Energy firm shuts down website after e-mail flub
Man objects to his name being used on form letter without his approval
A Rockville man's name apparently was used fraudulently to express opposition to a bill that would tax Montgomery County's largest polluter the Mirant power plant in Dickerson.
The man sent the e-mail to Councilman George L. Leventhal on Saturday, and by Monday a portion of the website used to send the form e-mail had been disabled. Mirant officials say they discovered the e-mail was untraceable, and said they were working to ensure that no other false e-mails had been sent.
The incident is "interesting," according to Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park, whose e-mail to Mirant lobbyist Jerry Pasternak about the situation prompted the mass e-mails to stop.
The e-mail is one oddity out of 143 messages that were sent using the website www.nomocotaxhike.org, according to Misty Allen, director of external affairs for Mirant.
After Leventhal alerted Mirant of the mistake, the company disabled the site's ability for people to send form letters to council members and began calling each of the 143 people who sent e-mails using the site to ensure that their e-mails were credible.
A message on the site now states, "Our apologies, but due to recent fraudulent email activity on this site, the Take Action' portion of the website has been disabled."
The form e-mails were provided by a website created by DDC Advocacy, a Washington, D.C., organization that sends mass e-mails from an email@example.com e-mail address.
Leventhal said his office has received many such form e-mails, but only one person has so far reported that the e-mail was not authorized.
DDC Vice President Heather Greenaway said the company was continuing to investigate the source of the mistake and would turn that information over when it is available.
"We don't want to let something like this go," she said.
Greenaway said this is the first time she has heard of this type of e-mail fraud occurring with one of her company's host sites.
Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac said Tuesday it was possible that more fabricated e-mails were produced.
"This is a conspiracy between the county's worst polluter, the Tea Party and climate deniers," he said.
The websites offer information about an issue and ways to contact decision-makers such as e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Often the sites offer scripts for phone calls and form e-mails that have blanks to be filled in.
Greenaway said information such as name, address and phone number is requested, but there is no system of verification.
The legislation, sponsored by Berliner, would charge Mirant about $15 million more in taxes based on the amount of pollution the business produces.
Under the bill, carbon emitters who produce more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide per year will face a $5 per ton tax. Mirant is the only county business that would be affected by the bill.
The proposal is intended to offer an incentive for Mirant, a coal-fired power plant, to limit its pollution, Berliner said. The plant is responsible for about one-fourth of the county's total greenhouse gas emissions and is the only business in the county affected by the bill.
County officials say the county could be the first in the nation to adopt such legislation.
A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Tuesday.
The man whose name was used in the e-mail that stirred the controversy said he preferred not to comment on the e-mails when contacted by phone Monday.
"Thank you very much for letting me know that the message I received that had your name on it, which was part of an expensive mass communications effort by the Mirant Corporation, was not authorized by you," Leventhal wrote the man in an e-mail response. "I am copying Mirant's sophisticated lobbyist, Jerry Pasternak, on this reply so that he is aware that, at least in your case, the company's technological attempt to persuade the County Council there is a grassroots opposition to Expedited Bill 29-10 was apparently fraudulent."
Mirant officials called people last week who potentially opposed Berliner's carbon tax. The company also sent letters directing recipients to the website where the mass e-mails could be obtained.
"Mirant is putting a lot of money into this," Leventhal said of the company's campaign against the new tax.
The company has said the proposed carbon tax would drive up the cost of the energy it produces.
Allen said that supporters of Berliner's bill are using a website and mass e-mailing system similar to that used by DDC, which is a subcontractor with Mirant.