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ALEC’s “Institutional Corruption,” From Backing Apartheid to Assault on Clean Energy, Public Sector

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The secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has just ended a week-long meeting in Washington where corporate lobbyists worked with state lawmakers on model bills that will later be introduced in states nationwide. ALEC has reportedly drafted a number of new bills designed to prevent President Obama from cutting emissions, and to weaken state policies promoting clean energy. Now conservative groups across the United States are apparently planning a coordinated effort in six states to raise money for attacks on public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax and workers’ compensation. The proposals were coordinated by the ALEC-backed State Policy Network, an alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at the state level. ALEC is struggling to re-enlist donors after an exodus prompted by its backing of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. According to The Guardian, ALEC has lost nearly 400 state legislators from its network over the past two years and more than 60 major corporate donors. We discuss ALEC’s latest efforts, along with its historic opposition to divestment campaigns from apartheid South Africa, with Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The secretive American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, has just ended a week-long meeting in Washington where corporate lobbyists worked with state lawmakers on model bills that will later be introduced in states nationwide. ALEC has reportedly drafted a number of new bills designed to prevent President Obama from cutting emissions, and to weaken state policies promoting clean energy. Another measure would charge homeowners fees for installing their own solar panels. This follows ALEC’s sponsoring of at least 77 energy measures in 34 states last year.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports new documents reveal ALEC is struggling to re-enlist donors after an exodus prompted by its backing of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Stand Your Ground initially helped shield George Zimmerman from prosecution for killing Trayvon Martin and was later used in instructions to the jury that acquitted him. According to The Guardian, ALEC has lost nearly 400 state legislators from its network over the past two years and more than 60 major corporate donors. The group is facing a funding shortfall for the first time after losing more than a third of its projected income.

AMY GOODMAN: Now conservative groups across the United States are apparently planning a coordinated effort in six states to raise money for attacks on public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax and workers’ compensation. The proposals were coordinated by the State Policy Network, an alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at the state level. In just one example, a proposal from the Illinois Policy Institute outlines a campaign to switch Chicago’s government worker pensions to 401(k)-style retirement plans. A copy of the plan published by The Guardian shows the institute wants to, quote, “leverage the leadership potential of Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel … as the spark for wider pension changes.”

For more, we go to Washington, where we’re joined by Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and publisher of PRWatch.org and ALECExposed.org. Last week, their work featured in a several reports by The Guardian. On Monday, they jointly published another story, “Shilling for Profit: A Case Study of ALEC’s Campaign Against Divestment from Apartheid South Africa.” We’ll talk about that in a minute.

Lisa Graves, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about your most significant findings in your most recent report.

LISA GRAVES: Well, I think that the report we did jointly with the People for the American Way organization was the product of a long-standing piece of research we were doing, because this is ALEC’s 40th year, and we thought they ought to be held accountable for all 40 years. What we had discovered in our lengthy research was that ALEC was one of the major movers in the effort to stop the United States from divesting from South Africa and to thwart those policies. And so, we recently published a piece that really goes into detail about how influential ALEC was in pushing the Reagan administration and officials in the Reagan administration to try to thwart efforts to divest from South Africa. It’s quite astounding.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lisa Graves, what were some of the corporate interests that ALEC was representing at the time, corporations that stood to lose from divestment from apartheid South Africa?

LISA GRAVES: Well, it’s interesting. It’s some of the same long-standing funders of ALEC, including the oil industry. Exxon is one of those corporations. Also some companies that have not been so widely associated with ALEC, like IBM and others, were funders of ALEC back then. ALEC also had events backed by the diamond industry, with prizes for its legislators backed by the diamond industry. And it was really pushing this corporate—this corporate agenda to stop divestment, because it was going hurt the bottom line because, quite frankly, as people know, apartheid was extremely profitable for companies because the workers had little to no rights. And ALEC was relying on really flawed polling that was put forward by a white professor at an all-white university, claiming that most South Africans didn’t want divestment. It was really an extraordinary campaign, and they were quite successful in getting leaders of the Reagan administration to adopt their policies, to credit them for pushing for the anti-anti-apartheid efforts to oppose—to oppose divestment. And they even reached out to the Reagan administration to try to get rewards for their legislators for pushing this agenda in the states.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lisa Graves, your report also points out that ALEC had other concerns—in other words, if divestment from South Africa took place, it could also have had implications for corporations and corporate work in the U.S. Could you talk about that, their domestic concerns in the event that divestment had gone through?

