The Raw Story: Conservative AZ lawmakers caught on camera shmoozing with shadowy lobbying group ALEC

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A steak and cocktails confab between conservative Arizona lawmakers and the shadowy lobbying group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was caught on tape by an investigative team headed by reporter Morgan Leow.

Phoenix CBS News affiliate KPHO recorded lawmakers entering and leaving the wine and dine session, which was held in a back room at upscale steakhouse Donovan’s, which features $70 steaks and an exclusive clientele.

ALEC hosted the event, a membership drive for legislators. In the past, the group has always operated in utmost secrecy, which has allowed it to sponsor gun-friendly, anti-immigrant, right-leaning legislation initiatives around the country while operating off the books and billing itself as a nonprofit.

Watchdog group Progress Now Arizona‘s executive director Robbie Sherwood said, “By my count, there were at least 17 members of the Legislature” in attendance.

“I don’t know which special interests picked up the tab for those lawmakers, but it wasn’t the legislators themselves,” he said.

Sherwood explained to Channel 5 that this is how ALEC — which sponsored Arizona’s controversial “Papers, Please” law [SB 1070] and “Stand Your Ground,” the law cited in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin — typically does business. The group also flies lawmakers to Washington at its own expense each year for a national conference.

Ellis Carter, an attorney who specializes in nonprofits, told Channel 5 that this is not how nonprofits typically operate.

“The laws that apply to nonprofits recognize that everyone has the right to express their opinion,” he said.

However, “If you are engaging in a substantial amount of lobbying, then your primary purpose is not a charitable one.”

ALEC-affiliated lawmaker Rep. Debbie Lesko (R) said that the group has done nothing wrong, that “(t)here’s lobbyists that come down to the state Capitol every day, too. That doesn’t mean anything.”

“We advocate for things we believe in,” said Lesko. “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. It’s a great organization.”

The known lobbyists who attended the dinner, she insisted, weren’t actually there to work.

As for the event at Donovan’s, she insisted to KPHO, “I invited every single legislator, whether they were Republican or Democrat, to this meeting. Everyone could come.”

State environmental lobbyist Steve Brittle said to the TV station that this is emblematic of the privileged status some lobbyists and groups enjoy with legislators.

“It is absolutely not a level playing field,” he said. “We don’t have access.”

ALEC critics say that four bills introduced by lawmakers in the present legislative session bear the hallmarks of the group’s lobbying shop. None, so far, have been passed.

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