It wouldn’t be a corporate-funded convention for conservative state legislators if Greenpeace activists didn’t try to crash the party, and this week’s three-day meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in metro Phoenix is no exception.
A few times a year, ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators from around the country for private meetings to design, discuss, and vote on model legislation.
The organization is registered as a nonprofit, though critics say in reality it’s a lobbying organization functioning as a “bill mill” for all sorts of right-wing legislation.
According to Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group that’s been tracking ALEC for years, ALEC has been behind much of the pro-gun, anti-union, anti-environment/climate-change-denying, voter suppression, and corporate deregulation legislation passed across the country since 1973. (This includes Arizona’s anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070.)
With a lot this week’s conference focused on energy and the environment, it should come as no surprise that four environmental activists from Greenpeace came to Phoenix and attempted to find out what was going on behind closed doors.
Security is tight at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, where the conference is taking place, but right across the street is an open-air mall with many high-end dinner options.
Connor Gibson, a research associate with Greenpeace, says it seemed to be the perfect location to catch state legislators being “wined and dined” by corporate lobbyists.
Phone in hand, he and another member of Greenpeace crashed three ALEC dinner parties.
Their first hit was Zinc Bistro in Kierland Commons, where he says they recognized ALEC’s national chairman, Texas U.S. Representative Phil King, who was sitting at a big table with about a dozen other people.
“I asked if this was an ALEC dinner,” Gibson says, “and I got mixed responses.”
As can be heard in the video, one of the men at the table says: “No, we don’t know anything about that.”
“You don’t know anything about ALEC?” Gibson replies. “But this is your national chairman, is it not?” A few people at the table simply laugh.
“So a bunch of lobbyists and legislators walk into a restaurant, who pays the tab?” he asks. “Is it the taxpayers, is it the lobbyists, is it the scholarship fund with ALEC?”
ALEC scholarships are given to legislators who may not be able to afford plane tickets and hotel costs associated with attending a conference, but since they are funded by corporations, the scholarships are a clever scam, critics say.
“By calling this spending a ‘scholarship’ and filtering it through a bank account designated as the 'ALEC scholarship fund,' corporations have, so far, maneuvered around laws designed to limit improper influence,” writes the Center for Media and Democracy.
At this point in the video, King recognizes Gibson: “Didn’t you and I talk this summer?” he asks.
(“I’m on a first-name basis with a lot of people at ALEC,” he tells New Times, “including their head security guard.”)
King reiterates that he’d be happy to meet and talk if Gibson set up a formal meeting, “but these are my friends, and we decided to go out to dinner tonight.”
Gibson then tries to ask more questions about who is paying for the dinner, but gets kicked out of the restaurant by a waiter.
He and the other Greenpeace activists visited two more restaurants, and he provided video footage of his encounter with Russell Smolden, a former Salt River Project lobbyist and past member of ALEC’s board of directors, at Ocean Club:
“Is this an ALEC gathering?” Gibson asks.
“Yes, it’s an ALEC group,” one of the diners replies.
“Can I ask you what you think about climate change?” Gibson says.
“I’d like you leave right now; you’re not invited,” the man replies. When Gibson continues to ask questions, the man calls for Smolden’s attention.
“Did you organize this dinner?” Gibson says. “I’m Connor with Greenpeace.”
“What are you doing here, Connor?” Smolden replies.
The two have a tense exchange about who is paying for the dinner and whether Smolden will answer a question about climate change, and then Smolden realizes Gibson is filming and tells him it’s “a pretty shitty, scummy thing to do.”
Gibson is then escorted out of the restaurant.
“I’ve been to the majority of ALEC conferences since 2011 in some fashion, although obviously I’ve never been an official member,” he tells New Times.
From what he can tell, “ALEC leadership is allergic to two things: transparency and accountability [for] climate change denial . . . At ALEC, legislators are still being mis-taught about climate change by fossil fuel companies, [and they’re] being taught that climate change isn’t happening.”
He says it’s for this reason that “Greenpeace and other organizations are interested in shining a light on ALEC’s shady meetings,” adding that he felt it was a productive night of party crashing:
“I think [our actions will] help show people what backdoor lobbying looks like. I don’t think the average citizen has a clear idea what it looks like for legislators to be wined and dined by lobbyists.
“It’s actually kind of boring-looking, not some shifty cartoon image, but it’s important for people to see what their legislators are doing and the atmosphere that it entails [because] way too much is kept hidden.
“People should know if their elected officials represent them — or [represent] the people buying them drinks.”
Watch Gibson try to interview ALEC board member Blair Thoreson about climate change earlier this week:
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Watch a humorous video Greenpeace made about ALEC: