ALECexposed: ALEC PR Creates Tempest in a Teapot for Senate Hearing

ALEC Exposed logoOn Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding an important hearing examining the harmful effects of the so-called "Stand Your Ground" gun laws that were promoted for years as a "model" by the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Rifle Association.

It will be the first committee hearing for Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) since his quasi-filibuster that almost led America to default on its debt.

With the Koch-backed Cato Institute at the hearing to defend the billionaire Koch brothers' long-term investment in ALEC, we expect a fusillade of attacks to be unleashed against the Senate for daring to examine the deadly effects of ALEC's lengthy legislative agenda on American families shattered by gun violence.

For the cameras, there may well be what some would call theatrics in opposition to the letter of Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to ALEC's for-profit and non-profit funders about whether they support ALEC and its legacy on so-called "Stand Your Ground" gun laws. ALEC used to brag about successfully pushing that "model bill" into law in the states, before the law ALEC endorsed was cited initially to prevent the arrest of George Zimmerman for killing an unarmed Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin.

ALEC has been flacking its campaign around the letter as a success in its PR operations. We expect to see logos of some of the ALEC-allied groups in the State Policy Network -- which has also received an unknown amount from the Koch family fortune -- waved for the Senate webcast and the stack of blog posts and op-eds that ALEC helped gin up displayed as evidence of a supposed groundswell of opposition to the Senate hearing.

However, a media analysis of the coverage shows it really is a tempest in a teapot.

There is nothing unusual about such a PR campaign, but it should not be given undue weight by the Senate in considering these issues.

A close examination of the "editorials" touted by ALEC actually offers a glimpse into how an echo chamber works. Notably, some of the clips are just news stories; most of the op-eds are written by ALEC partners; and many are simply right-wing blog posts that repeat press releases or talking points, including one partisan website in Illinois that wrote seven different posts.

Unsurprisingly, the Wall Street Journal's editorial board issued editorials timed to coincide with ALEC's conference and the original hearing date. Excerpts of its first editorial, which failed to disclose the deep ties between the editorial board and ALEC, were ping-ponged into other op-eds and blogs. Next came an op-ed by editorial board member Stephen Moore, who works closely with ALEC, again failing to acknowledge those ties.

Only after the Center for Media and Democracy called out the Wall Street Journal did its next editorial include a sentence noting Moore's role in ALEC's annual (and much criticized) state economic rating. That acknowledgement did not address questions raised about Moore's outside sources of income connected to issues or groups the Wall Street Journal editorializes about in its opinion pages, concerns similar to those raised about Armstrong Williams' secret paychecks related to issues he wrote about as a supposedly independent columnist.

The Journal is not the only paper with close ties to the funders that help fuel ALEC. The Washington Times also weighed in with a pro-ALEC editorial, without disclosing that its small editorial board includes a member who is an editor affiliated with George Mason's Mercatus Center, another creature of the Koch family fortune that also helps echo and reinforce ALEC's legislative agenda.

Similarly, Forbes jumped into the fray with an op-ed by Tiger Jones of the American Tort Reform Association, whose general counsel Victor Schwartz has long co-chaired ALEC's Civil Justice Task Force and had a secret vote on that ALEC task force alongside ALEC legislators on bills to limit the rights of Americans killed or injured by corporate products. Of course, that secret voting on model bills with lawmakers without the press or public present was not discussed in ATRA's op-ed.

Jones also made the baseless claim that Senator Durbin was using McCarthy-esque tactics by suggesting he was referring to a secret list of ALEC funders. However, the fact is that for more than two years, the Center for Media and Democracy has been publicly documenting the corporations and special interest groups, like ATRA, that are part of the pay-to-play operation that is ALEC -- where trade groups like ATRA and corporate lobbyists, lawyers, and special interest group representatives get their legislative wish lists into the hands of state legislators who have been wined and dined at ALEC resort meetings.

When CMD launched on July 13, 2011, CMD's full investigation and research tools for reporters, citizens, and public officials included a complete list of every single corporation listed in public materials that had supported ALEC:

CMD's investigation included a detailed discussion of ALEC funding in part because our examination helped uncover how ALEC was secretly lobbying to change state laws, while reporting to the IRS that it was spending zero dollars on lobbying. As the IRS has been advised, it is the view of CMD, Common Cause, Clergy Voice, the Voters Legislative Transparency Project (VLTP), and others that many of the corporations and special interests funding ALEC knew ALEC was spending significant time urging that legislators change state laws in the ways the funders desired. Indeed, that is one of the very reasons ALEC exists -- even though ALEC has publicly denied that it engages in any lobbying. Common Cause led off these complaints with one in 2011 and a more formal whistleblower complaint by the late Bob Edgar in 2012.

