Letters purportedly written by at least two dead people landed on the desk of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff earlier this year, imploring him to go easy on Microsoft for its conduct as a monopoly.
The pleas, along with more than 100 others from Utah residents, are part of a carefully orchestrated nationwide campaign by the software giant that may be backfiring. Microsoft sought to create the impression of a surging grass-roots movement, aimed largely at the attorneys general of some of the 18 states that have joined the Justice Department in suing Microsoft.
The Microsoft campaign goes to great lengths to create an impression that the letters are spontaneous expressions from ordinary people. Letters sent in the last month are on personalized stationery using different wording, color and typefaces, details that distinguish Microsoft's efforts from lobbying tactics that go on in politics every day.
State law-enforcement officials became suspicious after noticing that the same sentences appear in the letters and that some return addresses appeared invalid.
"It's an obvious corporate attempt to manipulate citizen input," said Rick Cantrell, community-relations director for the Utah attorney general.
"You can just tell these were engineered. When there's a real groundswell, people walk in, they fax, they call. We get handwritten letters."
Microsoft officials, whose aggressive lobbying tactics in the antitrust battle have raised eyebrows in the past, said they simply are responding to the lobbying efforts of competitors.
"There's been a political campaign waged against Microsoft for a number of years by well-funded, special-interest companies like AOL, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and their trade associations," said Microsoft spokesman Vivek Varma. "It's not surprising that companies and organizations that support Microsoft are mobilizing to counter that lobby."
Indeed, Microsoft's competitors have helped craft some of the legal strategy against the company, and they actively lobby. Oracle, for one, was criticized for hiring a private investigator that combed through a pro-Microsoft group's trash. But those companies say they haven't tried to drum up activism by the public.
Microsoft referred questions about the new campaign to the company running it, Americans for Technology Leadership (ATL), which gets some money from Microsoft, but won't say how much. ATL was founded in 1999 as a spinoff of the Association for Competitive Technology, another pro-Microsoft group.
In their calls, people working for ATL say they are conducting a poll about the Microsoft case. If people express support for Microsoft, they are sent letters to sign, along with handstamped, pre-addressed envelopes to their state attorney general, to President Bush, and to their members of Congress.
Asked about the relationship between the telephone calls and subsequent letters, ATL Executive Director Jim Prendergast said those who agreed the prosecution was misguided were merely given suggestions about what to use in drafting their own letters.
Asked why some phrases were identical, Prendergast then conceded that the letters were written by his operation. "We'd write the letter and then send it to them," Prendergast said. "That's fairly common practice."
It's not clear how many states Microsoft is targeting with the campaign, or how much the company is spending.
The letter-writing exercise is part of a larger Microsoft plan to sway Congress and encourage prosecutors to pursue a settlement in advance of a court hearing on how the Redmond company should be punished for illegally maintaining its monopoly on computer operating systems.
The maker of Windows and other software also has stepped up campaign donations, becoming the fifth-largest "soft-money" donor to the national Republican and Democratic parties in 1999-2000.
To assist it in the grass-roots campaign, Microsoft turned to two of the nation's top political-advocacy groups: Boston-based Dewey Square Group, co-founded by Al Gore campaigner Michael Whouley, and Phoenix-based DCI/New Media, led by Republican strategist Tom Synhorst. DCI has worked for both the tobacco industry and the National Rifle Association.
The first crop of letters began rolling into state offices in the spring.
Quietly distributed by another Microsoft-supported group, Citizens Against Government Waste, those letters were identical except for the signature.
Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch said he got about 300 of those. "It's sleazy," Hatch said. "This is not a company that appears to be bothered by ethical boundaries."
Hatch responded with his own mailings to the senders, explaining his position.
Some of the recipients wrote back by hand, apologizing for passing along the Microsoft-inspired letters. "I sure was misled," one wrote. "It's time for you to get out there & kick butt."
Utah officials found two of the pre-fab letters bore the typed names of dead people. Those names had been crossed out by family members who signed for them. And another letter came from "Tuscon, Utah," a city that doesn't exist.
In recent weeks, Microsoft's strategy has been refined to engineer more individualized letters to state officials and the Bush administration. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller's office, for example, has received more than 50 anti-lawsuit letters in the past month from state residents.
No two letters are identical, but the giveaway lies in the phrasing. Four of the Iowa letters include this sentence: "Strong competition and innovation have been the twin hallmarks of the technology industry."
Three others use exactly these words: "If the future is going to be as successful as the recent past, the technology sector must remain free from excess regulation."
Some residents who fielded the ATL's calls believed the states themselves were soliciting their views, according to the attorneys general of Minnesota, Illinois and Utah.