When he was hauled before Congress last week for sending those forged letters to lawmakers on climate change, astroturf lobbyist Jack Bonner pledged to make sure that no similar event ever happened again. As a centerpiece of that effort, Bonner announced that his firm had retained James Thurber, an American University political science professor, to act as an “independent ethics adviser.”
Bonner assured lawmakers that the new adviser “is well-regarded as maintaining the highest ethical standards and independence,” and “will review our policies and work with us to continue to improve our internal quality control system to the highest standards.” All in all, it sounded like a good idea.
But it’s fair to ask how independent Thurber really is.
Today, Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, ran an ad by the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS), the American University program that Thurber directs. The ad, which you can see here, reads:
Thank you Jack Bonner for over 15 years of teaching excellence.
AU students, says the ad, “are grateful for the knowledge, insight, and years of experience you bring to the university, as well as the dozens of guest lecturers you have brought to the classroom.”
According to the ad, Bonner has “taught more than 700 students over the past 15 years at American University; employed many talented American University students to his grassroots/grasstops firm, Bonner & Associates;” and “consistently received strong evaluations from students in his class.”
It then lists some of the guest speakers Bonner has brought to AU, including Bill Frist and top executives from key Washington lobbying groups like the Chamber of Commerce, AARP, and PhRMA.
In fact, just this past weekend, Bonner taught a workshop for Thurber’s CCPS on “the craft of grassroots lobbying as practiced in Washington, D.C.” According to a notice on CCPS’s site:
Emphasis is on the detailed strategies and applications of grassroots lobbying. Students are exposed to the latest developments in the field with practicing lobbyists and gain practical grassroots skills.
After all, who better to teach those “latest developments” than a guy whose firm just got caught sending forged letters urging wavering members of Congress to vote against climate change legislation, on behalf of a coal-industry client but purporting to come from local community groups?
Indeed, Bonner and Thurber appear to be long-time associates. Back in 1998, the two teamed up on a study about congressional use of the internet, and the following year they together presented an award to the House Rules committee, which they judged had the best congressional website.
Neither Thurber, nor American University, nor a spokesman for Bonner responded immediately to a request for comment from TPMmuckraker.
Late Update: A Bonner spokesman responds, telling TPMmuckraker that Thurber is “above reproach,” “has an “impeccable reputation,” and is doing the work pro bono.
“Thurber is doing this in his capacity as an expert on public affairs,” said the spokesman. “This is done because Thurber believes in doing the right thing.”
The spokesman explained that because Bonner “wanted to do this as quickly as possible, he had to go to someone who was familiar with.” He said that going to an outside law firm would be “far less reliable.”
And the spokesman, who has insisted on remaining anonymous, added that Bonner has taught in Thurber’s department at AU for 15 years, and donates to charity the small stipend he receives for that work.