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ALEC's 'secretive' meeting in Indianapolis draws criticism

Group won't disclose members, meeting participants
Posted: 1:14 PM, Jul 26, 2016
Updated: 2016-07-27 11:48:52-04

INDIANAPOLIS -- Thousands of corporate lobbyists, activists, policy analysts and lawmakers from all 50 states will convene at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis July 27-29 for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting, its largest of the year.

The meeting is already drawing sharp criticism from groups that say ALEC is a secretive lobbying organization with a conservative agenda.

A protest is planned on July 27 at 3:30 p.m. at the statehouse, including groups like the Indiana State Teachers’ Association , Citizens Action Coalition, AFL-CIO, ALECexposed, and Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

ALEC would not provide a list of conference attendees to Call 6 Investigates.

The organization also would not provide a list of its members, including companies and legislators.

“There’s legislation being cooked up inside these meetings,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. “It’s just another pipeline for corporate ideas to get inside the statehouse.”

Vaughn said unlike the National Conference of State Legislators that is more politically balanced, ALEC’s slant is very conservative and corporate driven.

Common Cause filed a whistleblower complaint against ALEC alleging they’re masquerading as charity, when in reality they are a lobbying group.

“They bring corporate interests and lawmakers together, give them legislation to bring back to their statehouses,” said Vaughn. “Clearly, they are involved in lobbying.”

Kerwin Olson, executive director of the utility and environmental watchdog group Citizens Action Coalition, said finding out ALEC’s influence is difficult because Indiana legislators don’t have to disclose their emails with corporate lobbyists.

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“ALEC’s fingerprints are all over legislation that we deal with in respect to energy issues, environmental and utility issues,” said Olson.  “They’ve had a huge impact on the state of Indiana whether it’s the privatization of the toll road or no more stringent environmental rules.” 

Olson and Vaughn pointed out their organizations have to register as lobbyists, but ALEC has the same tax designation as a battered woman’s shelter.

“The IRS should really wake up and do something about it,” said Vaughn.

An IRS spokesperson declined to comment on the status of Common Cause’s complaint against ALEC.

ALEC pays for at least some of the travel expenses for state lawmakers to attend ALEC events, which typically include three meetings a year.
Recent meeting locations include San Diego, Scottsdale, Santa Barbara and Pittsburgh.

The agenda for the ALEC annual meeting in Indianapolis includes workshops on budgeting, fair bidding, school security, building permits, and other issues, but ALEC would not allow Call 6 Investigates to attend any of the workshops.

“I’m not sure that’s something they want to open up to the public because I’m sure many of us would be shocked at how they operate and how corporations really control the dialogue,” said Vaughn.

ALEC will allow the media to attend speaking engagements including Governor Mike Pence, who will speak on Friday.

Although ALEC won’t disclose a list of its members, their website lists Indiana Senator Jim Buck (R-Kokomo) and Rep. David Frizzell (R-Indianapolis) on their board of directors, and Frizzell and Rep. David Wolkins (R-Winona Lake) as the ALEC representatives for the state of Indiana.

Wolkins told Call 6 Investigates the list of ALEC members should not be released because people who are against ALEC “aren’t always ethical type people and there are threats.”

“They love protesting,” said Wolkins. “This is what a lot of them do for a living.”

Wolkins also debunked the notion that corporate interests drive the legislation.

“To say that the corporations write these laws is absolutely ridiculous,” said Wolkins. “We use them more than they use us. It’s absolutely absurd.  The topics we discuss come from legislators.”

Wolkins said they close the doors to their workshops for a reason.

“The doors are closed because we have thugs try to break in and disrupt, so obviously they are behind closed doors,” said Wolkins. “If you’re not a member, you don’t get in.”

ALEC spokesperson Bill Meierling said their organization is very misunderstood.

“ALEC is a table, a trusted convener of legislators and stakeholders from around the country,” said Meierling. “We do nothing. Legislators from across the states introduce model policies, often times that are based on existing laws in their states.”

Meierling denied ALEC being secretive, and pointed to a slew of information available on their website including model policies and drafts.

“What we are doing is bringing people together to exchange ideas so that they can learn from each other’s mistakes and benefit from each other’s successes,” said Meierling.

Another ALEC spokesperson called Common Cause’s whistleblower complaint “baseless.”

“Common Cause uses government to target groups with which it disagrees,” said Molly Drenkard, Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs for ALEC. “Common Cause has a record of using highly political tactics to silence debate and free speech. It is a shame that a group that was originally intended for promoting good governance has strayed so far from its mission.”  

ALEC also blasted the Indiana State Teachers’ Association for tying its ALEC protest with public education night at Victory Field, in which game tickets and food vouchers will be given out.

“I think ALEC’s spokesperson is trying to divert journalists from the real story – which is ALEC’s schemes to draft corporate-driven legislation designed to dismantle public education as we know it,” said ISTA spokesperson Kim Clements-Johnson.

Indiana Senator Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) plans to attend the ALEC conference.

“In my experience, legislative conferences hosted by ALEC and other legislative organizations provide a valuable opportunity to discuss these issues with other state legislators from across the country,” said Leising in an emailed statement. “In doing so, I’m able to gather ideas about what may be working in other states and what could work for Indiana.  Since the ALEC conference is being held in Indianapolis this year, I made sure to attend so I could take advantage of this resource and expand my knowledge right here in my home state.”

Call 6 Investigates reached out to Indiana legislators’ offices to find out who is attending, and learned of at least two representatives that have cut ties with ALEC—Rep. Doug Gutwein (R-Francesville) and Rep. Sean Eberhart (R-Shelbyville).

Press secretaries for Gutwein and Eberhart said they did not know why the representatives were no longer affiliated with ALEC.

Although ALEC will not provide a list of conference attendees, Call 6 Investigates was able to put together the following list:

Attending Conference
- Rep. Eric Koch (R-Bedford)
-Rep. Heath VanNatter (R-Frankfort)
-Rep. Denny Zent (R-Angola)
-Rep. Tim Wesco (R-Lakeville)
- Rep. Curt Nisly (R-Goshen)
-Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg)
- Rep David Wolkins (R-Winona Lake)

ALEC Board of Directors
Sen. Jim Buck (R-Kokomo)
Rep. David Frizzell (R-Indianapolis)

ALEC State Reps
Rep David Wolkins (R-Winona Lake)
Rep. David  Frizzell (R-Indianapolis)