The controversial business of selling grassroots political campaigns is getting the spotlight treatment as details continue to emerge about the source of fake letters sent to a first-term member of Congress urging him to vote against the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill.

Rep. Tom PerrielloCongressman Tom Perriello represents Virginia’s 5th district. His office received forged letters urging him to vote against climate legislation.Courtesy Rep. PerrielloThe Sierra Club on Monday petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate letters that were received by Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat representing central Virginia.

In a letter sent Monday [PDF] to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Sierra Club asked the department to look into whether the letters, which came to light on Friday, constitute fraud. The liberal activist group MoveOn, meanwhile, is asking its members to sign an online petition urging the DOJ to “conduct a thorough investigation” into Bonner & Associates, the firm responsible for producing the forged letters that were faxed to Perriello’s office.

Bonner & Associates has admitted that one of its employees was the source of a letter to Perriello that purported to come from Creciendo Juntos, a nonprofit network that represents the Hispanic community of Charlottesville, Va. Bonner said it has fired the temporary employee who sent the letter.

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On Monday, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity admitted that it had contracted with Bonner & Associates to do “limited outreach” on the climate issue. The group denounced the fake letters and said it was considering legal action against Bonner.

Bonner sells itself as a manager and builder of grassroots campaigns, saying it can “find and educate leaders from local organizations who share a legitimate stake in the issues of our clients.” In political circles, such firms are described as engaging in “astroturfing” — based on the view that the grassroots political communications they deliver for clients do not represent actual public opinion.

Perriello, a first-term Democrat from a central Virginia district Republicans are keen to retake in 2010, also received letters that claimed to be from members of a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the letters bear a striking similarity to the one attributed to Creciendo Juntos. M. Rick Turner, president of the NAACP Albemarle-Charlottesville Branch, confirmed that the letters are fake — none of the five individuals who purportedly signed the letters are employed by his organization.

Bonner & Associates has not admitted to being the source of the forged NAACP letters. Adding another layer to the story, the Charlottesville Daily Progress, which broke the story originally, reported that the NAACP letters “were faxed to Perriello’s office from the Arlington headquarters of a company called Professional Risk Management Services Inc.” An employee at the firm told the newspaper that she had no idea how or why the letters would have been sent from the PRM offices.

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To date, only Perriello’s office has said it received the forged letters opposing the climate bill. One former Bonner employee, however, came forward Friday to claim that deceitful campaigns are a regular practice at the firm, which specializes in building “strategic grassroots” support for clients.

Grist attempted to contact the offices of seven Democrats who were considered “swing votes” when the Waxman-Markey bill was voted on in the House in June. The three offices that responded said they have not received any letters they believe to be forged. A spokesperson for Rep. Glenn Nye, a Virginia Democrat who voted against the climate and energy bill, told Grist, “We’re looking into it, but to my knowledge we have not received any similar letters.”

Meanwhile, ThinkProgress found evidence on Monday that forged letters may also be targeting senators. A constituent of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) received a reply to a letter opposing the climate bill that he never sent. Conrad is considered a key swing vote on climate legislation. Requests for comment from Conrad’s office were not immediately returned. UPDATE: A Conrad spokesperson told Grist that the office did not receive a forged letter. In this instance, the wrong response was sent to a genuine correspondent, the spokesman said.

Whether Bonner & Associates will be prosecuted for illegal activities in this case remains to be seen. The Sierra Club’s lawyers suggest to the DOJ that the firm should be investigated for wire fraud — defined under U.S. law as a “scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises” using electronic communication (in this case, a fax machine). It is punishable by fine and/or up to 20 years in prison.

“A thorough investigation may reveal that Bonner & Associates devised a scheme to defraud the constituents of Rep. Perriello … by depriving them of the the intangible right to the honest services of their representatives,” wrote Sierra Club legal director Patrick Gallagher in the letter to Holder. “[O]ne of the most important ‘honest services’ provided by a representatives to his constituent is the service of considering the constituents’ true opinions and viewpoints when contemplating how to vote on a bill before Congress,” wrote Gallagher. “This service cannot be rendered when the representative has been provided falsified or erroneous representations of those opinions or viewpoints.”

In the letter, Gallagher also asks the DOJ to investigate whether forged letters have been sent to other representatives or senators, and whether other community organizations have been similarly misrepresented in other letters.

Sierra Club is also running ads [PDF] in Capitol Hill publications calling attention to the forged letters.

Neither MoveOn nor the Sierra Club, however, can file suit against Bonner & Associates, as the two groups were not directly harmed by the fraud. Chris Fleming, spokesman for the NAACP, told Grist on Monday that it “highly unlikely” that there would be a lawsuit, though Fleming said NAACP supports congressional investigation into the matter.

Calls to Creciendo Juntos were not immediately returned. UPDATE: Tim Freilich, a member of the executive committee for Creciendo Juntos, told Grist on Tuesday morning that the organization will discuss whether they would like to take any additional steps at their board meeting, which is scheduled to take place next week.

The most immediate action is likely to come through a congressional investigation. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, on Friday indicated that he will lead an investigation into the matter. Markey issued a letter late Monday requesting more information from Bonner & Associates founder Jack Bonner and giving him until August 12 to respond.

Unlike lobbyists, who are required by law to register each year and must report their lobbying activities each quarter, groups like Bonner that specialize in building grassroots campaigns are largely unregulated. They are not required to disclose their activities on behalf of clients.

Markey’s Select Committee has the power to subpoena documents and individuals, should the desired information not be provided, and can conduct hearings.

“It is way too premature to say what the legal ramifications are going to be when we’re just sending our first investigation letter,” said Eben Burnham-Snyder, communications director for the committee.

A checkered history

This not the first time that Bonner & Associates has been accused of forging letters from minority groups. In 2002 the firm was caught using the name of an African American charity in faxes opposing legislation to lower drug prices. Those letters were sent on behalf of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

And Mother Jones ran a piece in 1997 detailing Bonner & Associates’ work, calling them “a leader in the growing field of fake grassroots.” ThinkProgress put together a history of the firm’s questionable activities dating back as far as 1986, which includes defrauding the U.S. government in order to retain a contract and working on behalf of Philip Morris to build opposition to a workplace smoking ban.

UPDATE: Since this article was first posted, the number of confirmed forged letters has increased to 12. Pennsylvania Reps. Kathy Dahlkemper and Chris Carney, who both voted against the House climate bill, also received fake letters. These letters also appear to be from Bonner & Associates, according to an ACCCE document.

Additional reporting by Grist’s Jon Hiskes.

Further reading: A more pro-Bonner perspective from CQ Politics blogger Bill Pascoe — ‘Crisis Communications Inc?’ Jack Bonner Calling.