The Center for Media and Democracy filed a letter with the Texas Attorney General on Thursday refuting efforts by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to declare itself immune from the state’s open records law. Texas is the first known state where ALEC has formally asked an Attorney General for an exemption from sunshine-in-government laws, and it marks a new low in the organization’s attempts to advance its legislative agenda in secret and avoid public accountability for facilitating special interest influence.
“You cannot just create a special private club between lobbyists and lawmakers and then claim your communications with legislators cannot be disclosed to the public under state sunshine laws,” said Lisa Graves, the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy/ ALECexposed.org, “Allowing this would only increase the power of special interests to secretly influence officials elected to represent real people.”
ALEC has recently begun stamping its documents with a “disclaimer” asserting that materials like meeting agendas and model legislation are not subject to any state’s open records law. Because of that disclaimer, on July 17, Rep. Stephanie Klick asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for an opinion about whether she was required to comply with CMD’s open records request for ALEC-related materials.
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On July 31, ALEC’s Washington D.C. law firm sent a letter to Attorney General Abbott asserting that ALEC should be immune from the sunshine-in-government laws that apply to everybody else on “freedom of association” grounds. On August 15, CMD filed its letter asking the Attorney General to reject such assertions as inapplicable and outweighed by the public’s interest in guaranteeing that ALEC’s relationship with lawmakers remains in the sunlight.
“ALEC’s argument seems to be that corporations should be able to lobby legislators in secret, because the public might send some angry letters or speak out if the evidence of that lobbying were disclosed,” said Brendan Fischer, CMD’s General Counsel. “ALEC exists for special interests to access and influence state legislators, so transparency about this relationship is crucial to make sure representatives are acting on behalf of their constituents rather than lobbyists.”
The press and average citizens are barred from attending ALEC meetings, and legislators rarely disclose if a particular bill they’ve introduced came from ALEC, or if their decision to introduce the bill may have been influenced by ALEC or one of ALEC’s special interest funders. It is largely through open records requests that the public has been able to get some sense of how much ALEC communicates with elected officials and about which bills, as well as the extent of the extraordinary influence ALEC and its corporate members have had over state law.
In addition to ALEC’s “freedom of association” claims, Rep. Klick in a separate letter argues that her interactions with ALEC should be protected under the “deliberative process” exception to open records laws. But that exception has traditionally only applied to deliberations within governmental bodies, not between a legislator and a third-party special interest group funded by lobbyists trying to influence legislation.
In June, CMD filed a lawsuit in Wisconsin against Sen. Leah Vukmir, ALEC’s treasurer, who claimed she had zero ALEC-related records in her office; CMD suspects that she is withholding documents because of ALEC’s “disclaimer.”