JULIE CARR SMYTH
AP Statehouse Correspondent
COLUMBUS — Hundreds of emails were sent through an Ohio lawmaker’s office last year to arrange free meals and other perks for legislators from lobbyists at events sponsored by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, records show.
The Ohio House scheduler was asked to arrange session dates around council events and obliged, raising questions about the council’s sway at the Statehouse.
The Associated Press reviewed emails obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy. It’s part of a coalition of liberal activist groups leading a national campaign to highlight the council’s operations and corporate ties, as well as controversial bills it has pushed, including voter identification and “stand your ground” gun legislation.
Activists complain the council improperly influences the legislative process by allowing corporate leaders to draft legislation alongside legislators. Under Ohio law, state lawmakers can’t take gifts worth more than $75 — but happy hours, lavish dinners, concerts and sporting events at council conferences are largely exempt.
For the period of the emails, those events included conferences in New Orleans and Phoenix and a Cincinnati Reds baseball game.
State email records show mostly Republican state lawmakers attended the group’s conference in August 2011 in New Orleans, something Brian Rothenberg, executive director of the liberal policy group ProgressOhio, said shows it is not a bipartisan entity, like the National Conference of State Legislatures or the Council on State Governments.
“Clearly, this is hardly bipartisan. It’s a very conservative effort to sit at the table with large corporations, provide model legislation on conservative objectives, and change the way Ohio laws work,” he said. As criticism has grown nationally, corporations such as Wal-Mart and Amazon have dropped their affiliation with the group.
Activities for Ohio lawmakers were coordinated through GOP state Rep. John Adams of Sidney and his aide, Kara Joseph. Adams was the council’s legislative chairman in Ohio, and he and Joseph were dubbed, respectively, the council’s legislator and volunteer of the year.
In emails, Joseph acted as liaison among council staff, Ohio lobbyists and lawmakers attending the conference — creating individual itineraries of lobbyist events for individual lawmakers. Those included a cigar night at “the Mount Rushmore of bars” hosted by Ohio lobbyist Sean Dunn’s firm and a dinner at ritzy Antoine’s hosted by the Ohio Petroleum Council and BP.
Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe issued guidance on state ethics laws in June to both lawmakers and lobbyists as a result of concern raised by advocates over council activity.
He warned that for conference perks to be exempt from the $75 state limit, the host organization, in this case the council itself, must determine who is invited, extend the invitation and place the activity on the conference agenda.
Emails show some lobbyists doing the direct planning of events. “Please do not schedule your bosses for any dinners while at ALEC in New Orleans, Joseph wrote to her Statehouse colleagues. “All dinners are being scheduled through me.”
Council conferences are considered “official business” for lawmakers because it’s recognized by the state as a legitimate policy group and the state pays lawmakers’ dues, Bledsoe said. In that way, it is similar to the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council on State Governments, he said.
The council is “a long-time civic organization that provides a wonderful forum for policymakers and opinion leaders to share ideas,” Adams said in a statement given to the AP.
“It is a shame that this organization has been the subject of a partisan witch hunt by liberal organizations that seek to demonize ALEC,” he said.
Republican State Sen. Bill Seitz, another conference attendee and member of the council’s national board, said he pays his own dues and believes other lawmakers do, too.
“They have to pay real money to belong. Unlike NCSL and CSG, which are taxpayer supported, ALEC is not taxpayer supported,” he said. “So to have approximately 2,000 state legislators across the country willing to shell out $100 for a two-year membership shows that there’s 2,000 people out there in statehouses who really believe in the mission of the organization.”
Seventy-two of 132 lawmakers serving at the start of this session— including every member of GOP leadership in both legislative chambers — are members of the council.
The state pays a blanket fee to belong to the council, and many member lawmakers pay their individual dues through their campaign accounts, Rothenberg said.
“Having the state pay dues is their loophole for not having to report these events,” he said. “It clearly flouts the ethics law.”
Seitz said it’s no coincidence the anti-ALEC push emerged after conservatives took 800 new seats in state legislatures across the U.S. in 2010.
“This is gigantic effort by the organized left to cry sour grapes,” he said. “So they’re still crying in their beer over the 2010 elections to try to discredit ALEC from doing nothing more, nothing less than it’s done for 30-some years but now is doing more successfully.”
He notes that Ohio did not pass voter identification or self-defense gun laws that are in the crosshairs of council critics.