May 22, 2015

ALEC recently had its spring meeting to decide what fresh hell to rain down on all of us little people, and one reporter discovered what happens when they actually do what reporters should do.

It's refreshing to see local reporters actually do their job, but unfortunately, ALEC had other plans for him -- which included getting him out tossed out of his hotel room.

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.

Even though Cooley was talking about legislation with Georgia Rep. Ben Harbin and other lawmakers behind closed doors in Savannah, CTIA told the 11Alive Investigators that Cooley was not lobbying under Georgia's legal definition. The money CTIA pays to ALEC is not considered a lobbying expenditure, even if ALEC used the same dollars to pay for the food, drink, and hotel for Georgia lawmakers in Georgia.

Likewise, Rep. Harbin and the other Georgia legislators are not required to report who paid for the hotel rooms, the meals, or any other expenses. If this happened in Atlanta, and the payments were made by lobbyists, they would be subject to reporting and a $75 limit.

The 11Alive Investigators filed half a dozen open records requests with Georgia senators and representatives, asking for receipts and reimbursement records for travel to ALEC events.The legislative counsel, Wayne Allen, responded on Wednesday, "your request is denied." Allen added, "The General Assembly is not subject to the Georgia Open Records law."

That's right, lawmakers exempted themselves from a law they passed to make Georgia government more transparent. But that doesn't stop some lawmakers from talking about the perks to complete strangers in the hotel bar.

Get a few drinks in them, and they loosen right up.

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.

When I asked the state representative how he pays for a trip like this, he told me that ALEC picks up the hotel room and $350 in expenses directly. He has to come up with the rest, or tap into his ALEC state reimbursement fund. "This is where you would come in ma'am," he said, turning toward the lobbyist. "I'm the state chair of ALEC, and I look for financial supporters, lobbyists and the like such as yourself, to send us a couple thousand bucks every so often."

Ultimately, the bigwigs caught wind of the fact that there was a reporter in their midst. Never mind that said reporter was there with the family, and that the reporter was a paying guest of the hotel. Never mind that, because ALEC wields their power like a scythe.

After this reporter asked to be credentialed, he was told they would not credential him, and his Georgia legislature credentials were not enough. When pressed on that, they just went and got the police.

Following the woman to the registration desk, I said, "we're credentialed to observe legislators here in Georgia wherever they meet to discuss laws. Are laws being made in there?"

Instead of answering, she called over a sheriff's deputy, one of six off-duty police officers we observed taking their orders directly from ALEC staff members. He called three of his fellow deputies as back-up.

Then we were approached by Bill Meierling, ALEC's Vide President of Communications and Public Relations with the four deputies keeping a close watch on us. Surely he would be able to answer our many questions. "Can we interview you?' I asked. "Actually no," he answered.

Ultimately, they got him booted from the hotel altogether, despite the fact that he was a paying guest with as much right to stay there as those lobbyists and legislators were.

At that point the ALEC vice president clasped his hands, closed his eyes, and let out a sigh. He then called over the pack of four deputies without saying another word.

Sheriff's Deputy: "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
Keefe: "Alright, I'm a guest of the hotel sir."
Sheriff's Deputy: "Not for long. Not for long."
Keefe: "I'm a paying guest of this hotel sir."
Sheriff's Deputy: "We'll take care of that."
Second Deputy: "We'll escort you up to your room and you can get your things."

The deputies called for the hotel manager who ultimately kicked us out of our hotel room for "taking pictures in the hotel."

I asked the deputies, "did we violate some law or something? I mean are we violating a law?"

The first deputy ignored my question and turned to the second deputy telling him, "Don't say nothing."

In 2013, Better Georgia looked into the impact ALEC has on state legislation. It wasn't pretty.

Here are just a few of the findings from our work:

  • Georgia legislators have received more than $140,000 in lobbyist gifts while attending ALEC conventions. But these gifts are not disclosed. ALEC has a special fund set up to avoid disclosure.
  • Georgia doesn’t have many ALEC bills; Georgia has ALEC laws. ALEC has been incredibly successful in Georgia and its influence has been largely unnoticed.
  • ALEC’s education policies enacted in Georgia are a catastrophe. From charter schools to vouchers, ALEC’s laws allow corporate schools to avoid the same accountability as Georgia’s public schools.
  • ALEC’s healthcare policies enacted in Georgia are nothing more than a series of ineffective giveaways to the insurance industry.
  • ALEC’s brand of crony capitalism has produced bills to rig the legal system for corporations, prevent capitalist competition, and even outsourced the design of tax plans to ALEC and its corporate allies.

ALEC is behind the nonsensical and draconian laws punishing poor people. There is nothing they won't turn to crap in the name of corporate control. And if you want to report on it, good luck with that.

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