The progressive groups leveling charges that the American Legislative Exchange Conference (ALEC) is "shadowy" and "nefarious" rely on hidden donors and overheated rhetoric to attack ALEC and ignore similar activities by liberal organizations.
ALEC crafts model legislation for state legislatures. Progressive groups are attempting to silence ALEC using "Jesse Jackson tactics" because of its free-market positions, said Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell.
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"The concern is that these groups are using intimidation and trying to break ALEC," Howell said. "What they’re trying to do is muzzle ALEC by taking away its source of money."
Liberal watchdogs have propagated the myth that ALEC stands alone as a drafter of model legislation.
ProPublica, an investigative news organization funded partly by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, claimed in a 2011 article, "ALEC has no real counterpart on the left."
However, there are myriad groups that craft model legislation for states. Some of them even have the same corporate backers as ALEC.
One explicitly liberal group that pushes model legislation is the Progressive States Network. In 2009, the Soros Fund made a grant of $300,000 to the organization. In 2010, members of the Progressive States Network Board included Wes Boyd, President and co-founder of MoveOn.org; David Brock, President and CEO of Media Matters for America; and John Podesta, President and CEO, the Center for American Progress.
The Progressive States Network's mission is to "engage and build the capacity of state and national leaders to advance public policy solutions that uphold America’s promise to be a just and equitable democracy."
"We don't publish our funders," Progressive States Network communication director Charles Monaco told the Free Beacon. "That's not material we make public on our website."
Another new group has also been formed—the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE), which Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel called the "centerpiece" of a growing progressive legislative pushback against ALEC. ALICE would offer model laws "based on the values of equity, sustainability, and responsible government."
Howell, the Virginia Speaker, has worked with ALEC for more than 20 years and served as the group’s national chairman in 2009. ALEC’s influence in the state legislature has been overblown, and the money paid to ALEC by the Virginia legislature to attend conferences paled in comparison with the amount paid to other groups such as the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and Council of State Governments, which also craft hundreds of model bills a year, Howell told the Free Beacon.
"The amount the state was paying to the two other organizations was 10 times as much for each," Howell said. "We paid about $2.5 million over the past 10 years for dues, yet at the same time [critics] are accusing ALEC of taking $230,000 over the past decade from the state."
Although the NCSL gets most of its funding from state dues, it too has corporate backers. Some of the NCSL’s "Platinum Level" corporate sponsors include Wal-Mart, Visa, and AT&T.
The latest front in the war against ALEC opened Monday when Common Cause announced it had filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS accusing ALEC of tax fraud.
"ALEC's corporate members push right-wing legislation slanted in favor of their corporate interests," Common Cause founder Bob Edgar said in a conference call with reporters Monday. "What they don't send out is anything that reflects bi-partisan legislation."
Common Cause presents itself as a strictly non-partisan organization. ALEC disputes that claim and says the group is liberal.
"The attacks on the American Legislative Exchange Council are based on patently false claims being made by liberal front groups that differ with ALEC on philosophical terms," ALEC legal counsel Alan P. Dye said Monday in a statement. "Without question, Common Cause is a partisan front group masquerading as an ethics watchdog."
Edgar is a former Democratic congressman. The law firm working with Common Cause in its complaint, Phillips & Cohen, also has a long history of donating generously to Democrats.
"Our reputation is critical to our success," Phillips and Cohen attorney Eric Havian said in the conference call when asked about his firm’s political leanings. "I don't know what someone’s motivation is. What concerns me is if the lawsuit has merit."
Havian donated the maximum amount possible to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Firm partner John Phillips was also a bundler for Obama.
Common Cause also has been using ALEC to fundraise. "We're working hard to shine a spotlight on [ALEC’s] nefarious tactics, and to put a stop to their end runs around federal tax and state ethics laws," the group boasts on its website. "Can you help us by making a gift of $20, $50, $100 or more to support our work today?"
One notable Common Cause donor in the group’s 2011 report is Jon Corzine, the former New Jersey Democratic governor and disgraced CEO of MF Global.
Corzine gave $1,000 to Common Cause New York in 2011 in support of its annual dinner.
Other organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus share corporate sponsors with ALEC. Bloomberg reported that 13 of the 22 companies and trade associations on ALEC’s private enterprise board also gave at least $2 million to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
The Congressional Black Caucus opposes many of the same positions that ALEC supports, such as voter ID laws, which the caucus claims "suppress" the vote of minorities.
One of the most prominent groups in the fight against ALEC is Color of Change, a non-profit founded by 9/11 Truther and former Obama green jobs czar Van Jones.
Color of Change is funded by a number of liberal philanthropy groups such as the George Soros-funded Open Society, which gave $250,000 to the Citizen Engagement Laboratory in 2010 "to support Color of Change," according to financial disclosures.
Other large donors include the San Francisco Foundation ($250,000 in 2010) and the Tides Foundation ($74,650).
Other than legally required disclosures from the donating foundations, it is impossible to tell where and how Color of Change spends its money, or from whom it receives its money. The organization does not release donor information, and its tax filings are murky at best.
The group's largest single expense on its 2010 tax filing— $197,486—is listed as "Other," with no further details provided.
Color of Change employs only four people and had operating revenues of $515,219, according to tax filings.
Color of Change did not return repeated requests for comment.
ProgressVA is a Virginia organization that launched attacks against ALEC and Howell earlier in April, releasing a report supposedly documenting ALEC’s influence over the state legislature.
"The American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive organization funded by big corporations, has been writing bills that Virginia legislators are passing off as their own work on everything from education to health care to voting rights," Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA, told the Washington Post.
Scholl declined to tell the Free Beacon who funds ProgressVA.
Progress Now, the national arm of ProgressVA, did not return requests for comment.
"There's nothing more mysterious than ProgressVA," Speaker Howell said.
United Republic, another non-profit "corruption watchdog" that opposes ALEC, did not return requests for information about its donors.
A reporter for the group’s publication, Republic Report, said that the organization would release information on its donors several weeks ago. It has yet to do so.