The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a nonprofit that touts itself as a “Jeffersonian” limited government organization for state lawmakers. In reality, the group is little more than a sophisticated front group that allows corporate lobbyists — from companies like Peabody Coal, McDonalds, AT&T, and others — to literally write big business-friendly legislation and pass it off to state-level legislators to be eventually introduced and passed into law. As we have reported, health insurance lobbyists drafted ALEC’s anti-health reform legislation, private prison lobbyists drafted ALEC’s harsh immigrant detention policies, and as the NRDC has documented, multitudes of other corporate giveaways have been drafted as ALEC reform legislation.
Some have challenged the very model of ALEC, claiming that it is designed to skirt state disclosure laws requiring corporate lobbyists to register. A corporate lobbyist can avoid disclosure by simply writing bills via ALEC, at conventions or other meetings with legislators, so when the bill is introduced it no longer has the fingerprints of whatever corporation is employing the lobbyist who wrote the law.
At ALEC conference in New Orleans earlier this month, we ran into Victor Schwartz, an attorney with the firm Shook Hardy and chair of an ALEC task force (the committees charged with writing draft legislation). Schwartz runs what he calls “the iron triangle” at Shook Hardy, a business practice comprised of litigation, lobbying, and public relations to limit liability for corporations. We asked Schwartz, who has helped pass tort reform laws across the country, at times using the support of ALEC, about the ethics of the ALEC strategy for passing laws without lobbying disclosure:
FANG: If Representative Joe Schmoe from Nevada meets with you here in New Orleans, gets a great idea from you, you helped him write this law, he goes to his state and introduces it; you’ve never been to Nevada, let’s say, and he introduces that law, the citizens of Nevada don’t know Victor Schwartz helped write that law.
SCHWARTZ: Well people don’t know who—I’ve worked with Congress every day. No one knows who writes all the laws in Congress.
FANG: Isn’t that problematic? For the critics of ALEC, that kind of validates their criticism. […] You understand the criticism that ALEC is just a proxy to get around all the disclosure, the transparency that many states require.
SCHWARTZ: No. Because people, every Dick, Moe, and Joe knows just the way you found me. I co-chair the civil justice task force.
FANG: Not every Dick and Joe understands ALEC. […]
SCHWARTZ: If you all think the laws should be changed, then go and change them. I don’t see any hidden thing. […]
FANG: But ALEC is a very convenient identity. The person could say ‘I’m a Jeffersonian individual liberty, you know conservative, I’m not here representing Phillip Morris or whatever.’ It’s a front, that’s the accusation and you haven’t really deflected that.
SCHWARTZ: Well all the people, all the people who sponsor ALEC on the webs and everything say these are the people who sponsor and if in my experience when I’ve testified – I don’t do it too much – if someone is there, they will say well Victor is representing ALEC. And everyone knows who sponsors ALEC, General Motors and everything, and they list them.
Victor Schwartz insisted to us that ALEC is an open organization with nothing to hide. But it’s not clear who exactly is paying Victor Schwartz (or his law firm) to write tort reform laws, or which legislators around the country are busy passing laws written by Schwartz and his committee. Moreover, there is no information about which corporations pay Schwartz or some the other private sector lobbyists helping him craft model legislation.
According to the Minnesota Independent, ALEC appears to have broken state lobbying laws in Minnesota. The group hosted an event with lobbyists and state GOP lawmakers without registering its agents as lobbyists.
Although ALEC has been around since the late 70s, only recently has the group gained national attention for its powerful role in setting public policy at the state level. When we tried to attend the ALEC conference, ThinkProgress reporters were violently attacked by security guards who said they were acting on ALEC’s behalf.