A lobbyist for Koch Industries and energy interests serves with a lobbyist for Pfizer pharmaceuticals as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) corporate co-chair in Wisconsin, according to documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy. For some, their “scholarship” fundraising to benefit ALEC legislative members raises ethical issues.

According to ALEC’s bylaws, Wisconsin’s “public sector” chair, currently Rep. Robin Vos, R-Burlington, appoints the state’s corporate “private sector” chairs, currently Amy Boyer (whose lobbying clients include Koch Industries, Walmart and Xcel Energy), and Bryon Wornson (government relations and public affairs at Pfizer pharmaceuticals).

The corporate chairs raise funds for Wisconsin legislators’ expenses at the ALEC three-day annual meeting and other meetings where corporations and legislators rub shoulders and approve ALEC model legislation. Corporations already pay up to $20,000 to be present at ALEC meetings, and these corporate-funded legislative “scholarships” ensure that elected officials will also attend.

Wisconsin’s tough lobbying laws prohibit lobbyists from purchasing any gift for a legislator, even a cup of coffee. Free plane tickets and hotel rooms might look like a “gift,” but, according to Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, “ALEC has succeeded in skirting Wisconsin’s no-gift lobby laws” by calling this spending a “scholarship.”

Legislators always deny they are influenced by lobbyists, Heck says, but the relationship building and one-sided presentations at ALEC meetings, coupled with ready-to-use, corporate-approved model legislation, create opportunities for elected officials to become conduits for the corporate agenda.

Average citizens do not have the same access to their elected officials. Heck notes that constituents have a hard time getting an appointment for 10 minutes, much less having their legislators as a captive audience for three days. But average citizens may not have high-powered lobbyists raising “scholarships” for their elected officials to meet with them.

According to Government Accountability Board filings, scholarship recipients in 2009 and 2010 included former ALEC state chair Rep. Mike Huebsch (now Gov. Scott Walker’s Department of Administration secretary), Rep. Scott Suder, Rep. Rich Zipperer (now a state senator), current ALEC state chair Robin Vos, and former ALEC state chair Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, all Republicans. Each reported receiving thousands to attend ALEC meetings.

The “scholarships” raised by the Koch Industries and Pfizer lobbyists are cloaked in secrecy, preventing the public from knowing which business or ideological interests are funding legislators to meet for days with corporate lobbyists. According to ALEC’s bylaws, the funds raised by the state corporate chairs are deposited in trust with ALEC until disbursement is requested by the state legislative chair. Wisconsin’s ALEC legislators then list “ALEC” as the source of the scholarship on their Statement of Economic Interest or Campaign Disclosure Report, rather than the corporations, foundations or individuals actually contributing.

With this sleight-of-hand, Heck says, the “public is totally left in the dark.” Constituents cannot track the connection between an expenditure and legislative action. “This secrecy is analogous to the funding behind third-party election spending on ‘issue ads,’ ” he says, “with the public shut out from knowing which corporations are funding the ads run by a group like Club for Growth.”

The full extent of the role of the Koch and Pfizer lobbyists remains unclear. ALEC state chair Vos is tasked with ensuring the introduction of ALEC model legislation; what role the corporate co-chairs play in facilitating the passage of that legislation is unknown.

What is known is that multiple ALEC bills have been introduced in the state in the past year, and that ALEC member corporations, in addition to possibly funding scholarships for legislators to attend ALEC conferences, have poured at least $1.3 million into Wisconsin state elections since 2001.

Brendan Fischer is a Center for Media and Democracy law fellow and a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School (class of 2011). This column ran first on the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch website.

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