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Fake Telegrams Renew Debate over ‘Astroturf’ Lobbying

August 10, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Charges of fraud in a lobbying campaign that flooded Congress with telegrams last week have renewed debate over the legitimacy of the fastest-growing way to influence the government: high-tech grass-roots lobbying.

``It’s outrageous, it’s deceptive and it’s wrong,″ said Ann McBride, chairman of Common Cause, itself a grass-roots group that lobbies for severing the link between money and politics.

U.S. Capitol Police detectives are interviewing hundreds of people whose names appeared on telegrams generated during a bruising and expensive fight over a rewrite of telecommunications law. House members who traced the letters found many had come from people who hadn’t authorized them, including several from children or people who had died.

``I don’t like that, to have my name on a letter when I don’t know what’s going on,″ said Pauline Newsome of Elyria, Ohio. Her name appeared on three telegrams sent to the office of Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. She said she never authorized them and knows nothing about the battle between long-distance and local telephone companies that spawned the campaign.

The long-distance telephone coalition that mounted the offensive says it knows nothing about bogus telegrams and has suggested that its efforts may have been sabotaged.

``I’m taking a big hit here, and I resent it,″ said Robert Beckel, chairman of a Washington lobbying firm that used computer lists to contact residents of each congressional district and send messages on their behalf.

Beckel said he generated nearly half a million messages from 175,000 individuals using the services of NTS Marketing in Lynchburg, Va. A check of telephone records found only one instance in which a person in whose name a telegram was sent was not contacted, he said.

The episode is the most extreme example yet to surface of the pitfalls inherent in high-tech grass-roots lobbying, McBride said, and it has rekindled debate over the legitimacy of using computers and other technology _ and sometimes frightening exaggerations _ as a lobbying amplifier for well-heeled interests.

Originally the province of civil rights and environmental groups in the 1960s and 1970s, grass-roots lobbying has come to be dominated by business interests and lobbying specialists who use databases, faxes and sophisticated telephone technology to multiply their clout.

But critics say the methods are sometimes used to create the illusion of public concern where none exists. They call it ``Astroturf.″

It is ``the capacity of money and technology to seek out isolated, uninformed or weakly held public attitudes ... and transform them into the illusion of a broadly based, deeply felt, citizen uprising,″ says a lobbying book being published this month by the Advocacy Institute. The institute is a nonprofit organization that trains public-interest groups to combat corporate lobbying campaigns.

A bill to require lobbyists to disclose for whom they are working and how much they are being paid, passed by the Senate last month, specifically exempts all grass-roots activity. House Republican leaders, pushed by groups like the Christian Coalition, oppose disclosure requirements for such lobbying.

The magazine Campaigns and Elections this year printed a list of 117 businesses that offer grass-roots services, and estimated that grass-roots lobbying has grown into an $800 million-a-year business.

At fees ranging from a few dollars to several hundred dollars per letter or phone call generated, there is a great temptation for grass-roots lobbying firms to generate unauthorized contacts with lawmakers. Grass-roots specialists say they build in safeguards to make sure that doesn’t happen, but problems do occur.

McBride said the danger is not only that lawmakers will be misled about how their constituents feel, but also that more genuine expressions of voter concern will be drowned out in the flood of mail and phone calls. It’s unclear whether there are any legal restrictions on the practice, however.

Abbe Lowell, a Washington defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said there’s nothing criminal about trying to fool lawmakers. ``If lobbying groups could be held criminally liable for making misrepresentations to Congress, then you’d have to build a whole lot more jails,″ he said.

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