Way back in the day when I was just a mere independent blogger and not THE MEDIA ENTIRE I wrote about the practice lobbyists engaged in on the climate change bill, forging letters to members of Congress and claiming they came from grassroots organizations. I labeled the practice “astroforging.”
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.
This was a fairly noteworthy scandal, and it appeared that no lobbyist would try such a tactic ever again.
That took about a year.
Chana Joffe-Walt reports for Planet Money on the exact same strategy used in the public comment period on derivatives rules. Forged letters were sent to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, claiming to come from ordinary Americans and businesses, in support of the banking lobby line on new rules on trading and exchanges.
Silla Brush, a reporter with Bloomberg News, has been checking them out from time to time to see who is writing in. One morning last year, he saw a peculiar signature.
“The names are usually big banks on Wall Street, some financial institutions that are based around the world,” he says. “I just hadn’t seen Burger King.”
Not even Burger King headquarters, but a Burger King franchise in northwest Arkansas. So Silla called them up.
Terra Brace, the franchise’s treasurer, answered the phone.
“We had no idea what they were talking about,” Brace says. “It was far beyond our usual areas of expertise. We were completely baffled.”
The letter, it turned out, was a fake. Sill went on to find six more fakes, ostensibly from a sheriff, two lawyers, a mental health counselor and an Arkansas county judge, who does not sound like someone you want to cross.
“I don’t like people signing my signature that doesn’t have authorization to do so,” says the judge, Marilyn Edwards. “Let’s just put it this way: I was not happy.”
Basically, a company, unknown at this point but almost certainly a financial services giant, hired a PR firm to create a “grassroots” campaign in favor of bank-friendly derivatives rules.
The full story by Planet Money shows how hollow the “public comment” period is for rulemaking like this: the lobbyists are the only people represented at the table, and even what appears to be the voice of the public is nothing more than a forgery. I doubt this forgery swayed many regulators, or even needed to – the lobbying at the public meetings is probably enough – but it adds to the sense that the government long ago stopped working for regular people. These meeting rooms are where the real decisions get made, ones that have a spectacular impact on all of our lives. Dodd-Frank wasn’t a bill but a promise to write one later. And the people writing it only see lobbyists and forged grassroots letters as the public input into their decisions.
The only solution to this is more engagement with the actual public. On an issue like derivatives, that’s going to be a tough road. This is where the lack of a progressive infrastructure on economic issues, which can channel grassroots action, really hurts. The lobbyists can invent their own.