June 15, 2012

When Lobbying Firms Are Caught Using Dirty Tricks And Lies, They Always Throw Their Own Employees Under The Bus

When Lobbying Firms Are Caught Using Dirty Tricks And Lies, They Always Throw Their Own Employees Under The Bus
Stephanie Harnett, Wal-Mart's "reporter" spy

Yesterday, Republic Report’s Zaid Jilani was the first to report that Wal-Mart’s public relations and lobbying firm in Los Angeles, Mercury Public Affairs, was caught sending an employee to an event posing as a student reporter. The Mercury staffer, Stephanie Harnett, told warehouse workers protesting Wal-Mart’s labor practices that she was “Zoe Mitchell,” a USC student. She appeared be gathering information from the workers that could be used against them in their struggle against Wal-Mart, which is notorious for its poor labor standards.

A disclosure filed with the city of Los Angeles ethics office shows that Wal-Mart paid Mercury $60,000 in the first three months of this year.

After the news broke, Mercury first told Gawker’s Hamilton Noltan that Harnett acted alone, without consent from the firm, and that she would be “disciplined.” “This is an isolated incident that has never happened before and will not happen again,” a spokeswoman from the firm said, adding “[Harnett] is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision.” (Harnett’s LinkedIn profile, however, lists her as a “Senior Associate.”)

Later in the day, Harnett was fired from the company.

Though Mercury was quick to throw Harnett under the bus, we’re skeptical that such an action was without any approval from her firm. It is standard practice in the lobbying industry to blame young staffers or rogue employees when firms are caught using underhanded tactics. Here are just three recent examples:

Coal Lobby Faked Letters From Civil Rights Groups: In 2009, during debate over global warming legislation to force polluters to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions, a coal lobbying group, called “American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity,” paid a firm called Bonner and Associates to orchestrate “grassroots” opposition to the bill. Bonner and Associates was later caught forging letters from local chapters of the NAACP, local seniors groups, and dozens of other organizations to Democratic members of Congress. The letters asked lawmakers to oppose the bill. After being caught, Bonner and Associates and the coal companies blamed a “temporary employee.” However, the firm has a long history of similar deception on behalf of corporate clients.

Health Insurance Companies Forged Letters From Seniors: Also in 2009, a health insurance trade group, called America’s Health Insurance Plans, hired a Democratic lobbying firm called Dewey Square Group to generate opposition to cuts to Medicare Advantage, a privatized system of Medicare that has been criticized as highly wasteful. The group sent fake letters to local newspapers posing as elderly citizens opposed to cuts. It was later revealed that Dewey was behind the letter, one of which came from a deceased person. The firm quickly directly all blame for the incident on one “intern.”

U.S. Chamber Planned To Hack And Sabotage Political Opponents: In 2011, the hacktivist community known as Anonymous dumped private e-mails from a military contractor revealing plans made by Bank of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to sabotage their perceived political opponents. The Chamber planned to target the blog ThinkProgress, MoveOn.org, several labor unions, and a labor-backed group that was set up to monitor the Chamber’s lobbying. The e-mails showed that the Chamber and its attorneys at Hunton and Williams had closely monitored the plan, which detailed various tactics to smear, infiltrate, and spy on the families of these groups. However, after being revealed by ThinkProgress, the Chamber threw an employee single defense contractor, HB Gary Federal, under the bus, claiming without evidence that they had acted alone in developing the plan (the e-mails clearly showed multiple Chamber attorneys, other defense contractors, and representatives from the Chamber collaborating on the plan).

We don’t know what happened in the current case, but we hope that Harnett will tell her side of the story soon.