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The House was about to consider climate change legislation last summer when several lawmakers received letters. The letters were opposing the bill. There's nothing new about constituents writing their representatives, except that in this case the letters turned out to be fake. The fake letters came from a lobbying firm whose leader now faces real questions from Congress.

Lawmakers are looking into the way that interest groups generate the illusion that they have support among the people. The lobbyists claimed to have support from the grassroots, which is why the fake support is often called Astroturf. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: The letters came on official on stationary from the NAACP and the American Association of University Women. They warned lawmakers that these groups had serious doubts about the climate change bill Democrats were bringing to the floor.

Global warming committee chairman Ed Markey co-wrote the bill.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Those are not insignificant organizations in our country. That really does put a thumb on the scale against clean energy technologies, and word would spread on the House floor, as to why particular members might be considering opposing the legislation.

SEABROOK: It was a critical moment last June, energy companies were lobbying hard against the bill, especially its cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Some moderate Democrats felt squeezed, so the phony letters could've made a big difference in the vote. In the end, the bill only eked through the House by a vote of 219-212.

The letters were traced back to one Washington lobby shop — Bonner and Associates, led by Jack Bonner.

Mr. JACK BONNER (Bonner and Associates): As founder and president of Bonner and Associates, I personally take full responsibility for what happened.

SEABROOK: Bonner sat low at the witness table, a full mea culpa and apology, followed by this pivot.

Mr. BONNER: But let one thing be very clear, this improper activity was undertaken without the knowledge of anyone at our firm. It was the actions of one rogue temporary employee, acting on his own, against our company's policies and without the knowledge of anyone else at Bonner and Associates.

SEABROOK: Bonner said that employee was immediately fired. But this explanation angered the groups whose names were used on the fake letters, like the American Association of University Women. Lisa Maatz is director of public policy.

Ms. LISA MAATZ (American Association of University Women): The scapegoating of one employee is not necessarily going to solve this problem. Not only does AAUW join in the call for an investigation by the Department of Justice, we also encourage Congress to reconsider legislation to address this shockingly legal but unreported practice of Astroturfing.

SEABROOK: That's the real problem, according to another member of the committee. Democrat Jay Inslee blames corporate coal industry groups for trying to create a whole fake movement against the bill, including by scaring people into believing their electricity bills would double. Inslee grilled Steve Miller, the head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Mr. STEVE MILLER (American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity): We have never intimated directly, indirectly that there would be a doubling of a rate.

Representative JAY INSLEE (Democrat, Washington): You remind me of the guy who hired a hitman and said, just take care of the problem. Don't tell me whether you're using a knife or a gun.

SEABROOK: It's a corruption of the entire democratic process, said Inslee and Markey, when well-funded lobbying campaigns are willing to spread lies and falsify documents in order to stop a bill.

Yesterday's hearing was something of a scene. British news anchors circled the room, taping live shots. And several conservation activists showed up in business suits completely matted with fake plastic grass. Astroturf, they say, is the biggest thing standing in the way of a world treaty on climate change.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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