When news broke recently that a lobbying firm had sent false letters to lawmakers that opposed legislation its client hopes to defeat, it cast a pall over all of grassroots organizing.
The firm, Bonner & Associates, was reportedly subcontracted by the Hawthorn Group, a public affairs consulting shop working for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE). The letters sent to some members of Congress allegedly used letterheads from minority nonprofits, the NAACP and Creciendo Juntos, without their consent.
For the ACCCE, the timing of the story is especially harsh. August is a month to focus strategies on a lawmaker's district, to encourage activism and, yes, letter-writing among constituents, and to prepare for the coming legislative battles in Washington this fall. The pro-coal group has condemned the incident and is considering legal action. Bonner & Associates apologized and said it fired the individual responsible.
Despite these efforts, both firms, as well as the client, are left dealing with questions among lawmakers and the media about their reputation, ethics, and business practices. In this volatile economic and political environment in the US, this type of mistake, purposeful or not, can be fatal.
Moreover, the incident projects a negative spotlight on an otherwise legitimate organizing tool. “It's a public relations nightmare” writes Politico. There are a number of groups – regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on – that benefit from the level of organizing a PA firm can offer. It allows them to combine efforts, and amplify their message in reaching legislators whom are already over-pitched and inundated with new requests and opposing viewpoints on the hour.
Honest grassroots and community organizing are a valuable part of the Washington process; it's disappointing to see it trampled upon by this irresponsible effort.