ALEC and Westin/Starwood: Who is Your Hotel in Bed With While You're in Bed at Your Hotel?

Westin Kierland Resort in ScottsdaleTucson-based civil rights attorney Stacy Scheff believes that Westin Kierland may have violated federal constitutional law when they threw a journalist (and paid guest) out into the dead of night--due to the simple fact that the journalist evicted had written critically of (and was not liked by) the organization hosting a conference at the hotel. (A new story about these events is available here).

Essentially, Scheff argues, federal law, which holds the hotel industry under heavy sway as a form of interstate commerce, provides protections for certain protected classes under the Civil Rights Act. As such, "viewpoint" (i.e. critical members of the press) may well be incorporated as such a protected class.

"Civil rights law holds that places of public accommodation may not discriminate against guests based on their race because [such discrimination] impacts interstate commerce, giving Congress authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate what would normally be a private activity--running a hotel," said Scheff. "A similar argument can be made for hotels that discriminate on the basis of the guest's viewpoint, because like race, classifications which discriminate against an unpopular viewpoint are considered automatically suspect and subject to 'strict scrutiny' by courts."

According to Phoenix Police Department spokesman Trent Crump, off-duty PPD officers contracted by a private entity, like Westin, as private security may only engage in "routine police functions," i.e. upholding the rule of law.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides that: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

As such, it hardly seems likely that the act of evicting journalists from hotels is a legitimate "routine police function."

Why Evict a Journalist?

So, why would Kierland go to such lengths--exposing both themselves and police officers under their employ to the possibility of litigation--just to spare ALEC the presence of one reporter?

An examination of Westin's financial affairs may shed some light on the willingness to do ALEC’s bidding.

Westin is owned by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc. (Starwood Hotels), which was previously led by the same investor CEO as Starwood Capital Group (SCG).  SCG's family of companies include: Starwood Energy Group Global, LLC (Starwood Energy), Starwood Property Trust, Inc, Starwood Real Estate Securities, LLC., and SH Group. Starwood manages hotels it formerly owned, such as Westin, which was purchased by the Host company.

One of the chief concerns of Starwood is corporate taxation, as evidenced by lobby reports filed by one of the top nation's federal lobby shops, Federal Policy Group (FPG), on behalf of Starwood Hotels.

Ironically, as ALEC is an organization that boasts of having 100 alumni in both the U.S. House and Senate (only five of which are Democrats), FPG is also credited with having helped shape the current federal GOP legislative landscape--having been paid over $100,000 in late 2010 by the Republican National Committee (RNC) for "political strategy" consulting. Much of this consultation dealt with establishing the extension of Bush-era tax cuts as a major GOP initiative for 2011.

Over the course of 2010 through 2011, Starwood Hotels has paid out over $280,000 to FPG for lobbying services rendered in the field of corporate taxation.

More telling of Starwood's political agenda, however, is the $320,000 in lobbying fees paid by Starwood Hotels over the course of 2010 to federal lobby behemoth, DLA Piper.

DLA Piper was charged by Starwood Hotels with the primary tasks of monitoring labor and taxation legislation (primarily as these two issue areas pertained to the federal minimum wage and real estate taxation).

According to lobby reports filed during this time period, one of the legislative items Starwood Hotels was most concerned with 'monitoring' through DLA Piper was the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009 (EFCS).

EFCS aimed to enhance the ability of unions to collectively bargain for better pay, working conditions and benefits. The bill also sought to enhance federal protections for unions, union members and union organizers against unfair labor practices and employer retaliation. All told, EFCS (a bill which died with the expiration of the 111th Congress in January, 2011) represented a threat to numerous anti-union measures advanced by ALEC and their member corporations at the state level.

Starwood and ALEC

Starwood Energy Group logoFederal lobbying and ideological similarities aside, the Starwood Energy Group and ALEC have a much closer relationship at the state level--particularly in Arizona.

Starwood Energy Group's lobby representative in the state is FirstStrategic Communications and Public Affairs.

FirstStrategic has been active as an Arizona ALEC donor/participant consulting firm for several years and represents the lobby interests of several other ALEC corporate trade interests in the state, such as the Apollo Group, Inc. in Phoenix, and the Arizona Association of Realtors, CenturyLink and ALEC Arizona Private Sector Chair, Salt River Project (SRP).

Furthermore, Starwood Energy Group is among the top solar energy provider, which has sought business in the state. As such, Starwood Energy was involved in the inception, along with both SRP and 2011 ALEC SNPS "chairman" corporation, APS, of the Sonoran-Mojave Renewable Transmission Project (SMRT)--a nascent project intended to establish a renewable power delivery grid through the states of Arizona, California and Nevada.

According to SRP spokesman Scott Harelson, SRP has since withdrawn from the project.

Similar to the SMRT project, Starwood Energy Group was involved with APS and Lockheed Martin, in the development of an aborted Arizona solar generation plant in 2009.

Interestingly enough, as Starwood Energy Group is involved in the field of solar energy production, one of the workshops open to lawmakers at the 2011 SNPS focused on deregulation of the solar industry.

This article is the result of a joint effort by In These Times and the Center for Media and Democracy. (This article was updated to incorporate information about the different companies that bear the name Starwood.)