Donna J. Stanley, director of Associated Black Charities, was ready to mobilize for political battle after she received a fax marked "urgent" this week.
The fax told her she needed to sign an attached petition "today" to prevent 600,000 of Maryland's poor and disabled from losing access to affordable prescription drugs. The fax, sent to dozens of community leaders, had the markings of a grass-roots effort, including grammatical errors and a handwritten cover letter.
But the appeal was actually generated by a sophisticated Washington lobbying firm trying to defeat several bills before the General Assembly supported by advocates for the poor.
"This kind of politics is the most deceitful, underhanded brand of politics that can be practiced," said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, who was also contacted.
Although the tactics outraged some supporters of the prescription drug bills, those behind the campaign defended their actions as legitimate.
Welcome to the big leagues, they said.
"It's a great exercise in the First Amendment," said Jack Bonner, founder of Bonner & Associates, the Washington lobbying firm hired by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) to kill the legislation. "The more people and organizations that come forward on your behalf, the better off you are in politics."
The legislation is designed to lower the cost of prescription drugs for Maryland's Medicaid program and for about 1 million of the state's lower-income residents who have no medical insurance. Under the proposals, the state would negotiate with drug companies for lower prices through a rebate program.
The pharmaceutical industry opposes the measures, also being considered in other states, because it says they limit a patient's choices for the proper drugs.
Bonner & Associates wants legislators across the country to think average people fear the proposals will lead to higher prescription drug prices and fewer choices.
To achieve that, Bonner & Associates aligned with an obscure Michigan-based nonprofit group called the Consumer Alliance. The organization - so small it doesn't have a Web site - recently stated its opposition to the prescription drug proposals because of worries that they would restrict consumer choice.
By joining with Bonner & Associates, the Consumer Alliance gets money and organizational help to spread its message. In exchange, PhRMA gets to hide its agenda behind a group that legislators might think is made up solely of consumers.
"It is seed money to work on this project, and it comes from the drug industry, and that is fine with us," said Donald Rounds, founder of the Consumer Alliance. "They saw we were working on this issue, and they said, 'Hey, can we work together on this issue and combine resources?' "
The campaign works like this:
From Washington, staffers at Bonner & Associates send faxes on Consumer Alliance letterhead to people identified from various databases. The letters do not mention the pharmaceutical industry or specific legislation but warn that signatures are needed to protect "poor children, adults and seniors."
The signatures, which were to be faxed to Bonner's Washington office, will be placed on petition letter to legislators, he said.
'Just one tool you use'
Bruce Lott, a PhRMA spokesman, said the campaign is designed to educate people on the legislation. He denies that the pharmaceutical industry is trying to hide behind nonprofit organizations.
"There is no effort to disguise these things," Lott said. "It is just one tool you use in the process."
But when a reporter called the contact listed on the fax, Adam Rothwell, a receptionist answered the phone, "Grass-roots mobilization hot line."
When asked, Rothwell denied that he worked for Bonner & Associates and said the Consumer Alliance employed him. Bonner later acknowledged that Rothwell was one of his employees.
"It's low ball, and it's not playing by rules," said state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsors one of the bills PhRMA opposes. "When you see guerrilla warfare like that, you know it is time to fight back with guerrilla warfare."
Bonner, a former Republican operative in Washington, is widely viewed as the leader in this type of lobbying. The practice is known among political insiders as "Astroturf lobbying" because the grass-roots effort is manufactured.
His clients include General Motors Corp., Citigroup Inc., Miller Brewing Co. and the National Restaurant Association, an industry group. At any time, he has more than 100 employees working to generate public interest on issues his clients want passed or defeated by Congress, state legislatures or local governments.
Bonner refused to say how much money PhRMA is paying for its Maryland campaign. That will be revealed in June when lobbyists must report the amount spent on political activities, he said.
But according to the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, groups such as Bonner & Associates typically charge up to $500 for each letter or call generated on an issue.
J. William Pitcher, an Annapolis lobbyist representing PhRMA, said this type of lobbying at the General Assembly is nothing new
"That is how you lobby. That is how legislators hear from constituents: You marshal support," he said.
Tactic seen before
Pitcher said similar campaigns were launched in 1999 when the General Assembly was considering electric deregulation.
But this week, Bonner & Associates contacted many of the same people affiliated with the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative Education Fund, which is pushing for the prescription drug benefit reforms in the General Assembly.
Vincent DeMarco, the education fund's executive director, said he became suspicious after Stanley asked him about the Consumer Alliance.
DeMarco and others traced the group to Bonner and PhRMA. An Internet search revealed the Consumer Alliance's fax number to be the same as the number used by the Litigation Fairness Campaign - another Bonner & Associates effort.
"I wish they would take off the masks," DeMarco said. "If the drug industry wants to organize people at the grass roots, they should be honest."
Bonner said: "It's democracy. That is what this is about."
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.