January 24, 2014

DETOUR #1: Intro to ALEC
If you are familiar with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) and its "business model", feel free to skip this introduction.

If, on the other hand, you've never heard of ALEC, or you've heard of the organization but aren't familiar with their operations, you should continue.

ALEC's genius has always been its unique ability to pair eager state lawmakers (ALEC's "legislative members") with top-tier corporate lobbyists ("corporate members").

ALEC's legislative members join at no cost. Corporate members provide the vast majority of the organization's operating budget.

ALEC commits the lion's share of their annual budget to two annual meetings. ALEC "scholarships" are provided to legislative members to cover their costs of attendance (airfare, hotel, etc.) Often, the legislators know which corporate member provided funding for their scholarship.

At the summits, ALEC legislators and their corporate benefactors can meet privately. What happens behind the locked doors is anyone's guess, but when the doors open, there's a good chance the legislators will emerge with a bill written by (and for) their corporate sugar-daddies.

What do the legislators and lobbyists do when they aren't drawing up corporate dream legislation? It's hard to say: Invariably, the escort services near ALEC's events share ALEC's obsession with secrecy.

Early last month, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) held its most recent policy summit at the Hyatt Regency in Washington DC. I was there to cover it for StarkReports and FossilAgenda.com.

It turned out to be a tough gig. Surprisingly tough.

Don't get me wrong - I had kept up with ALEC's ascent to the apex of Evil Mountain. I knew they were reeling from negative publicity - as victims of their own success. Trayvon Martin (RIP) and the Newtown massacre each came to be identified with ALEC's pro-gun/Stand Your Ground agenda. As Americans learned how their newly-elected Tea-Party legislators were working hand in glove with ALEC, the secrecy-obsessed organization struggled with its growing notoriety. Don't misunderstand the situation though: The bad press did nothing to slow ALEC's legislative blitzkrieg assault on unions, public schools, elderly and minority voters, low-wage workers, and clean energy.

Yes, I knew all that. I read Crooks And Liars.

I also read the Guardian.

On December 3, one day before the Summit began, the first of several explosive reports about ALEC's membership loss (which resulted in a budget crunch) and their scramble to regain their footing.

An influential US lobbying network of Republican politicians and big businesses is seeking to avert a looming funding crisis by appealing to major donors that have abandoned it over the past two years following criticism of its policy on gun laws.

The Guardian has learned that the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), which shapes and promotes legislation at state level across the US, has identified more than 40 lapsed corporate members it wants to attract back into the fold under a scheme referred to in its documents as the "Prodigal Son Project".

ALEC's Executive Committee convened an emergency late-night meeting on December 2, presumably after fielding Guardian calls requesting comment.

DETOUR #2: ALEC's bogeyman

Consider this: Most large organizations summon the crisis management team when their brand is responsible or associated with some failure or tragedy. Think of BP and the Gulf Oil Spill, or Freedom Industries and the WV chemical leak, or Toyota and run-away accelerators...

That's not the way it works at ALEC. If, for example, voter ID legislation were to founder in the New Hampshire state house, the entire organization isn't thrown into crisis mode. There are no emergency meetings or panicked phone calls.

No. For ALEC, failure is ho-hum - it's their successes they fear the most.

Or rather, news of ALEC's successes is what sets hair on fire throughout the entire ALEC organization: Transparency is the most potent threat to ALEC's continued existence.

After all, most Americans assume their elected officials are more or less committed to representing the interests of the district they serve. Voters can get restless when they begin to think otherwise:

Kansas City Star
December 3, 2013

One of the most interesting documents is a proposed job description for the legislators designated to head up their state delegations. Along with striving to increase membership in ALEC by 10 percent a year and informing the group of all public information requests that include ALEC documents, it was proposed that state chairs take a loyalty oath: “I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization first.”

What? These are elected officials. They are to put the interests of their states and constituents first. Apparently at some level people realized that, because the draft job description was never adopted. But the very suggestion demonstrates ALEC’s eagerness to control these lawmakers.

ALEC is well represented in the Republican caucuses of the Kansas and Missouri legislatures. Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick is the state chairman for ALEC. In Missouri, the state chairman is GOP Senator Ed Emery.

Welcome back...

So... Within one day of launching their major annual event in Washington DC, ALEC's Executive Committee was thrown into crisis, panicked by the prospect of more negative media coverage.

That's what I walked into. Watch the video to see what happened.

The video runs about 4 1/2 minutes, is in a draft form, and requires some explanation.

