When Lobbying is Fraud

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Sunlight has no stated position on grassroots lobbying disclosure, but I thought that this story was worth flagging as I’d imagine it is the clearest cut argument for such disclosure:

As U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello was considering how to vote on an important piece of climate change legislation in June, the freshman congressman’s office received at least six letters from two Charlottesville-based minority organizations voicing opposition to the measure.

The letters, as it turns out, were forgeries.

“They stole our name. They stole our logo. They created a position title and made up the name of someone to fill it. They forged a letter and sent it to our congressman without our authorization,” said Tim Freilich, who sits on the executive committee of Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit network that tackles issues related to Charlottesville’s Hispanic community. “It’s this type of activity that undermines Americans’ faith in democracy.”

The faked letter from Creciendo Juntos was signed by “Marisse K. Acevado, Asst Member Coordinator,” an identity and position at Creciendo Juntos that do not exist.

The person who sent the letter has not been identified, but he or she was employed by a Washington lobbying firm called Bonner & Associates.

It turns out that this isn’t the first time that Bonner & Associates has forged letters on an issue. In terms of disclosure, Bonner & Associates has not filed a lobbying disclosure report since 2001, so we have no clue which client is paying the firm to forge letters and lie to lawmakers.

This reminds me of a story that got the whole lobbying disclosure train rolling back in the 1930s (lobbying disclosure as an issue had been around since the late 19th century, but only limited action was taken until the 1930s). During debate over the Public Utility Holding Company Act, a bill to regulate utility companies, there was serious concern over the lobbying efforts of the industry. Sen. Hugo Black, a long time critic of industry lobbying efforts and a future Supreme Court justice, set up an investigatory committee to examine efforts by the utility companies to block the bill’s passage. Black’s investigation was aided by a tip from Congressman Dennis Driscoll of upstate New York. Driscoll became suspicious when he received 800 telegrams in opposition to the bill, in alphabetical order, as if read from the phone book, from the residents of one town in his district. As it turned out, Associated Gas & Electric of Ithaca, New York paid an employee to “develop” one thousand telegrams to send to the congressman. This revelation of outright forgery helped push the bill to victory and necessitated a new provision in the bill: the disclosure of paid lobbying for all utility holding companies.

Perhaps someone might want to look into the despicable efforts of Bonner & Associates to trick lawmakers. Who knows what else is out there?

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  • Katie

    Krempasky:
    Are you referring to organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation when you cite the “campaign regulation ‘lobby’?”

    The Sunlight Foundation discloses on its Web site all sources of funding, and includes a list of its major grantees. (Note: I have absolutely no affiliation with the foundation, or any group tied to DC, or campaigns, or lobbyists, or any government entity. I work in IT.)

    Please tell me some good reasons for not disclosing grassroots lobbying ties. As far as I’m concerned, lobbying is lobbying. As you yourself wrote, it’s easy to avoid disclosure by moving lobbying money around to grassroots organizations.

    If an organization is legitimately grassroots, what’s the problem? If it’s not really grassroots, all citizens benefit from public exposure. Disclosure rules should keep some people honest. What’s wrong with grassroots lobbying disclosure? Where’s the harm?

  • Krempasky

    Hack much, Paul?

    This is hardly the “clearest cut” argument for the disclosure you’re talking about – it’s the horrid exception that makes a really bad rule. Oh, and it looks like it was discovered by the shop in question.

    There are great (ok, there are “ok) arguments for grassroots lobbying disclosure – most of them tied to folks like Abramoff and Scanlon that shifted money into different activities and entities specifically to avoid existing lobbying disclosure.

    So sure – let’s line up the campaign regulation “lobby” too. Good for the goose, eh?

    • As I said in the post, Sunlight doesn’t have a stated position on grassroots lobbying disclosure. Yes, the Abramoff and Scanlon crimes were also a great example of grassroots lobbying abuse. This case, however, involves a firm that pioneered modern grassroots lobbying in the 1980s, including the use of deceptive techniques such as those employed against Rep. Perriello. As to your last point, of course, if there were grassroots lobbying disclosure, it would cover what you call the campaign regulation “lobby,” whatever that is.

  • Representative Perriello should know a lot about grassroots lobbying, he is one of the co-founders of the online advocacy group (and MoveOn.org spin-off) Avaaz.org. Now Avaaz does lots of good work (full disclosure: I used to work there), but with a claim of nearly 13 million online “actions” (petitions and emails sent to politicians) and little verification of “members” identities, this sort of fraud is easy to perpetuate and decreases the value and effectiveness of online grassroots campaigning.

  • Isn’t all lobbying fraud? It’s a direct attempt to exchange a favor for a favor. In light of the fact that the federal laws will apply to everyone, I don’t fell lobbyists should be allowed to exploit the system to the advantage of the very elitist few.

    I mean c’mon seriously, doesn’t every American realize this yet? I can’t believe lobbying is still legal!!! WTF people?!?