ALEC's Latest "Transparency" Move: Asserting Immunity From Freedom of Information Laws

Shortly after the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) told the press "we really believe in transparency," new documents show the organization directing legislators to hide ALEC meeting agendas and model legislation from the public. This effort to circumvent state freedom of information laws is being called "shocking" and "disturbing" by transparency advocates.

ALEC disclaimer

A disclaimer published at the bottom of meeting agendas and model bills from ALEC's most recent meeting in Oklahoma City, obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, reads: "Because this is an internal ALEC document, ALEC believes it is not subject to disclosure under any state Freedom of Information or Public Records Act."

"If you receive a request for disclosure of this or any other ALEC document under your state's Freedom of Information or Public Records Act, please contact Michael Bowman, Senior Director, Policy and Strategic Initiatives," it says.

For a private organization to assert that its interactions with state legislators are not subject to public records laws is "shocking," says Mark Caramanica, Freedom of Information Director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"Private individuals or organizations cannot simply label a document private and say it is private on their own. It is not their decision to make."

Legislators attend ALEC meetings in their official capacity, and ALEC has claimed that they do so "on behalf of and for the benefit of the state."

Under almost every state's public records law, all documents related to official business are considered public unless there is a specific exemption, defined and passed by the legislature, and embodied in the statutes.

"ALEC cannot create exemptions of [its] own imagination," Caramanica told the Center for Media and Democracy.

The disclaimer is "disturbing," says Christa Westerberg, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council Vice President, particularly because it "suggests legislators will contact ALEC first when they get a request for records and may be advised by ALEC on what to do."

"Courts and other entities with authority to interpret state sunshine laws, and not ALEC, should determine whether ALEC documents are subject to disclosure under any state's public records law," she told CMD.

ALEC boasts that over 1,000 of its model bills are introduced each year and at least 1 in 5 become law. But despite its significant influence over state law and policy, ALEC conferences are closed to the press and public, and the only way Americans have had any notion of what happens in those meetings is through public records requests for the agendas and model bills.

Even before the "disclaimer" was discovered ALEC and its member legislators had been taking pains to avoid public records requests.

Last year, CMD prevailed in a lawsuit against Wisconsin legislators who had tried evading the public records law by shifting their ALEC correspondence to a personal email account (like Gmail or Yahoo), which they erroneously asserted meant the emails were not subject to public records requests. And ALEC has begun sending legislators advance agendas and model bills via a link, which expires within 72 hours, to an Internet drop box where they can access the relevant documents; in many cases, when legislators respond to a request for ALEC records, they only release a scanned copy of the email invitation, rather than the contents of the folder available via the link. It is not known whether legislators refused to release these documents because ALEC asserted its immunity from public records law.

In March, ALEC published some of its model bills online in a move the organization claimed showed its commitment to transparency. "We really believe in transparency," alleged ALEC spokesperson Bill Meierling. But its public records "disclaimer" and other actions indicate the organization is far more interested in maintaining secrecy.

"This certainly raises the question," asks Caramanica, "what are their motives for trying to keep their documents secret?"

ALEC legislators cannot have it both ways. They cannot use public money to attend ALEC meetings -- as the Republican-led South Dakota legislature recently approved -- or claim that accepting corporate-funded flights and hotel rooms for ALEC travel are part of their legitimate work responsibilities, then conspire with ALEC to hide documents and information from their constituents that should be accessible under freedom of information laws.

Note: Mark Caramanica wrote after publication to emphasize that communications between legislators and third parties can in some cases be private, such as in states where the legislature is exempt from the public records law or in cases where communications fall under a statutory exemption. The part that is "shocking" is ALEC's blanket assertion that its communications can never be covered under a state's public records law.


It would be great to be able to access a detailed list of the sponsors, donors, and mentors of the ALEC network. It might make a difference in people deciding with whom they will do business. It did for us.