In CMD's view, ALEC's activities are not typical behavior for a non-profit enterprise. Most non-profits report lobbying activity if they are engaged in any small amount, and those organizations that have a significant legislative agenda -- as ALEC has had for decades -- typically organize a separate (c)(4) to segregate funding and expenses related to lobbying (and donations to that separate group are not tax-deductible as charitable giving, unlike funds given to a (c)(3) like ALEC).

CMD's investigation also revealed that many of the corporations were also giving gifts to ALEC specifically to fund trips by ALEC legislators to meet with corporate lobbyists about the legislative agenda in the states, but ALEC was reporting to the IRS that it spent zero on travel for public officials. Through open records requests, DBA Press and CMD obtained a complete list of every corporation funding ALEC's travel "scholarship" scheme over a three-year period, in addition to more details in some states. VLTP filed a whistleblower complaint focused on this corporate funding of trips and ALEC's failure to report them to the IRS, and CMD and Common Cause provided supplemental evidence about this to the IRS in August. Here are links to our special report that details every corporate transaction funding ALEC's undisclosed travel payments for lawmakers (and every legislator who took a funded trip through funds provided by state to ALEC), for years: our report "Buying Influence" and the appendix "ALEC Scholarships State by State" are available at the links.

CMD and others examined the public filings and public videos of ALEC meetings (the portions of ALEC meetings where corporations vote on model bills with legislators are kept from the public and press). CMD has identified numerous ALEC funders that were broadcast to the world as sponsors, with their logos festooned on backdrops publicizing their financial sponsorship of ALEC to ALEC legislators.

ALEC has claimed that it is a "private" group but not a secretive one, despite the documented ways it has excluded members of the press from trying to cover the cozy relationship it creates between lawmakers and corporate lobbyists behind closed doors, as well as its use of blacklists to identify potential reporters or bloggers it wants to exclude, to staffers to aid the security it hires.

Undoubtedly, the Senate will also receive a letter from ALEC alumni in Congress defending the group for this hearing, like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), who failed to disclose a gift he himself recently received from ALEC for his leadership in pushing the ALEC agenda in Congress. However, at least one key fact will be missing from that letter: the fact that any federal legislator that previously served on an ALEC task force secretly voted with corporate lobbyists on model legislation behind closed doors.

Federal legislators who are part of ALEC are steeped in the notion that it is normal and acceptable to give corporations, including foreign corporations, an equal "voice and vote" alongside elected officials on bills before they are introduced in legislatures. Those ALEC alumni know the identities of ALEC corporations that sought to influence their lawmaking through ALEC meetings and parties.

Such an admission is also glaringly absent from the op-eds that former or current ALEC state legislators got placed in state papers in August, which are part of the stack of op-eds and blogs that will likely be bandied about in the Senate hearing room.

The idea that these funders were not known before the Senate letter -- along with rhetoric that the Senate letter is akin to questions to private individual American citizens asking, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" -- is patently absurd. It is a fiction crafted by ALEC's PR operation to deflect from fair criticism of the organization and the role of its funders in promoting extreme legislation, while ALEC has denied it has engaged in lobbying to state and federal authorities.

Well before this hearing, hundreds of news stories and blogs have been published or broadcast mentioning some of the funders behind ALEC.

CMD has also published literally dozens of stories highlighting the lobbying agenda of corporate or special interests that have been advanced through ALEC, along with more than a dozen stories about corporations that have stopped funding ALEC in the wake of revelations about its secret role in getting special interest legislation introduced and passed, like Stand Your Ground bills.

In addition, for the past two years, there has been an ongoing series of public advocacy campaigns focused on ALEC funders like Coca Cola and others, as well as shareholder resolutions before publicly traded ALEC corporate funders urging these corporations to stop supporting ALEC's extreme agenda. These activities are well within the mainstream of American consumer activities and are consistent with the American tradition of citizen engagement in divestment campaigns, such as with the anti-Apartheid movement.

Accordingly, the idea that the Senate acted inappropriately in asking these publicly known funders of ALEC whether they support the devastating gun policies that ALEC pursued for decades is a manufactured charge utterly inconsistent with the facts in the public record about ALEC and its funders. Every corporation that received the letter knew full well that the letter was not a subpoena and did not compel a response. Every such corporation must be assumed to be sophisticated enough to understand the difference between a letter and subpoena.

The Senate letter actually provided a vehicle for corporations that have supported ALEC because of a special legislative agenda item to make clear to the public, if they wished, that the gun bills ALEC had become so controversial for were not what they had funded or sought to fund. Indeed, ALEC has recently added just such a disclaimer to its website, that corporations that support it do not necessarily support its whole agenda. They can still be held accountable by the public, however.