LISA GRAVES: Well, that’s right. This is one of ALEC’s—one of the ways that ALEC has long shilled for the private sector for some of the most powerful corporations in the U.S. and the world. And as Calvin Sloan points out in the piece we published on PRWatch.org yesterday, this is—this was perceived as a threat by these corporations, by these corporate backers of ALEC, because they feared that socially responsible investing and movements to encourage socially responsible investing would take hold in the U.S. So then, even after apartheid fell, even after they failed in their efforts to stop the divestment campaigns, and even after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, from decades in prison, ALEC doubled down and adopted a resolution opposing any kind of socially responsible investing, because, in their view, it would hurt the profits of shareholders and corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Your report cites many examples, including a 1983 legislative update that ALEC distributed to its members and partners titled “The States and South Africa: A Study of the Disinvestment Issue,” published on ALEC letterhead, distributed to members of the Reagan administration, was very effective. In ALEC’s monthly newsletter in ’84, the organization boasted that in response, quote, “several prominent leaders and groups, including the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Agriculture, the [United States] Trade Representative, and the Secretary of Commerce have gone on record against divestiture.” Talk about who those people were. And can you also talk about Dick Cheney in all of this, known as one of the people who opposed taking Nelson Mandela off the terrorist list and calling for his release from jail?

LISA GRAVES: Well, a number of the people who were active in the Reagan administration were also former legislators who were—who had previously been active in ALEC. So, the web of ALEC that we have helped uncloak with our ALECExposed.org effort that we launched two years ago, we broke that story with The Nation magazine, and we—CMD, my organization, has since worked tirelessly to help make sure people understand what ALEC is up to and how incredibly influential it is to allow these corporations to vote behind closed doors with these lawmakers on legislation, on bills.

ALEC was not—is not just powerful now, although it’s been weakened. ALEC was extremely influential within the Reagan administration. And that’s in part because ALEC operates sort of like a rookie team, in some ways, for Congress, for the administration. A number of people who get trained, who cut their teeth on the legitimacy of having these close ties with corporations, so close that they would allow themselves to vote as equals with corporate lobbyists behind closed doors on bills and measures, get promoted to higher office. They go to Congress. They go into presidential administrations. And so, that was certainly the case with ALEC’s influence within the Reagan administration.

But in terms of Dick Cheney, I think, as John Nichols of The Nation has also written extensively about in one of his books, Dick Cheney was, you know, unrepentantly opposed to efforts to do divestment—to the divestment campaign. He was opposed to delisting the ANC. He was opposed to basically all of the efforts to get Mandela freed. I think that, you know, that’s one of just many instances of Dick Cheney being on the wrong side of history, being dead wrong, being flat wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about ALEC today. Lisa Graves, talk about the loss of sponsors and also members and what’s happening around the country.

LISA GRAVES: Well, after the tremendous public outcry last year in response to learning about ALEC’s role in pushing the so-called “Stand Your Ground” or “shoot first” legislation into law across the country and how ALEC used to boast about taking credit for getting that law introduced and passed, as we’ve documented, ALEC suffered tremendous losses of its corporate members. It lost General Motors, General Electric. It even lost Wal-Mart. And overall, we had been counting that we—we thought they lost about 50 members, as of earlier this year. ALEC’s own documents, that The Guardian published, indicate that it lost at least 60 corporate members.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Just this past Wednesday, after news broke about ALEC’s board documents that were leaked to The Guardian, that The Guardian published, and after the incredible—incredibly revealing story in The Guardian on Wednesday about ALEC’s assault on solar energy, Visa dropped out. That was due to the tremendous work of Boston Commons and Quakers and others across the country who have been reaching out to Visa to say, “You should really get out of ALEC.”