Some of the following may be old news to some and new to others. As ALEC is forced to be superficially transparent, it will try desperately to keep hidden its strategy of deliberate chaos. One of the tragedies in the anti-democratic reforms currently taking place across the spectrum of American society is the cynical manipulation of mainstream Americans’ belief in the presumed integrity of democratic processes and the disbelief that blatant lying, maneuvering, misinforming, and disinforming for the sake of corporate hegemony can happen in the good ol’ U.S. of A. More attention needs to be paid to a deliberate strategy of chaos that is being played out. While ALEC (and its other affiliations and associations) can show that it does not always have a direct connection to the agendas currently being wielded, indirect links and influence are often discovered. The late Paul Weyrich, co-founder of ALEC, helped Eric Heubeck write the manifesto for the New Traditionalist Movement in 2001. While The New Traditionalists and the Dominionists have been encouraged not to draw additional unneeded attention to themselves, their manifesto, nonetheless, illustrates, in part, HOW rapid change is taking place in the U.S. If such a manifesto were written by a group outside the U.S. trying to influence U.S. policies and institutions, it would be considered terrorism, which is what it is — domestic terrorism. Here are some excerpts: “This essay is based on the belief that the truth of an idea is not the primary reason for its acceptance. Far more important is the energy and dedication of the idea’s promoters—in other words, the individuals composing a social or political movement…” “There will be three main stages in the unfolding of this movement. The first stage will be devoted to the development of a highly motivated elite able to coordinate future activities. The second stage will be devoted to the development of institutions designed to make an impact on the wider elite and a relatively small minority of the masses. The third stage will involve changing the overall character of American popular culture…” “Our movement will be entirely destructive, and entirely constructive. We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity. All of our constructive energies will be dedicated to the creation of our own institutions…” “We will maintain a constant barrage of criticism against the Left. We will attack the very legitimacy of the Left. We will not give them a moment’s rest. We will endeavor to prove that the Left does not deserve to hold sway over the heart and mind of a single American. We will offer constant reminders that there is an alternative, there is a better way. When people have had enough of the sickness and decay of today’s American culture, they will be embraced by and welcomed into the New Traditionalist movement. The rejection of the existing society by the people will thus be accomplished by pushing them and pulling them simultaneously.” “We must create a countervailing force that is just as adept as the Left at intimidating people and institutions that are used as tools of left-wing activism but are not ideologically committed, such as Hollywood celebrities, multinational corporations, and university administrators. We must be feared, so that they will think twice before opening their mouths…” “We will be results-oriented rather than good intentions-oriented. Making a good-faith effort and being ideologically sound will be less important than advancing the goals of the movement…” “We will use guerrilla tactics to undermine the legitimacy of the dominant regime. We will take advantage of every available opportunity to spread the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the existing state of affairs. … contribute to a vague sense of uneasiness and dissatisfaction with existing society. … We need to break down before we can build up. We must first clear away the flotsam of a decayed culture.” “We need more people with fire in the belly, and we need a message that attracts those kinds of people…We must reframe this struggle as a moral struggle, as a transcendent struggle, as a struggle between good and evil. And we must be prepared to explain why this is so. We must provide the evidence needed to prove this using images and simple terms…” Support of an Elite More Valuable than Support of the Masses “We will initially operate according to the belief that it is more important to win over the elites (or create a new, better one) than to build up a mass movement. Furthermore, it is more important to have a few impassioned members than a large number of largely indifferent members. The amount of energy, élan, and self-assurance that we are able to inculcate in the leaders of our movement will ultimately determine its success or failure.” “The new movement must be, in part, exclusive and elite. It must not be afraid to pass along a body of knowledge that is not readily accessible to and understandable by everyone. The strong appeal of a feeling of exclusivity and superiority will give our members a reason to endure the slings and arrows of popular disapproval.” “The New Traditionalist movement will appeal to the masses, but not immediately. The ideas of the masses never come from the masses. To the extent that the masses are more conservative than the elites, this is primarily because the masses have a long collective memory, and they still value the beliefs articulated by a long-lost elite. The conservative instincts of the American people will continue to erode unless a new elite is formed to refresh that memory.” “We must recognize that literature and philosophy do not appeal to the masses. This is why we must develop ways to spread our philosophy using non-rational means–especially the moving image.” If we could be flies on the wall of the backroom meetings and deals being made in the decision-making circles, this is the language we would hear and the strategies being put forward. This is the language that is covered up when proponents of the underlying strategies make PUBLIC pronouncements.