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$170K in ALEC junkets untouched by gift cap
By JIM WALLS
March 22, 2013 — Under an ethics bill and $100 gift cap that Georgia senators will debate this afternoon, lawmakers could continue accepting tens of thousands of dollars a year in travel expenses from corporate interests.
Not only would the bill let them keep traveling to posh resorts on special interests’ tab, you often would have no way of knowing about it. Despite the “transparency” mantra heard so often these days under the Gold Dome, the bill redefining lobbyists’ gifts to legislators would keep many of these trips — or junkets, whichever term you prefer — a secret.
The non-profit American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes passage of new laws at the state level based on conservative and free-market principles, makes these jaunts possible. Big business and trade associations give the money to “scholarship funds” controlled by ALEC, which doles the cash out to legislators attending ALEC events.
Most of these donors retain lobbyists in Georgia, who must report such spending if their clients pay for those travel expenses directly. But ALEC has no lobbyists here, so the reimbursements fly under the radar and go undisclosed.
The House version of the gift bill would bar reimbursements for air travel to similar conferences. But again, since ALEC has no lobbying presence in Georgia, the prohibition would not apply.
Open records requests to other states’ legislatures provide a glimpse behind the scenes of these scholarship funds. (Not so much in Georgia, where lawmakers have exempted themselves from requirements of the Open Records Act.)
Nevertheless, recently released documents show Georgia lawmakers from 2006 to 2008 collected $170,000 in ALEC scholarships, more than any other state except South Carolina. The details came to light by serendipity through an open records request to ALEC’s Florida chairman, who provided spreadsheets that also itemized scholarships to legislators nationwide for those years.
Sen. Judson Hill, ALEC’s Georgia chair, ranked third nationwide with $10,392 in scholarships, according to a top 20 “Frequent Flyer” list compiled by the Center for Media and Democracy and the national office of Common Cause. Former Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers and ex-Reps. Martin Scott and John Wiles also made the top 20 list.
Overall, the center and Common Cause estimated that ALEC had awarded about $4 million in scholarships since 2006. Their October 2012 report, “Buying Influence,” found the money was used
to fly state lawmakers around the country to resorts where they are wined and dined by corporate leaders and lobbyists, and treated to exclusive parties at professional baseball games, cigar parties, and skeet shoots, all at ALEC corporations’ expense.
The scheme works like this: ALEC state chairs (hand-picked legislators and private-sector members) solicit corporate money that goes into a “Scholarship Fund” that is then used to pay for lawmakers’ trips. Records show that ALEC legislators know who’s paying their way — some state leaders even urge lawmakers to send thank-you notes to their patrons — but everyone else is kept in the dark.
Sen. Hill, ALEC’s Georgia chair, did not immediately return my phone call seeking comment. Ex-Sen. Rogers, his former Georgia co-chair, for some reason doesn’t return my calls.
Top Donors to Georgia Scholarships, 2006-08
- $15,000 Crown Cork & Seal Co.
- $15,000 Georgia Electric Membership Corp.
- $12,000 Novartis Corp.
- $11,000 State Farm Insurance
- $10,000 Georgia Hospital Association
- $9,000 BP Corp.
- $6,000 Pfizer Inc.
- $6,000 Eli Lilly & Co.
- $6,000 UPS Foundation
- $5,000 Assurant Health Foundation
- $5,000 Bayer HealthCare
- $5,000 Georgia Hospital Association
Top Recipients of Georgia Scholarships, 2006-08
- $10,392 Sen. Judson Hill
- $7,895 Ex-Sen. Chip Rogers
- $7,451 Ex-Rep. Martin Scott
- $7,382 Ex-Rep. John Wiles
- $6,888 Labor Commissioner and ex-Rep. Mark Butler
- $6,632 Rep. Tom Rice
- $6,568 Ex-Rep. and ex-DOT Commissioner Vance Smith
- $6,373 Rep. Matt Dollar
- $5,735 Rep. Don Parsons
- $5,602 Sen. Renee Unterman
- $5,505 Rep. David Casas
- $5,197 Rep. Calvin Hill
- $5,155 Congressman and ex-Rep. Tom Graves