The Associated Press Reports GE Tax Refund Hoax Spun by US Uncut, The Yes Men

A fake press release became a media storm.

April 13, 2011— -- Did General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt tell President Obama this morning that GE would be returning its entire 2010 tax refund, worth $3.2 billion, to the U.S. Treasury on April 18 -- Tax Day -- as The Associated Press reported?

Some Americans would welcome the news. Too bad it never happened.

Actually, the story originated from a press release sent out this morning by a group called US Uncut, supported by the Yes Men, a group well-known for its pranks on the rich and powerful.

The Associated Press took the bait, pushing it out to its thousands of clients before issuing a retraction.

The groups told ABC News they are forced to impersonate public figures and companies in order to break into a media space that is oversaturated with the loudest voices and those with the best public relations departments.

"Corporations spend billions of dollars a year shoving lies down that pipeline, so we have to impersonate them just to get information out," Yes Men spokesman Michael Bonanno told ABC News. "Our lies are designed to be recognized as lies almost instantly. But we have to impersonate these companies that already have a voice to say something, otherwise nobody would listen."

But, why go after GE?

"First off, they've made $28 billion in profits since 2005 and haven't paid any taxes," said Andrew Boyd, a member of US Uncut. "They got a refund of $3.2 billion in tax year 2010. This is at the same time that devastating cuts are happening to Americans across the country. ... It might be legal, but it's immoral."

The activists say that, even though an argument could be made that changes in the tax code might send companies overseas, that point is moot because many companies aren't paying taxes at the moment and have outsourced many jobs anyway.

GE confirmed to ABC News that the press release was a hoax, and the AP admitted it had mistakenly reported a bogus press release as fact.

"The AP did not follow its own standards in this case for verifying the authenticity of a news release," said AP business editor Hal Ritter.

The Yes Men's Bonanno suggested he understood why AP might have fallen for the hoax.

"We think the AP is great," he said. "Unfortunately, they've been downsized just like everyone else ... [yet] they have a mandate to cover more news than they ever have, faster than they ever have and in more formats than they ever have. Of course, it's going to be a big fat pipeline that you can shove almost anything through because the speed of publishing is almost instant."

Yes Men and US Uncut: Activists Collaborate

US Uncut is a small group of activists seeking to close the many tax loopholes that allow companies with skilled tax preparers to spare their organizations from the "real" tax rate. The small group had some success on its own, but the Yes Lab, a part of the Yes Men organization, gave them the tools to get media traction.

"Over the years, the Yes Men have gotten a lot of requests from individuals and organizations that want us to do something on their issue. We realized that they can do it, and we can help them out along the way," Bonanno told ABC News. "So far, we've done about a half dozen different projects with organizations where we get together and brainstorm a response to an issue that they care about and we're along for the ride as they carry out the project."

So far, Bonanno said, the Yes Men has not been contacted by groups with purely malicious intent -- though perhaps GE might disagree. He believes the Yes Men would be able to recognize such a group and turn it down. Plus, Bonanno told ABC News, there are other groups one could go to for those types of projects.

For the Yes Men, the most important thing is to inform the general public about issues that may be hidden behind closed doors.

"Without a really informed citizenry," Bonanno said, "you can't expect a strong democracy."