Behind The Forged Letters: Jack Bonner’s “White-Collar Sweatshop”

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Last week, Jack Bonner blamed a “bad employee” for the fact that his lobbying firm had sent forged letters, purporting to be from local minority groups, urging a member of Congress to oppose climate change legislation. (It’s since been revealed that Bonner’s firm was working on behalf of the coal industry.)

But a closer look suggests a culture at Bonner and Associates that makes such deception all but inevitable. As one former employee put it, at Bonner, distortion “was the norm rather than the exception.”

Internal Bonner documents obtained by TPMmuckraker, and interviews with former employees, shed light on the modus operandi of a firm that’s known as the pioneer of astroturf lobbying — that is, creating the illusion of grassroots support for corporate-backed positions, just as corporate-backed groups like Freedom Works are currently doing in their fight against health-care reform. Bonner’s business model involves using both carrots and sticks in spurring low-paid and poorly-trained employees to convince local groups or individual voters to agree to offer nominal expressions of support for the campaigns of the firm’s corporate clients, which have included Philip Morris, the health insurance industry, and the pharmaceutical industry, among others. Often the voters or local groups know little about the legislation at hand, which is typically obscure to all but the industries affected by it — medical liability reform, say. But the resulting form letters, faxes, or phone calls are then represented to a list of targeted lawmakers — generally drawn up by the client — as genuine expressions of grassroots concern. Bonner then satisfies its client by reporting back to it on the number of communications it’s generated.

“A White-Collar Sweatshop”
Jack Bonner — who did not immediately respond to TPMmuckraker’s detailed request for comment — himself referred to the operation as a “white-collar sweatshop,” according to one former employee who was paid $75 a day during the mid 1990s. New employees are paid an hourly wage, without benefits, then, after cursory training — two hours on a particular issue, says the former employee — told to hit the phones to generate as many calls, letters or other communications as possible, from ordinary people or from local groups, in support of a client’s campaign. Those phone lists aren’t exactly carefully assembled. According to that same former employee, they came from “ancient phone books,” or, in the case of advocacy groups, from pages copied from Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics.

Those phone-bankers who prove effective are promoted to the status of weekly contract workers. But all employees who make calls to solicit “grassroots” support for campaigns — the bread and butter of Bonner’s business — are defined as temporary, rendering essentially meaningless Jack Bonner’s assertion last week that the forged letters were sent by a “temporary employee.”

Bonner’s single-minded focus, said two former employees, is on driving up the number of people or groups that it can convince, by almost any means necessary, to sign on to its clients’ campaigns. And documents obtained by TPMmuckraker confirm that notion. (See all the documents here.)

“Build Our Numbers”
One memo from a supervisor asks employees to use “referrals” from other phone contacts in order to increase their numbers for a campaign in opposition to the 1994 Clinton health-care plan, on behalf of the health insurance company Met Life. The supervisor wrote:

Per our brainstorming session last night, I want each of you to focus on asking for referrals today. Think of the businesses that will allow you to speak with several of their employees in order to build our numbers today…

Another 1994 memo reveals that employees who generate a high number of communications to lawmakers have been rewarded with time off. It lists those staffers who have generated the most letters in support of continued funding for the U.S. Space Station, and informs them:

Field staff who get two letters in per day get 30 minutes off, three letters equals one hour off and four letters a day receive two hours off through close of business on Thursday.

Rep. Ed Markey, who is probing the forged letters, yesterday wrote a letter to Bonner that asked, among other things, whether Bonner ties employee compensation to the number of letters or calls generated. The memo quoted above would seem to offer the beginnings of an answer.

There also appear to be negative incentives for employees to keep their numbers high. Two former employees said supervisors track the number of hours each employee spends on the phone, and listen in on calls, in an effort to train callers to more effectively solicit support. And as we reported last week, one person who worked at Bonner in 2006 and 2007 told TPMmuckraker that phone-bankers who failed to generate adequate numbers of letters or calls were routinely summoned to a supervisor’s office and fired on the spot.

“Outright Lies And Distortions”
In this boiler-room culture, it’s not surprising to learn that some callers frequently play fast and loose with the truth in the quest to maximize their numbers. “People were encouraged to say whatever it would take to get people to sign onto specific campaigns,” said the former employee from the mid 1990s. “I would hear people say outright lies and distortions … because they were desperate to make a patch” — that is, get someone to agree to be patched through to their member of Congress’s office — “and keep their jobs.”

The person who worked at Bonner from 2006 to 2007 said that the pressure to produce numbers makes it highly likely that some employees will resort to deception to do so. Some campaigns are difficult to generate support for, he said, but “management doesn’t take that as an answer. They say you need to spend more time on the phone. The only recourse you have is either to produce something, lie about, or get fired.”

Supervisors, themselves focused on numbers above all else, tended to look the other way, at least during that period. “I don’t remember anyone being called out on that or fired,” said the former employee from the 90s. “It was clearly a numbers game.” She added: “They didn’t care at all, as long as you made the hit.”

Even the letters or phone calls generated more or less honestly are a long way from legitimate expressions of support delivered by informed citizens who have taken the time to dispassionately study an issue. Rather, they generally involve what the former employee from the 90s described as “ignorant, unsuspecting constituents who were so flattered and happy to be contacted on an issue” agreeing, after a one or two minute scripted pitch, to allow their name to be used in support of a position they barely understood. “It was just too easy to get gullible people to sign onto a twisted version of an issue,” said the employee, calling the practice “sleazy.”

What does all this amount to? Certainly not a smoking gun that Jack Bonner himself knew about those forged climate change letters. Rather, what it suggests is Bonner and Associates’ entire business model — encouraging underpaid, poorly trained employees, at pain of firing, to focus only on generating as many communications to lawmakers as possible, in order to impress clients with the raw numbers of those communications — all but ensures that such out and out deception will occur.

Which may be one reason why Bonner’s clients hire it in the first place.

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