ACCCE reported spending a total of just $545,000 on lobbying activities.

ACCCE’s lawyers have argued that the letter-writing campaign by the Hawthorn Group does not count as lobbying under the congressional definition in the Lobbying Disclosure Act, as it was written by a third-party and not ACCCE.

Others disagree. Lee Mason, from OMB Watch, a government watchdog organisation, says any attempt to influence a lawmaker’s vote, “would be considered lobbying. If they’re telling them to take some very specific action, once you tell Congress to take a position on it, you have actively engaged in a lobbying activity.”

ACCCE was asked to comment on their nomination for the Angry Mermaid Award but did not respond.