This situation is quite distinct from that of an ordinary private citizen, unknown to the press and public, being hauled before a Senate hearing and asked personally under the glare of the spotlight about his or her personal, private friendships that are the essence of the Constitution's protection for freedom of association. That is McCarthyism. This most certainly is not. The effort to equate the two is misinformed and, quite frankly, manipulative.

Similarly, to equate the Senate letter with the NAACP case -- as an SPN ally of ALEC in Alabama has done -- is to grossly misunderstand that dark chapter in American history. Those individual members of the NAACP were under imminent threat of being lynched for their activities to defend civil rights. Their names were unknown, which is why the state was seeking the membership list of the NAACP. The historical record is replete with evidence that the state of Alabama was working under color of state law with white supremacist operations like the racist "Council of Concerned Citizens" to victimize African American citizens who dared to joined together in opposition of the repression of their most fundamental rights as human beings.

The idea that ALEC or its corporate benefactors stand in the same shoes deeply insults the legacy of those who risked or lost their lives to organize together to resist the state's devotion to American apartheid in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and basic human rights.

ALEC is no NAACP. In fact, CMD's research indicates that ALEC strongly opposed any effort to get corporations to divest from racial apartheid in South Africa.

The two groups -- ALEC and the NAACP -- and their history are quite distinct.

The fact that ALEC is attempting to shield its operations as if it were a mere association of private citizens is belied by the fact that it is a group made up of public officials and corporate lobbyists that should not be deemed immune from transparency laws designed to prevent the corruption of elected representatives. Even the Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott, rejected a recent attempt by ALEC lawmakers to thwart CMD and the public's access to communications from ALEC to legislators in response to claims by ALEC that such disclosure would intrude on some purported freedom of association that should trump Texas' commitment to sunshine in government.

To equate the enormously coercive situation in the NAACP case with the one at hand does grave insult to the genuine stakes for a private human being asked to testify about his or her personal, private friendships, rather than a clique made up of elected officials and the lobbyists who want to influence them.

What is at issue here is a non-profit organization that has used its non-profit status to create an exclusive club for lobbyists and legislators to secretly consider and vote on legislation before it is introduced in statehouses, and that then pretends to the IRS and state bodies that no lobbying occurred and no gifts of travel were procured to facilitate this influence peddling.

The Senate certainly has the power to inquire about corporations and special interest groups participating in this scheme that has resulted in injurious changes to the law. The corporations and special interest groups that received the Senate letter are powerful artificial entities that are knowingly engaged in an effort to advance legislation stealthily without full disclosure to the public of their lobbying through the ALEC operation.

If such powerful entities can invoke the freedom of association to insulate from scrutiny the lobbying that has been alleged and documented, then all of our government's transparency laws regarding lobbying activity are at great risk of falling, furthering the corruption of our democracy by special interests that are funded by some of the most powerful corporations and CEOs in the world.

The identities of the corporations that have funded ALEC have been widely disseminated, through CMD's site which has had more than one million page views and its site which has millions of visitors a year. In addition, more than a thousand news stories and blog posts that have mentioned ALEC and its corporate funders, and these have been seen by millions of Americans, many of whom have signed petitions or contacted the corporations to express concerns about ALEC's agenda. Scores of public interest watchdog groups -- in addition to CMD, Common Cause, and VLTP -- such as ProgressNow, People for the American Way, Color of Change, Greenpeace, workers and their unions, and others have reached out to millions of Americans about ALEC and sincere concerns about the group.

This is democracy in action.

Citizens have a right to speak up and speak out about their genuine concerns that corporations have too much influence on our democractic system and the public officials elected to represent us. The counter-attack peddled by right-wing commentators like Michelle Malkin that Americans speaking out is "censorship" or that asking about the corporations behind the ALEC legislative agenda is "McCarthyism" -- as claimed in some of the blog posts and press releases of some of ALEC's allies -- is Orwellian-style disinformation.

The people have a right to know which corporations and special interest groups are getting special access to their lawmakers through funding ALEC, so citizens can help protect against corruption and influence peddling. The Senate should not be swayed by the tempest in a teapot ginned up by ALEC and its special interest allies in recent blog posts and the press. The bulk of editorials, op-eds, news stories, and blog posts about ALEC over these past two years have been critical of it, and rightly so.

That is one of the many reasons why the Center for Media and Democracy applauds the Senate for holding a hearing to examine the "Stand Your Ground" laws that ALEC peddled for years. ALEC wants to distance itself from its legacy, but it has failed to exert the same pressure for repeal that it exerted to get those harmful bills introduced and passed.

Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves is President of the Board of the Center for Media and Democracy and President of True North Research. She is a well-known researcher, writer, and public speaker. Her research and analysis have been cited by every major paper in the country and featured in critically acclaimed books and documentaries, including Ava Du Vernay’s award-winning film, “The 13th,” Bill Moyers’s “United States of ALEC,” and Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously.”