PHOENIX (CBS5) – CBS 5 Investigates rolled hidden cameras during a membership drive for one of the country’s most secretive and controversial organizations. Lobbyists and state lawmakers mingled over steaks and drinks in a private room at the Valley’s exclusive Donovan’s Steakhouse.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, put on the event. The organization advocates for limited government, federalism and free markets. But critics argue ALEC is nothing more than a massive lobbying group that uses legislators themselves to push legislation that has included so-called “stand your ground” bills and immigration measures like Arizona’s SB 1070.
“By my count, there were at least 17 members of the legislature,” said Robbie Sherwood, who is the executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive watchdog group that monitors ALEC activities.
Sherwood said backroom events like this one are hallmarks of the way ALEC does business. Every year, the organization flies legislators to a national meeting and pays for their stay. The meetings are often in Washington, DC.
“I don’t know which special interests picked up the tab for those lawmakers, but it wasn’t the legislators themselves,” said Sherwood.
ALEC is organized as a nonprofit, and while these organizations are allowed to lobby, their lobbying activity cannot amount to a substantial portion of their overall mission.
“The laws that apply to nonprofits recognize that everyone has the right to express their opinion,” said Ellis Carter, who is an attorney who specializes in nonprofits.
“If you are engaging in a substantial amount of lobbying, then your primary purpose is not a charitable one,” said Carter.
At least one left-leaning organization filed a complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS exercises oversight of nonprofits.