ALEC Asserting Immunity From State Freedom of Information Laws
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 7, 2013
CONTACT: Brendan Fischer, Brendan@prwatch.org
MADISON -- The Center for Media and Democracy filed suit Thursday against Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir, a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the treasurer of ALEC's national board, over her failure to disclose ALEC-related materials under Wisconsin's public records law -- possibly because ALEC told her to keep the documents secret.
CMD has discovered that ALEC has started stamping its materials with a disclaimer asserting "[b]ecause this is an internal ALEC document, ALEC believes it is not subject to disclosure under any state Freedom of Information or Public Records Act." There is no provision in Wisconsin law allowing private organizations to declare themselves immune from the state's sunshine-in-government statutes.
Sen. Vukmir, a member of the ALEC national Board of Directors, the ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin and the ALEC "legislator of the year" for 2009, had previously released ALEC-related documents through public records requests, but her responses have recently dried-up. In response to a request from CMD, Sen. Vukmir claimed that she had no meeting agendas, model bills, or other documents relating to ALEC's most recent meeting, held in Oklahoma City May 2-3, which she attended. Legislators attend ALEC meetings in their official capacity, and have a duty under Wisconsin's public records law to disclose all records relating to official business.
"It seems difficult to believe that a legislator who is on the national board of ALEC, has been the ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin, and who recently attended an ALEC meeting in Oklahoma City does not have a single record from that meeting in her custody," said CMD's General Counsel Brendan Fischer, who filed the lawsuit and who was on the ground in Oklahoma City during the ALEC meeting (although media was shut-out and CMD staff were specifically targeted for exclusion with a security "Face Sheet"). "Private organizations cannot simply declare themselves immune from state Freedom of Information laws," adding, "Wisconsin's proud traditions of open government are undermined by elected officials colluding with private organizations to keep the basic operations of government secret."
Additionally, Sen. Vukmir apparently sponsored a new "model bill" at the ALEC that was adopted by the organization, according to text messages obtained from a separate public records request, but Sen. Vukmir claimed she had zero documents relating to her proposal.
The suit seeks to clarify that as an elected official, Sen. Vukmir's duty is to the people of Wisconsin and the laws of Wisconsin, not to a special interest organization like ALEC. Though filed in Wisconsin, the suit has relevance in all 50 states, since ALEC has declared itself immune from every state's public records law.
ALEC has had significant influence over legislation and legislators in Wisconsin -- CMD tied 32 bills and budget provisions in the 2011-2012 session to ALEC -- but the organization operates in a notoriously secretive manner. It is only through open records requests that the public has been able to track ALEC's activities in the state, which perhaps is why the organization wants to avoid such levels of transparency.
The disclaimer is one mechanism used by ALEC to get around state open records laws. They have also distributed materials using the internet dropbox website Box.com, which has led to legislators attempting to evade open records requirements by sharing only the link to the dropbox rather than the contents.
This is despite ALEC claiming to support open and accountable government.
In March, ALEC spokesperson Bill Meierling told the press "we really believe in transparency" when it posted some of its model bills online, two years after CMD had already made the bills public at ALECexposed.org.
In 2002, ALEC wrote: "Transparency is a bulwark of constitutional republicanism: citizens cannot inform themselves on the issues of government if they cannot see what the government is doing. Thus, transparency serves as an important feedback mechanism by allowing the citizens to monitor and more accurately select their representatives."
In October, CMD and the national office of Common Cause filed a separate lawsuit against other ALEC legislators in Wisconsin who had tried evading their responsibilities under the public records law by shifting their correspondence with ALEC to a personal email account. CMD and Common Cause prevailed in the lawsuit, with the legislators acknowledging they have a duty to disclose such records to the public. CMD was awarded the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council "Citizen Openness" award for bringing the case.
Read CMD's complaint here.