Monday, May 17, 2010

Dirty Power, Dirty Tricks

Mirant, the national power generation company that owns the Dickerson fossil fuel electric plant, is in the cross-hairs of a new carbon tax proposed by Council Member Roger Berliner. Mirant is a convenient political target given the $250,000 fine it recently paid for repeated pollution violations and its case has not helped by push polling. But now the lobbying campaign against the bill has been associated with an unthinkable act: stealing email addresses from ordinary residents to launch an astroturf lobbying campaign.

Last week, hundreds of emails began pouring into the County Council opposing the carbon tax. (The carbon tax, which would apply only to Mirant’s facility, is not to be confused with the broader energy tax increase proposed by County Executive Ike Leggett. That tax would apply to everyone.) The emails read:

Dear Council Member [Name]:

Please oppose the proposed carbon tax bill because it will make electricity more expensive and hurt the environment.

Increased electricity costs will be passed on to consumers. Raising the price of electricity hurts families struggling to get by and hurts local employers who provide jobs and tax revenue our county needs.

Maryland has the toughest air quality standards in the East and participates in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Making Maryland generated power more expensive will only result in more importation of electricity from dirty coal plants in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Finally, the bill does not even reduce greenhouse gas emissions it simply shifts them out of state.

We all want clean air and to protect the environment. This bill does neither and it hurts consumers.

[Constituent Name and Address]
When Council Member George Leventhal replied to a constituent who supposedly sent such an email, the person claimed to support the tax and said this email was sent without his permission or knowledge. So what happened?

The email originated with the address and was sent on behalf of the constituent’s email address. Somehow, the originator obtained the constituent’s email address, name and physical address and incorporated them into the email sent to the County Council. is a URL registered by Domains by Proxy Inc., a common arrangement used to conceal the identity of website owners. However, the operator is pretty obvious since the associated domain servers are DDCNS1.DEMOCRACYDATA.COM and DDCNS2.DEMOCRACYDATA.COM and visitors to the URL are automatically redirected to this page established by DDC Advocacy. The company describes itself this way:

DDC Advocacy is the only true full-service advocacy firm. We combine deep expertise, leading technology, and extensive capabilities to deliver high-impact advocacy programs and campaigns.

DDC Advocacy is a proven partner in helping you:

Raise awareness with key audiences
Turn constituents into advocates, and advocates into true champions
Mobilize advocates to participate in meaningful ways
Empower advocates to engage with legislators on many different levels
DDC is a major astroturfer with connections to the Bush Administration and Michael Scanlon, the convicted former press secretary for Congressman Tom “the Hammer” DeLay and lobbyist with Jack Abramoff. It has launched mass email campaigns in Arkansas, Hawaii, Washington and now Maryland. Arkansas House Majority Leader Steve Harrelson complained about the company’s tactics on his blog:

Flooding legislators’ inboxes with messages to support or oppose specific legislation is nothing new. However, there are several new sites popping up on the ‘net ( where anyone can enter any name and email address and send a message of their choice to legislators of their choice. I’ve received over 800 e-mails in the last week on several issues, but most have focused on (1) the cigarette tax, (2) illegal immigration, and (3) worshipping with guns, and many of them have come from

I respond to each message, but I was much quicker to respond to one fairly touchy e-mail that arrived last night from an old family friend in opposition to the cigarette tax. I picked up the phone and called her, and she had no idea what I was talking about. “You can add as much tax to cigarettes as you want -- I hate ‘em,” she said. “Plus, don't take this the wrong way, but I have never thought about e-mailing you.” Kinda makes me wonder who I'm responding to in many of these e-mail messages.
We understand that lobbying campaigns are supposed to be creative, but is identity theft really an acceptable advocacy tactic? If Mirant’s goal is to obtain a unanimous vote in favor of the carbon tax, it may just get its way. As for the rest of you, well… you could very well be writing strong emails to elected officials and not even know it!