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Government watchdog Adam Andrzejewski gave a rousing speech Thursday to conservative lawmakers and their private-industry friends, invoking Donald Trump’s trademark slogan.
“We can’t make America great again unless we make America accountable again,” he told hundreds lunching at the Manchester Grand Hyatt downtown.
Founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, Andrzejewski boasted of filing 40,000 public-records requests last year, and posting 25 million records on government employees.
“We do this so citizens can follow the money,” he said, urging his audience to become “transparency revolutionaries” and reveal their own public finances. “Show them you’ve got nothing to hide.”
Listen: Adam Andrzejewski speaks to ALEC luncheon general sessionListen: Karen Fann accepts chair gavel and speaks to fellow ALEC membersListen: Bradley Foundation panelists tell how parents can access school recordsListen: Questions asked at Bradley Foundation panel on school transparency
Minutes later, at a workshop featuring the school-choice advocates of the Bradley Foundation, panelists at the ALEC summit called critical race theory a “neo-Marxist policy” and urged an audience of 50 to expand school curriculum transparency.
“We need to empower parents to change the power dynamic,” said Libby Sobic, director of education policy at WILL — the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Transparency, it was clear, was a recurring theme at American Legislative Exchange Council meetings ending Friday.
But critics knock the nonprofit group for not practicing what it preaches.
In a blog post Monday, progressive writer Jim Miller of San Diego raked ALEC’s first meeting in San Diego since 2015, when protesters raised a racket outside the same waterfront hotel.
“Next to an appearance by the Omicron variant, it’s hard to imagine a guest with a more malignant purpose,” Miller wrote.
Karen Fann, the Arizona Senate president who ordered the state’s 2020 presidential election audit of Maricopa County, took the gavel Thursday as 2022 chair of ALEC.
Afterward, she depicted the group as a model of transparency.
But can ALEC be as open as it wants government to be?
“Oh absolutely,” Fann told Times of San Diego. “And I think we are transparent — as much as many other organizations are. We absolutely should be transparent.” (Indeed, its website says: “The American Legislative Exchange Council is committed to transparency and proactively shares its tax documents with the public.”)
But she cautioned that such clarity has limits.
“We also need to have some protections as well,” she said. “At what point do we disclose perhaps somebody who is a contributor so that somebody can get that name and bully them or even try and ruin their business?”
She said ALEC doesn’t mind transparency, “but where’s the flip side of making sure that people aren’t harassed? … None of us should ever be bullied into having to defend why you want to contribute to an organization that believes in free markets.”
The group shares its bottom-line financials through IRS records. But ALEC’s Form 990s leave out the names of its donors. And apparently for good reason.
The Center for Media and Democracy says more than 100 corporations have canceled their ALEC membership since 2011 as a result of ongoing investigations and “whistleblowers wanting to make a difference.”
Verizon, Ford, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Electric and Google are among companies quitting ALEC, which tries to influence state legislation through model bills, CMD says.
Fann didn’t mention this Thursday, but she made a robust defense of her donors as well as so-called Dark Money in politics. (Six years ago in San Diego, such a defense was an ALEC focus, Politico reported.)
Calling anonymous political contributions Dark Money is inappropriate, she said, since it was authorized by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to protect African-American groups from harassment by the Ku Klux Klan.
“Whenever anybody, particularly Caucasion people … donated money to their campaigns, the Ku Klux Klan and others went after them and literally ran them out of business, targeted them, literally trashed them,” Fann said.
She argued that the Supreme Court in the 1960s said people should have a right to be able to spend their money to “support candidates without the fear of being harassed, intimidated or even [face] the threat of death.”
Fann was off on her details, however.
In NAACP v. Patterson, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 cited the First Amendment in ruling Alabama couldn’t require the NAACP to disclose its membership lists, and by association its donors. NAACP members faced deadly retribution if disclosed.
Another reason Fann says ALEC won’t divulge its donors?
“We … don’t want [competing] organizations trying to poach our contributors,” she said.
But Fann’s main explanation for donor privacy doesn’t pass muster with Miller, an author, teachers union officer and Words and Deeds contributor.
“The notion that some of the most powerful corporations and richest individuals in the United States need protection from ‘bullying’ is a laughable assertion,” he said in response to a request for comment on Fann’s remarks.
He said ALEC clearly wants transparency for its foes but not its funders.
“The hypocrisy is predictable and shameless,” he said Friday via email. “As historian Nancy MacLean has observed, the reason why the moneyed right likes to operate in secret is because they know that their project to save capitalism from any democratic checks is deeply unpopular with the public. And when it comes to using their immense resources to trample the powerless, it’s the funders of ALEC who are the real bullies.”
Miller also called Fann’s reference to the civil rights era “perversely ironic.”
“It was in response to Brown vs. Board that the stealth right project that MacLean outlines in ‘Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America’ was born in order to do everything possible to restrict the ability of a democratic majority to use government to enact progressive change,” he said.
“ALEC is a product of this long, inglorious history.”
For her part, Fann looks ahead to better times.
“2022 will be a crucial year for our country,” she said after taking the gavel from outgoing chair Stuart Adams of Utah, “and ALEC stands ready to deliver on the values we share.”
Fann, who recently announced that she wouldn’t seek another Senate term, noted that ALEC marks its 50th anniversary in 2023.
“Why is it ALEC is so strong?” the 67-year-old told the luncheon crowd. “I want you to stand up and when somebody wants to criticize our goal and our missions, you should ask: Why aren’t you a member of ALEC?”
She concluded to loud applause: “Everybody should be in favor of limited government, free markets. …. Governing should be from the bottom up, not from the top down.”
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