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Coal Industry Behind Forged Letters to Congressman Asking Him to Vote Against Climate Bill?

A firm hired by a coal lobbying group is believed to be responsible for forged letters pretending to be from the NAACP and a local Latino group.

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UPDATE: Since this article was first posted, the number of confirmed forged letters has increased to 12. Pennsylvania Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper and Chris Carney, who both voted against the House climate bill, also received fake letters. These letters also appear to be from Bonner & Associates, according to an ACCCE document.

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The controversial business of selling grassroots political campaigns is getting the spotlight treatment as details continue to emerge about the source of fake letters sent to a first-term member of Congress urging him to vote against the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill.

The Sierra Club on Monday petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate letters that were received by Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat representing central Virginia.

In a letter sent Monday [PDF] to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Sierra Club asked the department to look into whether the letters, which came to light on Friday, constitute fraud. The liberal activist group MoveOn, meanwhile, is asking its members to sign an online petition urging the DOJ to "conduct a thorough investigation" into Bonner & Associates, the firm responsible for producing the forged letters that were faxed to Perriello's office.

Bonner & Associates has admitted that one of its employees was the source of a letter to Perriello that purported to come from Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit network that represents the Hispanic community of Charlottesville, Va. Bonner said it has fired the temporary employee who sent the letter.

On Monday, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity admitted that it had contracted with Bonner & Associates to do "limited outreach" on the climate issue. The group denounced the fake letters and said it was considering legal action against Bonner.

Bonner sells itself as a manager and builder of grassroots campaigns, saying it can "find and educate leaders from local organizations who share a legitimate stake in the issues of our clients." In political circles, such firms are described as engaging in "astroturfing" -- based on the view that the grassroots political communications they deliver for clients do not represent actual public opinion.

Perriello, a first-term Democrat from a central Virginia district Republicans are keen to retake in 2010, also received letters that claimed to be from members of a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the letters bear a striking similarity to the one attributed to Creciendo Juntos. M. Rick Turner, president of the NAACP Albemarle-Charlottesville Branch, confirmed that the letters are fake -- none of the five individuals who purportedly signed the letters are employed by his organization.

Bonner & Associates has not admitted to being the source of the forged NAACP letters. Adding another layer to the story, the Charlottesville Daily Progress, which broke the story originally, reported that the NAACP letters "were faxed to Perriello's office from the Arlington headquarters of a company called Professional Risk Management Services Inc." An employee at the firm told the newspaper that she had no idea how or why the letters would have been sent from the PRM offices.

To date, only Perriello's office has said it received the forged letters opposing the climate bill. One former Bonner employee, however, came forward Friday to claim that deceitful campaigns are a regular practice at the firm, which specializes in building "strategic grassroots" support for clients.

Grist attempted to contact the offices of seven Democrats who were considered "swing votes" when the Waxman-Markey bill was voted on in the House in June. The three offices that responded said they have not received any letters they believe to be forged. A spokesperson for Rep. Glenn Nye, a Virginia Democrat who voted against the climate and energy bill, told Grist, "We're looking into it, but to my knowledge we have not received any similar letters."

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