MADISON --The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a complaint today with the Government Accountability Board (GAB) based on newly discovered documents revealing that numerous Wisconsin legislators have received corporate-funded gifts through their connections to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Although ALEC describes itself as the largest membership group for legislators, over 98% of its $7 million budget is from corporations and sources other than legislative dues. Documents obtained via Wisconsin open records law and other sources show that ALEC corporations are funding lawmakers' out-of-state travel expenses to posh resorts for ALEC meetings with corporate lobbyists, in addition to gifts of entertainment and exclusive parties.
Wisconsin has some of the nation's strongest ethics rules and prohibits legislators from accepting anything of value from lobbyists (or corporations that employ lobbyists here). Wisconsin statutes also prohibit elected officials from taking anything of value that could reasonably be expected to influence how they vote on legislation. CMD's findings include:
- The "scholarship fund" that pays for legislators' travel to resorts is funded entirely by ALEC corporations, many of which employ lobbyists to influence Wisconsin law;
- Despite public claims the "scholarships" are in a "blind" trust, documents (PDF) obtained through open records requests to Senator Scott Fitzgerald shows which corporations have bankrolled legislators' travel;
- The drug companies' trade group, PhRMA, gave over $350,000 to the ALEC scholarship fund in 2010 via the Madison address of ALEC's corporate co-chair of Wisconsin, a state-registered lobbyist on behalf of several ALEC companies in Wisconsin, including Koch Industries; and
- Many Wisconsin state senators and representatives who received money from the "scholarship fund" held in trust by ALEC did not disclose this on their Statements of Economic Interests.
Documents unveiled today by CMD also show that in 2011 numerous Wisconsin legislators received an invitation (PDF) offering free tickets to a Cincinnati Reds game and free food and drinks paid for by the ALEC corporate member Time Warner Cable in conjunction with ALEC's spring meeting. Two weeks later, a major telecommunications bill that would benefit Time Warner Cable was introduced in the state legislature and many of the legislators invited to the party added themselves as co-sponsors. The next day, many of those same Wisconsin legislators may have partied at the Reds ballpark, courtesy of the corporation that stood to benefit from the bill. CMD is asking the board to evaluate all these activities.
"We are asking the state elections board to examine these materials documenting corporate-funded gifts to Wisconsin legislators," said Lisa Graves, Executive Director of CMD, adding "we do not believe the ethics board has previously had evidence to compare the letter of the law with the actual extent of corporate influence being peddled through gifts to legislators via ALEC trips and events."
"It appears that the letter and intent of Wisconsin's clean government laws are violated by legislators accepting free, corporate-funded trips to ALEC conferences, where corporate lobbyists vote with legislators on 'model' bills and special interests underwrite receptions for legislators," said CMD's Law Fellow, Brendan Fischer. "These gifts raise legitimate questions about improper influence, and we are asking the board to issue a public decision interpreting the statutes in light of these new documents."
See complaint and exhibits here.
CMD filed a supplemental letter to this complaint on April 12; read more here.