The first few seconds of the video demonstrate ALEC's hostility toward media. Molly Fuhls, ALEC's Manager of Media Public Relations breaks the bad news with syrypy sweetness: media credentials were simply unavailable. In response, I volunteer that I'll just lurk about and interview people in ad hoc fashion. She explains that I won't be allowed to do that. I explain that I've got a room at the hotel, so...

Next the video cuts to the beginning of my first interview, and its conclusion. The interview itself is not important here; it simply serves to establish that there was nothing unusual or disruptive in the work I was doing. The video also establishes that...

Immediately upon the interview's conclusion, I was approached by "security" and that, out of courtesy, I stopped recording video. Off camera I'm informed that interviews with ALEC members violate a policy prohibiting solicitation. I ask for clarification: obviously impromptu conversations are taking place all around us. I agree to refrain from approaching hotel guests while I wait for the "security" executive to return with clear guidelines.

I attempted to follow up several times, but after nearly three hours of waiting for an explanation, I could wait no longer.

The video (shot with Google Glass - note that Google is a ALEC corporate member) chronicles my return to the registration desk. It also picks up the sound of my pursuers. The "security" professionals I spoke with earlier are chasing me, and they have a uniformed policeman with them. They catch up to me just as I'm asking Molly Fuhls if ALEC had anything to do with my (seemingly) imminent arrest.

But I was not arrested. Instead I'm informed (by the policeman) that if I speak to any hotel guest with an ALEC badge, I will be arrested. This time, the message is very clear: If I attempt to interview any ALEC guest, I will be arrested. I make arrangements on the spot to be arrested and proceed immediately to interview a group of ALEC guests.

The officer and security team hovered over me as I began the interview. I was not arrested.

You may have guessed it by now, but it took me a few days to learn why I wasn't arrested. When I shared the video with some colleagues, I learned "Security" was not hotel security. "Security" was ALEC in-house security. We know this because these men run security at every ALEC event, in cities across the country. When I was initially approached by a man in a suit, offering a badge and the words "I'm with security here," I made the mistake of assuming he was a Hyatt executive. ALEC's security pros knew that and took every advantage.

So what about the policeman, Officer Gilbert?

Well, it turns out that policeman and retired cops are allowed to moonlight through a program run by Washington DC's Metropolitan Police Department. They are paid well to provide security to private events.

We've come full circle, haven't we? Transparency is ALEC's systemic poison. Their in-house security team knew that if I caught on to their ruse, I could and would have safely ignored them and done my work. (It would have been difficult though: I have a recording of two ALEC members revealing that they were asked not to talk to the reporter with the Glass).

Since transparency is their poison, let's serve up a healthy dose: Let's make the two ALEC security professionals famous. The first appears at :30. The other, his boss enters the video at the 1:30 mark. Can we crowdsource their names? Can we put their faces on a poster? After all, that's exactly what ALEC did to Lee Fang, Gabe Elsner, Lisa Graves, Nick Surgey, Brendan Fischer, Beau Hodai, Calvin Sloan and Sabrina Stevens:

"We Know Who You Are"

On the morning of May 3, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin -- an ALEC "Legislator of the Year" in 2009 -- gave the ALEC meeting's keynote address. The short, relatively generic speech was the only portion of the ALEC event open to the press: the task force meetings where prospective "model bills" are discussed and adopted were entirely closed-door and guarded by police.

Center for Media and Democracy Research Director Nick Surgey obtained press credentials at the ALEC registration desk. As he ascended the escalator towards the room where Governor Fallin was speaking, though, he was spotted by two ALEC staffers, and within minutes approached by a uniformed Oklahoma City police officer.

"I need those credentials," the officer said.

"I registered," Surgey replied.

"No, you didn't," said a female ALEC staffer, who was accompanying the officer.

"I did, downstairs," he said.

"It was... you shouldn't have been able to."

The reason Surgey shouldn't have been allowed to register, according to the ALEC staffer:

"Because we know who you are."

ALEC's Most Wanted

How does ALEC know who Surgey is?

CMD later obtained a document titled "OKC anti-ALEC photos" at the ALEC conference.

The page featured the pictures and names of eight people, four of whom work with CMD, including Surgey, CMD's general counsel Brendan Fischer and its Executive Director Lisa Graves, as well as CMD contributor Beau Hodai.

It is not known whether the photo array of people who have reported on or criticized ALEC was distributed to ALEC members or shared with Oklahoma City law enforcement.

ALEC's hostility to the press serves a very important purpose: It keeps the corporate front group alive; their extraordinary reach and effectiveness cannot be sustained in sunlight.

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