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Grassroots support? No, Astroturf

Bogus letters further tar ethics of Northern Arc backers


Suspicion was Charles "Chick" Krautler's immediate reaction when he switched on his computer one morning early last month and found that, overnight, he had received dozens of e-mails professing support for the Northern Arc.
After all, as the Atlanta Regional Commission executive director well knew, the controversial road project had been pulled from consideration just a month before by the governor himself, and the official public comment period for the ARC's upcoming transportation plan was still weeks away.

"The timing seemed really weird," Krautler says. The Northern Arc "had already been taken off the table and then, boom! I get all these e-mails."

In the subject line of each message was a pro-Arc slogan that, in its boosterish directness, sounded as if it had been drafted by a former Soviet propaganda minister: "Small business needs Northern Arc," "Northern Arc makes sense," "Northern Arc will benefit everyone" and the fortune-cookie-ready jingo, "Prepare for future generations of growth with Northern Arc."

At the bottom of each e-mail appeared the name and address of the apparent sender, but Krautler thought it odd that those appearing to come from individual residents, rather than businesses, lacked phone numbers. Although each three-paragraph message seemed to be worded differently, the basic format and the bland, genteel tone were the same -- another red flag. Usually, people aren't shy about using four-letter words when describing metro Atlanta traffic.

Krautler was so curious that he took time out of his schedule to personally call a couple of business owners listed and was told something shocking: They knew nothing about the e-mail messages. Yes, they did support the Northern Arc, they told Krautler, but they hadn't written the ARC about it, nor had they asked anyone to do so on their behalf. But, now that he mentioned it, they both had gotten a phone call a few days earlier from someone representing a pro-Arc group who had promised to send them more information about the road project if they'd give him their e-mail addresses.

Neither person could remember the name of the group, but Krautler says he didn't have to think too hard to figure it out: The methodology behind the ersatz e-mails had all the fingerprints of Georgians for Better Transportation, a pro-road organization funded largely by developers, banks and other businesses that stand to reap a windfall if the project is approved.

When he spoke to Terry Lawler, a lobbyist and former state legislator who heads the group, Lawler admitted that GBT was behind the mailings, but argued that he was merely trying to show policy-makers such as Krautler that the Northern Arc has broad community support.

Krautler says he told Lawler that he didn't consider the messages legitimate public comment and asked him to call off the group's campaign.

"Obviously, I could see it was a coordinated campaign, which, in itself, there's nothing wrong with," Krautler explains. But since the messages hadn't even come from the folks whose names appear on them, he says, the ARC plans to junk them.

Adds longtime ARC spokeswoman Julie Ralston: "We encourage authentic public comment, but when someone misrepresents people's statements, it sort of destroys your trust."

As it turns out, Georgians for Better Transportation had been busier than Krautler had initially thought. In addition to more than 100 e-mails, the group also flooded the ARC office with 132 faxes and 79 phone messages, all arriving the first week of August, and all indicating they had come from individual Northern Arc supporters located across the metro area from Snellville to Cartersville.

The group didn't stop there. Similar messages also were sent to Gov. Roy Barnes, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams, Georgia Department of Transportation Director Tom Coleman and other local potentates. Gwinnett Commission Chairman Wayne Hill alone forwarded on to the ARC more than 70 pro-Arc messages he'd received.

Although the messages at first appear unique, closer scrutiny reveals that there are actually only 10 variations of faxes and perhaps a similar number of e-mails. As many as 20 duplicates of each message were sent in, identical even down to the same typos -- but each with a different name at the bottom.

Lawler, who is GBT's only staff member, tells CL that he had hired a private lobbying firm to handle the organization's recent campaign to encourage Northern Arc supporters within the community to make their voices heard by regional leaders.

"My understanding is that people were asked if they would contact certain authorities to register their support for the Northern Arc," says Lawler, adding that the firm would offer to send a "form letter" on the supporter's behalf. Lawler, who just wrapped up an unsuccessful race for the state Senate against former DeKalb CEO Liane Levetan, claims he hasn't seen any of the messages that were sent.

"This has not been a stealth campaign," he says. "We've been very up-front about what we're doing."

When CL called a random sampling of the purported Arc supporters, most of the folks contacted had no idea their names were being used by Georgians for Better Transportation as part of a lobbying campaign. All said they received calls concerning the road project around the end of July, but none could remember the name of the group that had contacted them.

Norman Housely of Stone Mountain says he doesn't even support the Northern Arc.

"A while back I was for it, but I changed my mind when the governor called it off because of this hullabaloo about conflicts of interest," he says. "It's just too mired in corruption."

Housely is referring to the scandal that arose after the Atlanta Business Chronicle uncovered improper links that several state officials had to the road project. So far, a state DOT board member and two members of the ARC have resigned under pressure when it was revealed that their businesses stood to make money off the roadway.

(However, octogenarian William G. Hasty Sr., a fervent Northern Arc supporter, has refused to step down as DOT chairman even after it became known that he co-owns more than 500 acres near the proposed route of the highway. The day that juicy revelation hit the papers, Barnes asked the ARC to pull the $2.4 billion project from its three-year transportation plan until the ethics problem could be resolved. The Arc-less plan met with smooth approval from the ARC board last week.)

Housely says he gave out his e-mail address when told by a caller that it would be used to send him information about the Northern Arc, but he has yet to receive any e-mails on the subject. "It certainly wasn't my intention that anything be sent in my name saying I support something that I don't," he says.

Similarly, businessman Joseph Dean was surprised to discover that an e-mail bearing his name had been sent to the ARC.

"I think the road should have been built years ago, but I didn't authorize anyone to use my name and it kind of irritates me that someone's doing that," he says. "Someone should just burn those messages."

Martha Pedilia of Norcross, also a Northern Arc supporter, supposedly left an Arc-friendly phone message on the ARC's voice mail, but she says she made no such call. When she'd gotten the GBT phone call in late July, she says, "I thought it was just a survey. I didn't tell them they could use my name. This concerns me."

Clark Benton of Snellville likewise says he didn't give anyone permission to lobby the ARC in his name, but says he doesn't mind if they did.

Juan Burnett, on the other hand, says he was so fired up by the GBT phone call in July that he immediately wrote a letter in support of the Northern Arc and faxed it the ARC. However, he was at a loss to explain why a letter bearing his name would be worded identically to several others that were received. He speculates it might not be his letter.

When CL described these examples to Lawler, he initially defended the protocol of the lobbying firm -- which he refused to name.

"I'm not saying these people are incorrect, but sometimes there can be a problem with communication or people forget a conversation they had a couple of months ago," he says. "But it does concern me that you've come up with these statistics."

He adds, however, that if any misrepresentation did occur, it wasn't intentional on the part of Georgians for Better Transportation.

"It serves no one's purpose if there's a shadow over the legitimacy of that support," he says. "When you're dealing with public policy, if you tell a lie or fudge the facts, you won't be in this business."

True enough.

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