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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Corporations Are Controlling Wisconsin Legislators

ALEC's 'Scholarships' raise questions about corporate lobbying

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The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an ultraconservative corporate-sponsored policy group, has been known to legislators for years, but it has just recently come under public scrutiny for the group's creative—and controversial—promotion of corporate goals in laws passed in statehouses around the country.

ALEC pairs legislators from around the country with corporate representatives, who write free-market, anti-government "model legislation" that is replicated in state legislatures across the nation. These bills are written at ALEC's lavish national summits, which legislators attend with the help of ALEC "scholarships" for travel, lodging and other expenses.

ALEC's most dubious achievements have been the passage of the anti-immigrant "show us your papers" law in Arizona (which has been introduced in Wisconsin and other states) and the castle doctrine laws passed in Wisconsin and elsewhere, with deadly results.

ALEC members and supporters say the meetings are merely a way for legislators to exchange ideas with each other and ALEC's private-sector members.

Critics have questioned ALEC's goals and tactics and say that the group's methods whitewash corporate contributions from big businesses such as Koch Industries, AT&T, ExxonMobil, a host of pharmaceutical companies, Wal-Mart, Time Warner, and Reynolds American, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds.

Big-Money 'Scholarships' From Big Pharma

Among ALEC's chief critics is Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), which has conducted a wide-ranging investigation of ALEC's funding and perks for sympathetic legislators.

Last week, CMD filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (GAB) against members of ALEC in the state Legislature who CMD alleges have broken numerous state ethics and lobbying laws.

Wisconsin statutes prohibit any principal or lobbyist from giving any legislators or their staffers any lodging, transportation, food, beverages, or any other thing of value. Elected state officials are prohibited from accepting those perks. There's an exemption for reimbursements from the organizer of an event.

CMD found that ALEC's scholarships are funded by private corporations, not ALEC, which would prohibit legislators from receiving them.

Those contributions are raised by ALEC's state chair—currently state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and the state's "private enterprise chair," Amy Boyer, a lobbyist for ALEC members, including Koch Industries and Wal-Mart. (Vos and Boyer did not respond to the Shepherd's request for comment on CMD's complaint.)

These funds are placed in a segregated fund for scholarships and are supposed to be blind, so that legislators do not know the corporate sponsors of their scholarships.

However, CMD's extensive investigation found that ALEC's scholarship account is hardly blind.

"Evidence strongly suggests that Wisconsin legislators are aware of which corporations are funding scholarships to ALEC meetings," the complaint states.

CMD discovered that funders include Reynolds American, AT&T and 3M.

In 2010, PhRMA, the trade group for pharmaceutical companies, made the jaw-dropping contribution of $356,075 to the "ALEC Scholarship Fund," according to tax filings found by CMD. The address listed for the fund is in Madison, the same address for Hamilton Consulting, the lobbying group that employs Amy Boyer, ALEC's private enterprise chair in Wisconsin.

"It does appear that at least some legislators know who is funding the account," Brendan Fischer, law fellow for CMD, told the Shepherd.

The complaint also alleges that some legislators are not disclosing their ALEC scholarships on their statement of economic interests, as they are required to do by law. In 2010, those legislators included Vos, state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa), state Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) and then-state Rep. Mike Huebsch, the current secretary of the Department of Administration, among others.

Time Warner Cable's Night at the Ballpark

CMD also found information about the kind of perks an ALEC member can enjoy in addition to their "scholarships"—perks that are banned by state statutes, which prohibit elected officials from accepting anything that could influence their votes, official actions or judgment.

One of those perks CMD discovered was a Time Warner Cable-sponsored "Night at the Ballpark" for ALEC's member legislators and their guests as part of ALEC's Spring Task Force Summit in Cincinnati in April 2011. Legislators were treated to free tickets to a Cincinnati Reds-Florida Marlins game, exclusive access to ballpark party decks, food and drinks.

Vos' assistant passed on the invitations to 44 individuals, "primarily Wisconsin state legislators and staffers," CMD's complaint noted. The invitation clearly stated that the event was sponsored by Time Warner Cable and that tickets were free.

CMD isn't sure of how many legislators took advantage of Time Warner's offer, but Vos' assistant reserved a ticket for him.

CMD alleges that the "night at the ballpark" perk had a direct effect on a bill friendly to Time Warner that was pending in the Wisconsin Legislature.

The invitation was emailed on April 7, 2011. On April 28, the Committee on Senate Organization introduced Senate Bill 13, a pro-Time Warner bill.

"That same day," CMD's complaint reads, "13 of the 20 Assembly members who received the invite to the Time Warner Cable 'night at the ballpark' added themselves as co-sponsors to the bill. The following evening, on April 29, 2011, the Time Warner Cable-sponsored 'night at the ballpark' took place, presumably with many of these same legislators in attendance."

The bill passed the Assembly on May 11, 2011.

"These transactions certainly look like a quid pro quo and appear to violate multiple provisions of Wisconsin's ethics and lobbying laws," CMD's complaint states.

A spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable could not provide further information in time for the Shepherd's press deadline.

CMD also found that as part of an ALEC summit in New Orleans in 2011, ALEC member legislators and their spouses were invited to a free cigar reception sponsored by Reynolds American and the Cigar Association of America, while the National Rifle Association sponsored a "sporting clays shoot and barbeque" and provided shotguns, ammunition, eye and ear protection and a shuttle from the hotel.

CMD alleges that these perks violate Wisconsin statutes.