On Thursday, the watchdog group Documented published a list of hundreds of corporations, politicians, and front groups that attended a conference given by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last July.
ALEC is a right wing lobbying group that works with conservative state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists to craft so-called “model legislation”—bills that can be duplicated and distributed to state legislatures across the country. Partnering with the group has become highly controversial, with some organizations declaring they would no longer associate themselves with ALEC after these relationships were made public.
Yet the document, which was obtained through a public records request, showed at least five organizations who sent employees to the 2017 conference, even after they said they were cutting ties with ALEC.
The reasons for ALEC’s infamy are easy to spot. The group has pushed for repealing the Affordable Care Act, has opposed Medicaid expansion, and has endorsed rolling back environmental regulations, curtailing voting rights, and squashing the labor movement.
Most recently, the group endorsed the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment, which would allow Republican-controlled state legislatures to elect U.S. senators, and has pushed the Trump administration to rescind federal findings that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful—a move so onerous that even ExxonMobil opposes it.
ALEC also has deep ties to the Koch brothers, who made a name for themselves dumping money into states like Wisconsin to push their right wing legislative agenda. The group is a perfect distillation of right wing politicians joining with the corporate donor class in perfect synergy to squeeze every last dollar of profit out of consumers and workers.
As you might expect, ALEC closely guards its membership and lobbying activities, which culminate in an annual conference for its members. Let’s take a look at the organizations who publicly severed ties to this conservative lobbying network but still sent employees to its conference in 2017.
The American Association of Retired Persons has had a fraught history with ALEC. In 2016, critics noted that ALEC’s legislative priorities seem to stand in direct opposition to many of AARP’s avowed goals.
The retirees’ lobbying group initially defended its ALEC membership, saying it allowed AARP to “advance our members’ priorities from a position of strength at ALEC’s annual meeting.” But after facing much criticism, AARP’s president announced in 2016 that the group would no longer do business with ALEC.
But according to the spreadsheet obtained by Documented, 16 AARP employees from 12 different states attended the ALEC’s annual meeting in Denver last summer as non-members.
“We are not a member or a sponsor of that organization, nor have we been for the past year and a half,” an AARP spokesman told Splinter. He did not respond to follow-up questions about why the AARP employees were at the conference.
American Electric Power, one of the largest electric utility companies in the United States, said they were quitting ALEC in 2015 over the group’s stance on renewable energy and climate change. ALEC opposed the Obama administration’s Clean Energy Act and the Paris Climate Agreement and has advanced the interests of oil and gas companies while dismissing global climate change as “inevitable.”
The document lists the company as a non-member participant in the 2017 conference. A company spokesperson told Splinter that a lobbyist with AEP attended the ALEC conference “to stay informed on the issues they discuss that affect our industry.”
Back in 2012, the health insurance giant announced it had cut ties with ALEC. Since then, the company has quietly rejoined the conservative lobbying group, according to the leaked document.
Three employees from the company are listed as having attended last year’s ALEC conference as members of the conservative lobbying network: Emily Donaldson, director of state research; Michael Lyle, senior state advocacy analyst; and Mark Fleming, vice president of Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina.
I’ve reached out to Blue Cross Blue Shield and will update this post if I hear back.
In 2014, Uber employees attended ALEC’s annual conference, and even offered attendees a 30 percent discount off rides during the event in Dallas by using the code “ALECAC.”
But after facing criticism for their participation in the conference, Uber told the progressive group Common Cause that they would not be involved in the group going forward.
In 2017, though, Trevor Theunissen, a lobbyist for Uber, attended the ALEC conference as a non-member, according to the document. An Uber spokesperson told Splinter that Theunissen attended the conference for “general awareness” about legislative issues and, in defense, pointed to Uber’s support of the Paris Climate Agreement.
“We attend a lot of conferences that are talking about legislative priorities on both sides of the aisle just for general awareness,” the Uber spokesperson said. “We don’t contribute, we are not members, and we attend conferences like this across the political spectrum, across industries, for general awareness.”
Yelp says it first joined ALEC in 2013 to advocate for a specific model bill advocating against lawsuits of questionable merit, which critics say are intended to chill free speech, also known as anti-SLAPP laws. To Yelp’s credit, this is one of the rare good policy positions that has ALEC’s backing.
Luther Lowe, Yelp’s vice president of public policy, presented the model bill at ALEC’s annual meeting in 2013, and ALEC unanimously approved it.
“Anti-SLAPP laws make it tough to bring meritless lawsuits against individuals that have shared their honest opinions online,” Lowe told Splinter. “At Yelp, we’re highly supportive of any effort to promote and protect free speech online; we advocate for free speech on both sides of the aisle. We found ALEC provided a unique forum to bring a good idea to the table.”
In 2014, Yelp—along with other tech companies like Google—came under fire for their ALEC membership, and ended up cutting ties with the organization.
The business-rating company has not rejoined ALEC, according to the document, but Yelp’s former director of public policy, Laurent Crenshaw, attended the 2017 ALEC conference “to provide an update on these specific issues related to protection of consumer free speech,” Lowe said.
Crenshaw no longer works at Yelp, and Lowe said the company has no plans to attend ALEC’s 2018 conference in New Orleans.
The question these companies seem to be struggling with is whether you can work with an ethically dubious organization to further what you consider to be ethical goals, without being dragged down into the muck with them. When you’re surrounded by the swamp, it’s hard not to start looking like a swamp monster.