U.S. Reps. Ed Markey and Jay Inslee spent the morning trying to get a straight answer out of two executives involved in a forged letter scandal that threatened to sink the House climate bill earlier this year.
Their inquiry boiled down to one simple question: Why didn’t you tell Congress?
The answer they came away with was never spoken by the executives — Steve Miller, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), and Jack Bonner, president and founder of Bonner & Associates. Instead, it was pieced together by the two lawmakers from the timing and a paper trail. In Markey’s words:
“It was clear that it was going to be a very close vote. And it was clear that it was going to be in the coal coalition’s interest to not correct the record.”
In testimony before the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming today, Miller and Bonner both acknowledged that at least 13 letters expressing concerns about electricity costs if the climate bill passed were forged by a Bonner employee using the letterheads of respected constituent groups representing minorities, seniors and women, and that those letters were sent to three coal-state House members.
Miller and Bonner also both admitted that they knew about the forgeries at least 32 hours before the House voted on the climate bill — and that they didn’t notify the targeted lawmakers until after the votes were recorded.
The House passed the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill on June 26 by a slim margin, 219-212. To get that much support, Markey and co-sponsor Rep. Henry Waxman spent weeks making deals with coal-state Congress members, weakening the bill. The three House members who received the forged letters — Reps. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), and Chris Carney (D-Pa.) — were among a handful of lawmakers considered potential "no" votes.
“Miscommunication to these members went right to the heart of our ability to have a debate on the facts of whether or not this energy legislation was good for the country,” Markey (photo) told Miller and Bonner.
House members talk to one another, he reminded them, and because of the letters, they were unwittingly spreading false information. “Those are not insignificant organizations in our country. That really does put the thumb on the scale against clean energy.”
Bonner, whose firm was working on a $43,500 contract from ACCCE communications firm Hawthorn Group to come up with grassroots support for ACCCE’s position, blamed a temporary employee “bent on committing fraud” for the forged letters. Bonner said he should have marched up to Capitol Hill and sat in those Congress members’ offices to notify them personally, however, he had no answer as to why it took a week to pick up the phone and try to call them.
Miller, whose coal front group ACCCE provided the funding behind that contract, said he trusted that Bonner would notify the three targeted House members.
“Our misplaced reliance on Mr. Bonner’s firm to quickly take those actions” resulted in the failure, Miller said.
Inslee and Markey, both lawyers, weren’t buying it.
"You’re giving us the Sgt. Schultz defense: I see nothing, I do nothing," Markey told Miller. (Or, as Inslee put it, it’s like a guy who hires a hit man and tells him, just do it, don’t tell me how.)
"It seems to me that the real goal that you have at the end of the day is to kill the bill, and that what you’re sitting there trying to argue is that you have plausible deniability," Markey said. "This fraudulent activity was in your hands two days before the vote, and you had a chance to clarify it and didn’t."
Miller also claimed that ACCCE never opposed the ACES bill, it just wanted to change the legislation. "We did not seek members voting yes or no on this bill. It was the judgment of our board that we should be continuing to seek changes," he told the committee. "At no time did we direct anyone on staff or anyone working for us to seek votes to oppose the Waxman-Markey bill."
Markey wasn’t buying that either. He cited ACCCE’s own statements suggesting it didn’t support the bill, plus Duke Energy’s decision to drop out of ACCCE because Duke believed the group was "constrained by influential member companies who will not support passing climate change legislation in 2009 or 2010."
Markey also described an email from Hawthorn, a longtime ACCCE communications advisor, to Bonner indicating that once an undecided House member was determined to be against the bill, that member was crossed off the list of Bonner’s targets. "In other words," Markey said, "if he’s already a ‘no’ vote, why spend millions of dollars from the coal coalition on him?"
Representatives of two groups whose letterheads were used in the forgeries also testified before the committee.
Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for American Association of University Women, called the forging of her group’s identity “a very personal deceit.” A letter sent to Rep. Perriello claimed to be from AAUW’s Charlottesville branch, which no longer exists, and the woman whose name was put on the letter is dead.
This isn’t about partisanship, Maatz said, it’s about who gets heard in the halls of Congress.
Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy for the NAACP in Washington, described the forgeries as an attack on the very integrity of democracy. It was particularly offensive, he said, because the NAACP has worked hard to give disenfranchised people a voice, and the people behind the forged letters took that away. They used the NAACP’s name to deceive members of Congress, and that reduces the organization’s standing.
“The NAACP supports many of the very important provisions in the ACES of 2009, and we oppose actions that would weaken these provisions,” he said.
Shelton learned of the forgeries from a reporter on July 31, though Bonner claims his staff spoke with an official in the Charlottesville chapter on June 29. Maatz learned her group’s name had been used from media reports in August. “Ironically, energy policy is not even an area in which AAUW currently advocates," she said.
Rep. Perriello, a freshman lawmakers and target of several of the forged letters, told the committee, “Nothing shocks me in this business any more,” but seeing the actual letters, on the reproduced letterheads of respected organizations, did.
“This was a conscious forgery,” he said. “Either this was a very bad apple or there are some incentives that are driving this.”
Several people involved have since apologized and promised to conduct internal investigations, Perriello said. Miller said ACCCE had reprimanded three executives, including himself, and had written new standards of conduct for employees and contractors. Bonner said he had fired the "rogue" employee, referred the matter to the U.S. attorney’s office, and had added standards including verifying all statements of support and requiring employees to sign an ethics statement.
Inslee, who repeatedly asked the two executives what proper penance would be, at one point asked Miller whether he would have acted differently if defrauding Congress was a criminal statute. He said the behavior by groups opposing action to stop climate change had created a climate where fraud and obfuscating science seemed to be deemed acceptable.
Inslee: "You knew you needed to keep this silent for only another 48 hours. … This isn’t some peripheral responsibility — this is the big enchilada, the major leagues of climate change legislation. On June 25, your highest goal was to get Congress to do your bidding, is that correct?"
Miller: "The highest priority of that particular day was to continue to seek changes to the Waxman-Markey bill."
Inslee: "That day, you knew Congress had been defrauded, you had lobbyists on the Hill trying to influenced Congress. Instead of calling them … you passed it off to a contractor."
Markey indicated at the close of the hearing that his committee wasn’t done with the matter, and that he held ACCCE ultimately responsible.
"Here is what we learned today," Markey said. "We learned that the coal coalition learned two days in advanced of the historic vote on the House floor that a fraud had been perpetrated. Mr. Bonner sent that information to the coal coalition, but though the coal coalition knew, it took precious little effort to make sure the members of Congress knew.
"While you might point a finger back at a rogue subcontractor or rogue employee," he told Miller, "the responsibility rests on your shoulders."