Loophole A: ALEC scholarships top $350K, go undisclosed
Here’s the first installment in my series, “Georgia’s Ethics Loopholes from A to Z.” To help me continue following the money in Georgia politics. please use the Donate button on this page.
By JIM WALLS
Sept. 24, 2015 — Deep-pocketed special interests have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on junkets for Georgia legislators — including airfare and rooms in four- and five-star hotels — without reporting a penny.
Most of those special interests employ lobbyists in Georgia, who would have had to publicly disclose that spending if they’d been the ones picking up the tab. But the payments instead have been channeled through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an inside-the-Beltway advocacy group with no registered lobbyists in Georgia, so the sources and beneficiaries of the payments remain, officially, a secret.
Neither ALEC nor the legislators will say how much the organization has paid them in travel reimbursements.
Atlanta Unfiltered, though, has obtained documents showing Georgia legislators collected just over $350,000 for ALEC travel expenses from 2004 to 2012 — more than the amounts that researchers have uncovered in any other state.
Upon payment of a $100 annual membership fee, legislators may request reimbursements — euphemistically called “scholarships” until 2013 — for travel, lodging and conference registration expenses to attend ALEC events.
Donors range from Georgia-based interests such as Coca-Cola, UPS and Georgia Power Co. to multinational corporations such as tobacco giant Altria, Novartis Pharmaceuticals and Verizon, the documents show. (For a full list of donors, click here. For all scholarship recipients, click here.)
In Georgia and most other states, ALEC members maintain their own scholarship funds, raising money with solicitations like this one from House Speaker David Ralston in 2013. ALEC also keeps a separate fund to reimburse members of its nine task forces.
Critics say ALEC touts its meetings in terms of family-friendly relaxation. “Come and experience endless sandy beaches, sunny days, beautiful sunsets and the cool gulf breezes,” the brochure for one meeting cajoled.
Plenty of business is conducted as well, as ALEC has adopted hundreds of model bills and policies that it hopes legislators will take back home with them. The model bills often have strong backing from corporate members representing telecommunications, insurance, pharmaceuticals and other industries.
“The times I’ve gone, there were plenty of meetings going on, plenty of policy being discussed,” said Rep. Buzz Brockway, a member of ALEC’s Telecommunications Task Force. “I’m kind of a policy nerd and I’m terrible at golf so I’m always in the meetings.”
Atlanta Unfiltered obtained Georgia scholarship details for 2004 to 2012 by the simple expedient of asking for them. But when we tried repeatedly over several months to obtain records of scholarships awarded since 2013, neither ALEC nor its public-sector co-chairs in Georgia — Rep. Bruce Williamson and Sen. Steve Gooch — would return our calls or e-mails. (Williamson, saying he’s only a part-time legislator who needs to make a living, indulged me for 20 seconds or so when I caught him at work one recent afternoon. Then he hung up on me.)
Their silence may be the result of a campaign by Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy to have the U.S. Internal Revenue Service strip ALEC of its tax-exempt status. The groups contend ALEC’s core mission is to provide opportunities to lobby state lawmakers, not the charitable and educational purposes for which it won tax-exempt status.
In a May 2015 filing with the IRS, Common Cause argued that task forces, vacation junkets and other ALEC-sponsored meetings
“have a single purpose — to provide a forum for ALEC’s corporate members to lobby ALEC’s legislator members. Activity that is plainly ‘lobbying’ when it occurs in a state capitol is not transformed when it is conducted in warm climates near sandy beaches or at a fancy hotel in another state.”
Rep. Joe Wilkinson, longtime chairman of Georgia’s House Ethics Committee, said this week that he was not familiar with the ALEC scholarships and would need more information to decide whether he thinks the payments should be disclosed as a lobbyist expense.
“I have advocated full, open and immediate disclosure on everything,” Wilkinson said in an interview. “If you were receiving that [reimbursement] as part of your legislative duties … I’d have to look real hard at it.”
According to a 2012 report by Common Cause and the Center for Media Democracy, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and Utah have barred legislators from accepting the scholarships.