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Lobby Firm Behind Climate Forgeries Helped Kill Higher CAFE Standards

1:02 PM EDT on August 5, 2009

The Washington lobbying firm of Bonner & Associates is facing protests and a possible wire fraud probe after it was revealed to have forged at least a dozen letters to Congress this summer that claimed to represent local grassroots groups opposed to fighting climate change.

preview_320_260_4.jpgA still from a 2001 Coalition for Vehicle Choice TV spot opposing higher CAFE standards. (Photo: Coloribus)

Since the forged letter scandal broke, Bonner's past work on engineering faux-"grassroots" critics to defend industry, from tobacco companies to drug makers, has been well-documented.

But the firm can also lay claim to another pro-business lobbying victory: the narrow defeat of sweeping new auto fuel-efficiency rules nearly 20 years ago.

When then-Sen. Richard Bryan (D-NV) proposed in 1990 to gradually hike auto fuel-efficiency, or CAFE, to 40 miles per gallon, the auto industry hired Bonner and another lobbying group, E. Bruce Harrison, to help coax average citizens into condemning the bill.

That practice, known as "astro-turf" lobbying, is commonplace in Washington but not regulated by current ethics rules -- although this week's climate forgery scandal could change that.

As the New York Times reported in 1997 (and accessed via Nexis), Bonner's push to bring down the Bryan CAFE plan focused on generating irrational fear of fuel-efficient vehicles:

Mr. Bonner set up a news conference in Washington and invited representatives ofgroups that used big vehicles. A Nebraska farmer pointed out that aHonda Civic could not haul a livestock trailer. A charity official fromSouth Dakota said disabled people needed big vans for their wheelchairlifts. An Alabama sheriff said small cars could not be driven as fastto crime scenes. Each speaker's plane fare and expenses were paid forby the auto makers, Mr. Bonner said.

That South Dakota charity official, according to later media reports, was fired for participating in the press conference because her group had taken no official position on CAFE standards.

But Bonner's introduction of "astro-turfing" to the auto industry caught on, and soon E. Bruce Harrison -- whose work against environmentalism began in the 1970s -- was setting up the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, an Orwellian-sounding group that put a just-folks spin on Detroit's craving for less efficient cars.

The Coalition's leader at the time was Diane Steed, a Reagan-era highway safety official who later went on to head the American Highway Users Alliance, a leading road lobby group.

Bonner "pitched the fuel-economy issue as one of safety, not cost," according to a 1991 Chicago Tribune that quoted him describing the basics of lobbying strategy: "What matters to elected officials is what gets in their face, how it gets there, and who's saying it."

Now a dispute over who really said what on climate change is threatening to end Bonner's "astro-turf" reign. If his 1990 campaign had failed, Bryan's bill would have brought national CAFE standards to 40mpg by 2001. As it stands, the Obama administration has recently committed to reaching 35.5mpg by 2016.

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