So, ALEC is suffering. It’s on the—on the move to try to raise more money. It had a plan in its board documents apparently to not only reach out to the corporations that had left, but to create new revenue streams, to create new so-called task forces, where corporations would vote as equals with lawmakers to try to raise more money. I think the documents illustrate quite conclusively what we’ve been saying all along, that ALEC is one of the biggest pay-to-play operations in the country. I think it’s an institutionalization of corruption.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Lisa Graves, you’ve been monitoring the work of ALEC for a long time. Is such a pullout of funding and supporters in Congress unprecedented for ALEC? And if so, what do you think this might say about changes in the wider political culture? I mean, you pointed out that once, even—even given their opposition to divestment from apartheid South Africa, it didn’t actually change the strength of ALEC. So what accounts for it now, their support for Stand Your Ground as well as opposition to clean energy, etc.? Could you talk a little bit about that?

LISA GRAVES: Well, ALEC has tried to disavow its role in Stand Your Ground. It no longer has that task force, but it has done nothing to undo the damage done by pushing these bills into law across the country. I think what our work demonstrates, what the work of so many organizations—Color of Change, Common Cause, ProgressNow, Greenpeace, labor unions, citizen groups like VLTP and others who have spoken out about ALEC—I think what that demonstrates is the power of people speaking out. These corporations—many of these corporations do not want to be associated with these controversial policies that they’ve been funding behind closed doors through ALEC for many, many years in numerous instances. And so, I think it shows the power of people speaking up.

But I think that ALEC—I suppose that in one sense ALEC was right. ALEC was right to say that if divestment campaigns take hold, if people have a sense of power that they can speak out, that they can urge corporations to stop investing in controversial policies or in countries that are pushing such policies, like the extraordinary inhumanity of apartheid, that citizens will be empowered to encourage corporations to do more, to do better. And that’s what’s happened. That’s one of the things that ALEC was afraid of. They were afraid of having citizens be mobilized and shareholders be mobilized to get these companies to stop investing in terrible organizations.

It turns out that one of those organizations is ALEC, because ALEC has pushed forward this extreme agenda to privatize our schools, privatize Social Security, privatize Medicare and Medicaid, prisons—anything that isn’t nailed down and some things that are. It’s worked to devastate workers’ rights. It has worked to harm the ability of Americans whose family members are killed or injured by corporations to sue and hold those companies accountable. And it even, as you noted and as The Guardian reported, is trying to punish citizens who invest in putting solar energy on their roofs of their homes and that are giving energy back to the grid; they want to penalize them.

And so, ALEC is really an extreme organization. It’s a pay-to-play organization pushing corporate interests above all else, above our interests. And these lawmakers who are part of it are, in essence, debasing themselves by allowing corporations to have an equal say to themselves at these closed-door ALEC task force meetings, that Dana Milbank pilloried so effectively in The Washington Post this last week.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the State Policy Network, and what is that all about?

LISA GRAVES: Well, the State Policy Network is, in some ways, one of the children of ALEC. It is an entity that came about in the mid—in the early 1980s, actually, and really gained steam in the 1990s. It has been operating below the radar screen. What it is is a network of state think tanks—they call themselves think tanks. We have dubbed them “stink tanks” and have launched a site with ProgressNow called StinkTanks.org, so people can find out if there is a think tank in your state that is really pushing the ALEC agenda, that’s basically a handmaiden to the ALEC agenda. And what we’ve documented is that there are 64 of these entities in the states and that they have a total budget of more than $80 million. And they are spending that money to really push these—the ALEC agenda, the corporate agenda and the extreme ideological agenda of some of the wealthiest billionaires in the country, like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family and others.

