A lobbyist for Koch Industries and energy interests serves with a lobbyist for Pfizer pharmaceuticals as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) corporate co-chairs in Wisconsin, according to documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy at this year's ALEC Annual Meeting. For some, their fundraising for "scholarships" to benefit ALEC legislative members raises issues of legislative ethics.
The Koch and Pfizer lobbyists are tasked with raising dollars to fund legislators' trips to ALEC meetings, working alongside Wisconsin's legislative state chair, Rep. Robin Vos. Wisconsin is a "no cuppa coffee state," meaning that lobbyists cannot purchase ANY gift for a legislator, even a cup of coffee; free plane tickets and hotel rooms might look like a "gift," but according to Jay Heck, Executive Director of Common Cause Wisconsin, "ALEC has succeeded in skirting Wisconsin's no-gift lobby laws" by calling this spending a "scholarship."
What's more, the "scholarships" are raised and disbursed in secret, preventing the public from knowing which business or ideological interests are funding legislators' expenses for days of meetings with corporate lobbyists.
Corporate Chairs Raise "Scholarships" for Legislators
ALEC's bylaws outline the role of state-level legislative and corporate chairs. Wisconsin Rep. Robin Vos, the state legislative "Public Sector" chair, was appointed by the ALEC National Chair, Louisiana Rep. Noble Ellington. Vos was tasked with appointing the state's corporate "Private Sector" chairs," and selected Amy Boyer (whose lobbying clients include Koch Industries, Wal Mart, and Xcel Energy), and Bryon Wornson (in-house lobbyist for Pfizer pharmaceuticals). According to the bylaws, the two would then have been confirmed by the Chair of the national corporate board, former tobacco industry lobbyist W. Preston Baldwin III.
The role for the corporate chairs, as defined in ALEC's bylaws, is to work with the legislative chair to raise funds for the scholarships that pay for legislators to attend the three-day ALEC Annual Meeting, as well as ALEC Summits and Task Force meetings where corporations and legislators initially approve model legislation.
These trips, which look a lot like a vacation, "are designed to create a friendly, favorable environment for exerting influence," says Heck, with legislators as a "captive audience" for corporate lobbyists.
Legislators will always deny they are influenced by lobbyists, he says, but the relationship-building and one-sided presentations, coupled with ready-to-use, corporate-approved model legislation, creates the opportunity for elected officials to become conduits for the corporate agenda.
Average citizens do not have the same access to their elected officials. "Legislators are only in Madison around three days a week," Heck notes. Constituents have a hard time getting an appointment for ten minutes, much less having their legislators as a captive audience for three days. But average citizens may not have high-powered lobbyists raising funds to get their elected officials to meet with them.
The corporate co-chairs appear to play an important role in making sure legislators get to those meetings. According to Government Accountability Board filings, scholarship recipients in 2009 and 2010 (the latest available records) included former ALEC state chair Rep. Mike Huebsch (now Governor Scott Walker's Department of Administration secretary), Rep. Scott Suder, Rep. Rich Zipperer, currrent ALEC state chair Robin Vos, and former ALEC state chair Sen. Scott Fitzgerald. Each reported receiving thousands to attend ALEC meetings.
Secrecy and Ethics
Koch Industries and Pfizer lobbyists raise the scholarship funds from unknown sources, but the identity of the corporations, foundations, or individuals who actually donate are kept secret. Wisconsin's ALEC legislators who receive "scholarships" do not disclose the true funders on their Statements of Economic Interest or Campaign Disclosure Reports, but instead list only "ALEC."
ALEC asserts on its IRS filings, public statements, and bylaws that it does not grant any scholarships. According to ALEC's bylaws, the "scholarship" funds raised by the state corporate chairs are deposited in trust with ALEC until disbursement is requested by the state legislative chair (Rep. Robin Vos in Wisconsin).
By only noting "ALEC" as the source of a scholarship, Heck says, the "public is totally left in the dark," with legislators obscuring the true source of the funds. Constituents are unable to track the connection between an expenditure and legislative action. "This secrecy is analogous to the funding behind third-party election spending on 'issue ads,'" he says, "with the public shut out from knowing which corporations are funding the ads run by a group like Club for Growth."
The legislators receiving scholarships reportedly are never told where the funding came from. But Heck says this means very little. "Even if legislators are never told which corporations are footing the bill, its pretty obvious once you arrive to the ALEC meeting and see the list of corporate sponsors," he said. "How stupid would you have to be to not know that those who are funding your trip are sitting down at the table with you?"
While the bylaws only describe the role of the corporate state chairs as raising funds for scholarships, the full extent of the role of the Koch and Pfizer lobbyists is not clear. Their legislative counterpart, ALEC State Chair Rep. Robin Vos, is tasked with ensuring the introduction of ALEC model legislation; what role the corporate co-chairs play in facilitating the passage of that legislation is unknown.
What is known is that multiple ALEC bills have been introduced in the state in the past year, and that ALEC member corporations, in addition to possibly funding scholarships for legislators to attend ALEC conferences, have also been generous campaign spenders, pouring at least $1.3 million into Wisconsin state elections since 2001.