When a corporate lobby group becomes so publicly detested that even dolphin-killing BP can’t take it anymore, you know you’re in trouble. BP is a corporation that recently ended its association with the American Legislative Exchange Council, joining over 100 others, some equally toxic companies. ALEC has been gasping for air since the public learned that it was behind the spread of Stand Your Ground gun laws. With a little more news reporting from great investigative journalists like Brendan Keefe from Atlanta's WXIA 11 Alive (NBC), a full collapse could be just around the corner.
First, to refresh, ALEC is the secretive so-called “charity” run and funded by big corporations that subsidize the involvement of conservative state lawmakers, who then push for enactment of model bills written by the corporations who pay them. Many of these bills are written by and approved by ALEC’s “Civil Justice Task Force,” which is co-chaired by Victor Schwartz, General Counsel for the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), a corporate group seeking to limit the liability of its corporate members. Limiting the rights of sick and dying asbestos victims, for example, is a high priority for these people.
In deciding ALEC’s agenda, corporate lobbyists and their state lawmakers meet behind closed doors and vote. However, this kind of secrecy does not sit well with reporters like Brendan Keefe. He tried to attend ALEC’s spring meeting at a resort hotel in Savannah, Georgia. Not only was he kicked out of the meeting, but also - to make sure he stayed out - ALEC “called over a sheriff's deputy, one of six off-duty police officers … taking their orders directly from ALEC staff members. He called three of his fellow deputies as back-up.”
Below is his extraordinary news report but first, let me give you some highlights:
- There really are back rooms where corporate lobbyists have direct access to lawmakers completely out of sight, with no transparency or public filings. They're also wined and dined after hours at these events with nothing recorded on ethics reports. We know because we saw one of these back rooms with our own eyes, and were kicked out with the aid of off-duty police officers on orders from ALEC staff.
- Months before the conference, my family booked a hotel room at the same resort as ALEC. At the hotel bar, I struck up a conversation with a state representative from New England. We later verified his identity as an ALEC state chairman. Sitting next to him at various times were three different self-identified lobbyists who also didn't mince words about why they were there and who was really paying for the event. "We pay more to be here, so it helps support them," one lobbyist explained to me, not knowing I was an investigative reporter. She was referring to the state legislator between us, responding to his request for donations.
- ALEC Task Force Summits, like the one in Savannah, produce 'model legislation' that is later approved at the annual meeting. These are ready-made bills with actual blanks where legislators can fill in their state's name and existing code. Several laws currently on the books, under which Georgians are governed, were born in back rooms at resort hotels.
- Georgia's Asbestos Claims Priorities Act severely limits who can file asbestos claims against corporations in the state. It was passed in 2007, the same year its sponsors received thousands to attend ALEC conferences. The co-chair of the ALEC task force that year was a top corporate defense lawyer. The 11Alive Investigators tracked the asbestos bill all the way to the place if its birth: The Venetian Hotel and Casino. The Georgia law began as ALEC model legislation first approved in a hotel meeting room in Las Vegas. You can compare the two documents for yourself to see how several clauses match word for word.
- The three sponsors of the bill in the Senate received more than $22,000 combined the year before, the year during, and the year after the asbestos bill was passed. Speaker Ralston was the lone sponsor in the House. Sen. Renee Unterman was the only one of the four sponsors to respond to our request for comment. She told us she left ALEC years ago because she was one of the only female members of the organization. She called ALEC a group of "angry white men" and said the organization that was once controlled by legislators is now "controlled by industry."
We were thinking that, but it's sure nice to see a state lawmaker sum things up so well.