The Guardian published on Thursday a number of documents that show how these groups coordinate; how they’re working to disrupt the rights of workers; how they’re working in a coordinated way, in many instances, to attack energy, solar energy, and renewable energy policies. It’s quite an extraordinary exposé. I would encourage people to read it, because these groups are super powerful. They’re often quoted in your local news, new stations and in newspapers without any discussion of who they really are and who they back. And what we have documented is how these groups sit alongside those corporate lobbyists in these ALEC task force meetings, vote as equals with state elected officials on these bills before they’re put forward in the state houses to become law. And what The Guardian documented was, in some ways, how these groups are promising to their funders, like the Searle Foundation, that has close ties to a number of big groups in Washington, D.C.—the Searle Foundation—these proposals were telling the Searle Foundation that they would produce policy results, get the law changed. And what we’ve documented on our end is how some of these groups are rewarded for doing that.

So, the Mackinac Center in Michigan was recently lauded at an SPN event for getting “right to work” passed in Michigan, that extremely controversial law. We looked at the 990s of the Mackinac Institute; it turns out they said they engaged in zero lobbying, not a penny on lobbying, just like ALEC has claimed to the IRS for years that it engages in no lobbying. And we and Common Cause have documented extensively how ALEC has in fact engaged in lobbying. We presented that evidence to the IRS.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk New Jersey for just one minute. You talked about the Searle Freedom Trust. The Guardian reports one of the grant proposals to this trust came from New Jersey’s Common Sense Institute, a tax-exempt, quote, “research and education organization.” It outlines a campaign to support efforts by Republican Governor Chris Christie to end the ability of public employees to claim untaken sick days and vacation leave in their retirement packages. The proposal reads, quote, “Governor Chris Christie has been waging a war to eliminate this practice; and CSINJ would like to provide ammunition” with a “research study” and a “media campaign.” When asked if the proposal involved lobbying, the institute said it was, quote, “an education organization focused on providing the public with facts and the truth.” Lisa Graves?

LISA GRAVES: Well, I think what we—what we are looking into is how a number of these groups appear to be engaged in changing the law really directly. It’s not just a think tank. When you think of the words “think tank,” often you think of really independent researchers who are thinking about how to solve problems, and they’re doing so from a more academic or rigorous standpoint. What you see in these documents is how so many of these groups are working so closely with elected officials; how they are aiming quite directly to change the law; how, in some instances, they’re bragging about changing the law, and which is—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk media.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who Stephen Moore is, The Guardian report identifying him, The Wall Street Journal editorial writer, as the State Policy Network’s connection to the Searle Freedom Trust?

LISA GRAVES: Well, this is really, I think, one of the most extraordinary parts of the documents that The Guardian published, because what you have is one of the editorial board members of The Wall Street Journal who is sitting on a board, in essence, of—you know, basically making decisions as a board member of—a grant adviser, pardon me, of the Searle Freedom Trust, telling them which of these State Policy Network groups they should fund for this agenda. And Stephen Moore, time and time and time again, has written—has written op-eds and probably contributed to unsigned editorials by The Wall Street Journal promoting these very policies that he—you know, he has perhaps had a hand in influencing. Now, we don’t know how long Moore has been involved with the Searle Freedom Trust. We know that he’s previously been working with one of the Donors—the Donors Trust or Donors Capital groups on some advising. What we do know is that he has extensive ties to ALEC, most of which have not been disclosed by The Wall Street Journal when they editorialize in favor of ALEC or in favor of these SPN group policies. And we think that’s a really serious issue for the Journal to have such close ties, not just from Stephen Moore, but also from others like John Fund and Paul Gigot in the past, to ALEC, and not disclose to their readers how closely Stephen Moore has been aligned with ALEC and is aligned with some of these groups. In fact, it looks like some of these groups turn around and ask Stephen Moore to write reports that advance their agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Graves, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, publisher of PRWatch.org and ALECExposed.org. We’ll link to your reports at democracynow.org. When we come back, the connection between Cuba and the fight for freedom in South Africa. Stay with us.

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The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid in South Africa

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