WASHINGTON -- When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) first started facing public scrutiny about its extraordinary ability to turn "model bills" written by corporate lobbyists into state law, the secretive group sent out a list of talking points to its members, telling them what to do when faced with questions about the role of the group's corporate sponsors.
The guidance, in a nutshell: Change the subject.
"The following information is designed to help you navigate away from those tough questions and get back to talking about policy," says the memo, which was obtained by the public interest group Common Cause and provided exclusively to The Huffington Post. "If you are asked any of these questions, acceptable responses are provided, but please then direct the conversation back to the policy to which you want to discuss."
The sample questions, which the memo stated were mostly taken from actual encounters with journalists and state legislative committees, provide a good representation of the fundamental criticisms ALEC has been facing. Among the questions:
- Didn't ALEC actually write this legislation in conjunction with private corporations and then convince state legislators to pass it throughout the country?
- Isn't this just a front for big corporations to push their legislative policies on policy makers?
- Isn't this just another way for big corporations to lobby behind closed doors?
- I see the huge cost for private companies and the minimal cost for legislators. Why the difference and doesn't this jus [sic] prove that big corporations run ALEC?
- How much does __________ contribute to ALEC? I've seen figures in the hundreds of thousands. Reports suggest __________ have been contributed to ALEC.
- Isn't it true that Koch (or insert other members' names) provided ALEC over $500,000 in funding over the past few years?
- Your corporate members are the real ones pushing the issues and controlling ALEC, aren't they? They do give the most money.
The model answers provided by ALEC have the consistent theme of attempting to obscure the influence of its corporate members and to shift emphasis onto the role of legislators, whose dues comprise only 2 percent of the group's budget, according to an analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy.
ALEC spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss declined to answer a series of questions about the memo, which appears to date back at least a year. "[W]e do not use that document at all," Buss wrote in an email. "It was created by someone who left ALEC to pursue other opportunities and is not a current working document."
Raegan Weber, whose name appears on the memo, was ALEC's senior director of public affairs in 2010 and 2011. Weber, who now works at the Mortgage Bankers Association, declined to comment.
Among the responses recommended in the memo: "Since ALEC is a legislative organization our state legislators take the lead on proposing legislation and only the public sector votes to adopt legislation as ALEC policy."
But Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which published an exposé of ALEC last year, told HuffPost in an email that's not true. Documents uncovered by her group and by public interest group Common Cause clearly show "that numerous bills were introduced where the corporate lobbyist or special interest group rep took the lead on proposing legislation."
ALEC meetings, she said, "are designed to spoonfeed ALEC legislators industry-funded science and corporate-based 'studies' that advance the corporate agenda."
Another suggested response in the memo is to say that "ALEC does not engage in expressed advocacy; meaning we do not advocate to vote for or against any legislation."
But Graves disputed that claim as well. "Under ALEC's published by-laws, the state legislative leaders of ALEC have a 'duty' to get ALEC model bills introduced and passed in their home states," she said.
"Legislators go back to their statehouses and introduce the model bills cleansed of any reference to ALEC or the fact that they were pre-voted on by corporate lobbyists alongside legislators," Graves wrote.
According to Graves, ALEC's internal process initiates model bills at the task force level, where the many legislators and the relatively few corporate lobbyists are split into two groups -- each of which must vote in favor of a model bill to send it to the full board.
"Witnesses have seen the slate of corporate lobbyists and special interest reps voting down proposed amendments by legislators," Graves told HuffPost. "That is, nothing is approved by the task force unless a majority of the corporate reps consent. And the legislators are often voting in front of their benefactors, the corporations, PACs and lobbyists that fund their campaigns for reelection."
Technically, the task forces are only voting to send the bill to ALEC's board, not actually to adopt it as ALEC policy. But the board, which is made up only of public members, doesn't actually vote, said Nick Surgey, a legal associate for Common Cause, which obtained ALEC documents through Freedom of Information Act filings and other measures. The board's process "seems to be a rubber stamping exercise," he said.
"And in fact they don't have to take any action," Surgey said. "They get sent a packet after each conference, and they have a certain period of time to object. They don't object."
ALEC has been the subject of intense media attention in the last several months, particularly since the fatal shooting in February of an unarmed Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin. His killing did not result initially in charges for the shooter, due to the kind of "stand your ground" gun laws that ALEC has pushed through two dozen state legislatures -- in this case, on behalf of the National Rifle Association.
Civil rights-oriented grassroots groups seized on the opportunity to pressure member companies to drop out. Other grassroots groups had already been urging member corporations to do the same in response to ALEC's support of voter ID bills, seen by many as an attempt to suppress poor and minority voter turnout.
The big curtain-raiser on ALEC came in July 2011, when the Center for Media and Democracy unveiled on its website more than 800 "model" bills and resolutions -- revealing ALEC's decades-long role in turning corporate objectives, such as tax breaks, deregulation and privatization, into copycat bills passed by legislatures across the country.
Being in the spotlight has not benefited ALEC of late, having resulted in a loss of corporate sponsors, as companies using ALEC to meet their own legislative needs attempt to disassociate themselves from aspects of its sometimes radical, social and economic agenda.
Case in point, more than a dozen former member organizations have distanced themselves from the group since the Martin shooting, either by quitting or announcing a prior withdrawal.
Common Cause last month filed an IRS complaint accusing ALEC of masquerading as a public charity while doing widespread lobbying.
Common Cause's Surgey said he was amazed to see the memo, with all the stock responses laid out in one place. "But also it made sense," he said, "because we have heard a lot of these statements being repeated by legislators."
READ THE MEMO:
Disclosure: HuffPost's parent company AOL has collaborated with ALEC in the past on intellectual property legislation.