Lobbying Effort Sent Out Thousands Of False Telegrams -- Constituents Knew Nothing About Bill Campaign Targeted
LYNCHBURG, Va. - Two months ago, angry members of Congress took to the floor demanding to know how they had been showered with "constituent telegrams" the constituents knew nothing about.
Much of the answer can be found at NTS Marketing Inc., a telemarketing and fund-raising firm that was retained to generate 615,000 telegrams against a telecommunications bill. After keeping quiet for weeks, the firm now says it sent tens of thousands of the telegrams without ever contacting the people whose names appeared on them.
Lots of excuses
The reasons, it says: computer glitches, confusion, lack of time and conflicting signals from a Washington firm that hired it for the job. "There was no intent to deceive," said Charles Judd, NTS's president. "Nobody is perfect. There were some errors, and for that we've certainly said to our client, "You don't owe us.' "
A common practice in the campaign, company officials said, was to send out multiple telegrams in the names of individuals, spaced out over days so as to keep pressure up on legislators. Tens of thousands of telegrams also went out in the names of people who hadn't been contacted since last year or whose family members had given permission in their stead, the company said.
NTS' account offers a glimpse at the inner mechanics of a Washington practice known as Astroturf lobbying - the creation of artificial grass-roots support. Most Astroturf campaigns do not appear to involve improperly sent telegrams, but they share a key feature.
"The idea is to take advantage of money and technology to exaggerate the public's concern about an issue," said Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington-based Consumers Union. "It's being done now by all sides in many industries."
Bags of telegrams
The controversy began when plastic bags stuffed with telegrams began arriving on Capitol Hill, each telegram bearing the name of a constituent and urging a vote against the telecom bill.
An industry lobby group called the Competitive Long Distance Coalition (CLDC), composed of long-distance companies opposing the bill, said it had generated an unprecedented number of telegrams to members of the House of Representatives in just 10 days.
Amazed at the volume, lawmakers began telephoning some of the constituents and found that many had never even heard of the bill, let alone authorized a telegram denouncing it. At least one telegram was "sent" by a Chicago man who had been dead for months.
Reporters looking into the telegrams learned the coalition had hired a Washington public relations firm, Beckel Cowan, to coordinate the telegram campaign. Beckel Cowan, in turn, had hired NTS to handle the actual work of calling people and getting their permission to send telegrams.
As initially described by Beckel Cowan, the telephone operation was supposed to work like this: From a room in Lynchburg, NTS operators called people, read a script asking if they were in favor of competition in telecommunications. If the answer was yes, they were asked if a telegram could be sent in their name to a legislator to oppose the bill, which long-distance companies said would hurt competition. There was no charge to the constituent.
What was sent was not a telegram using a commercial service. Instead, NTS itself printed up the messages, put them in envelopes and in many cases trucked them directly to Congress.
Beckel Cowan initially stood by the campaign, saying it had controls to ensure the telegrams were correctly authorized. "Every single one of those people was called," said firm President Bob Beckel at the time. "And we have the phone logs to prove it."
Firm investigated itself
But the firm later hired a lawyer to investigate. In a written report, he concluded that NTS had "grossly failed to perform its role." After sending NTS several hundred thousand dollars, Beckel Cowan suspended payments and went public with its allegations against the company, apologizing to Congress and the CLDC.
NTS President Judd says the entire enterprise was in a frenzied hurry for reasons beyond his control. "We were victims of the congressional schedule," he said.
According to Judd, NTS agreed with Beckel Cowan to generate 615,000 telegrams from 175,000 people. About four telegrams would be sent in the name of each person, a practice meant to create the impression a constituent is staying on top of the news and remaining concerned.
"Under normal circumstances we'd send a telegram to a member and then do a follow-up some reasonable time later, in order to stay in the lawmaker's face," said Judd. "But because this campaign was so compressed we were instructed to send them a day apart."
NTS officials billed Beckel Cowan claiming it achieved the targets. Now it says it has discovered that through a series of computer errors it overbilled and in fact sent only 495,000 messages, in the names of about 141,000 people.
Of those people, 8,000 were never contacted at all, the firm said, though roughly 28,000 telegrams were sent in their names. This happened, it said, because of a computer failure. "We've figured out that the spooling program that printed the grams "blinked' and grabbed about 8,000 names," said Chris Judd, Charles Judd's son and the firm's executive vice president. "The combination of the system overloading and programming glitches was like a hiccup and burp and at the same time."
Roughly 48,000 names, NTS said, were taken from lists of people who had participated in previous long-distance company grass-roots efforts but were never re-contacted for the July campaign.
This, according to Charles Judd, was Beckel Cowan's idea. "We believe that we were instructed by our client to use those names without calling them back," he said. "This isn't a decision we made. And the fact is that the people on these lists had already made their position on this issue known."
Beckel Cowan officials, though, said they have never OK'd sending telegrams that haven't been explicitly approved. "We have never suggested such an idea to a vendor or client," said Glenn Cowan. "It is on its face an abysmal idea. The outcome of NTS's actions indicates just how stupid an idea it was."
"Most companies have quality control worked out so that an overseer calls a random sampling of people to make sure someone is really approving the telegrams," said Mag Gottlieb of the Direct Marketing Association, a trade group for telephone marketers.
Beckel Cowan officials said they typically make a number of oversight follow-up calls, but that in this instance the campaign was so short there wasn't time. Beckel Cowan initially said it had phone logs proving the cables were genuine, but later said it did not.
As for the bill, it passed by a wide margin. Afterward, several lawmakers handed over the telegrams to Capitol Police and asked them to investigate. Three weeks later, the Capitol Police referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney's office. But the latter declined to take action, saying the telegrams violated no laws.
Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.