Your Right to Know: Lawmakers exploit loophole to hide ALEC ties

By Brendan Fischer
Center for Media and Democracy

Wisconsin state legislators are routinely deleting emails concerning their involvement with the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), exploiting a loophole that exempts the Legislature from records retention rules that apply to all other state and local government officials.

For more than a year, we at the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonpartisan watchdog and reporting group, have been tracking ALEC, which lets private corporations and think tanks vote with state legislators to approve “model” legislation for introduction in statehouses across the country.

ALEC’s influence on Wisconsin politics is profound. At least 49 current Wisconsin legislators are known ALEC members, and at least 32 bills or budget provisions introduced in Wisconsin’s 2011-2012 session include language from ALEC.

But some legislators would prefer that Wisconsinites not see documents revealing the extent to which they are working hand-in-hand with ALEC.

Last December, the Center submitted requests under the state’s open records law to ALEC member legislators seeking emails and other records related to the group. Their responses revealed that legislators are either not complying with the records law or are actively deleting ALEC-related records.

Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, a longtime ALEC member and the group’s state chair for Wisconsin, denied having a single ALEC-related record in his entire office or email system. But records released by other legislators show that Suder was a recipient of emails sent from ALEC to members of the Wisconsin Legislature.

Sen Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, issued this reply to a more recent records request: “If we did receive materials (from ALEC), either electronically or via mail, those materials were discarded upon receipt.”

Deleting public records may appear deceptive, but under Wisconsin law, it is permissible. The Legislature has specifically exempted itself from the requirement that public officials preserve official records. That means lawmakers — but not any other state or local official — can destroy emails that might be embarrassing or incriminating, as long as there is not a pending records request.

Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, introduced SB 428 last fall to close this loophole and make legislators subject to the same retention rules that apply to all other public servants. But despite having some bipartisan support, the bill died in committee.

What do Wisconsin legislators have to hide?

Information that has been released through open records requests show corporations making earmarked donations to fund flights and hotel rooms for Wisconsin legislators who attend ALEC meetings. The Center for Media and Democracy believes this may violate state ethics laws and has filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Board.

Evidence uncovered through other requests prompted a former IRS official, Marcus Owens, to file a complaint with the IRS charging that ALEC has violated its charitable status.

Perhaps because “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” ALEC is apparently trying to sidestep transparency laws. In recent months, it has stopped sending legislators proposed model bills and meeting agendas via email. ALEC is now sending its members a link, which expires within 72 hours, to an Internet drop box where they can access the relevant documents, potentially concealing these documents from open records requests.

Wisconsin’s open records law unambiguously states “that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate” and that “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”

These efforts to destroy and disguise records about ALEC’s lobbying, gifts and influence defy our state’s proud history of clean and open government.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Brendan Fischer is an attorney and writer at the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, publishers of ALECexposed.org and PRwatch.org.

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2 Responses to “Your Right to Know: Lawmakers exploit loophole to hide ALEC ties”

  1. Rebecca Katers says:

    Thank you for all the research you’ve poured into this article. It sounds like the effort was frustrating.

    How do Republicans sleep at night?

    Aren’t they always claiming to be superior “Patriots and Freedom Fighters,” waving their flags and pretending to be better Americans than the rest of us?

    Why can’t they see the contradiction between their secretive manipulations and heavy-handed power grabs, and the ideal American Democracy we all learned about as children?

    A true Patriot is willing to DIE in defense of the basic standards that allow the long-term survival of a (mostly) honest American government that listens to, represents, and serves all Americans equally and fairly. Many American soldiers die every year doing exactly that, and they deserve our heartfelt thanks and lifelong honor for their sacrifice.

    “OPEN RECORDS” is one of those basic standards. A true Patriot understands that secrecy in government is a threat to all our freedoms and basic rights as Americans.

    If Republicans want to be our elected American representatives, then we have a basic and undeniable right to know what they’re doing and saying on our behalf. We have a right to know where they get their information, how they spend their official time, and who is influencing them.

    In America, our elected officials (… and the agency officials they regulate and supervise…) are all supposed to be OUR employees and OUR representatives. We pay them to work for US, not for a frightening, shadowy group called ALEC.

    If Republicans have decided they do NOT support basic American government ideals like OPEN RECORDS … and if they deliberately bypass normal legislative communications to hide their activities from the public they pledged to serve … then Republicans aren’t Patriots.

    They’re acting more like Traitors, planning an ALEC coup and takeover of our government without honest or open public discussion or debate, and without the knowledge or support of the American people.

    Again, how do Republicans sleep at night?

    Who do they REALLY work for?

    Do they at least have the decency to return the paychecks they’ve collected from us? I want my money back.

  2. Mike Sheppard says:

    I think Wisconsin has been used as a Republican testing ground for how much they can get away with.

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