SAVANNAH, Ga. – The shadowy organization that uses off duty police officers to keep the public out of meetings between legislators and corporate lobbyists now says the media are welcome. Sort of.
The sudden change in policy at the American Legislative Exchange Council was made after the 11Alive Investigators were kicked out of an ALEC legislative committee meeting inside a Savannah resort hotel. Chatham County Sheriff's deputies, directly hired and paid by ALEC, were used to remove us from the entire hotel even though we had paid for a room.
The ALEC media policy remains nearly identical to the one in place when we launched our investigation, but after our report the line barring media was quietly removed and replaced with, "plenary sessions and workshops are open to members of the media."
A screen grab obtained by The Investigators in May and a capture of the same web page from earlier this year on archive.org both show the original line prohibiting reporters and their cameras: "business meetings and networking events are not open to members of the media."
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That media prohibition was quietly removed, and the new line was inserted at the same time ALEC complained to a political commentator that we had never contacted the organization before the event. It turns out we did reach out to ALEC media relations twice in the months leading up to the closed-door Savannah meeting, but we never received any response to our requests.
(See new screenshot below)
Bill Meierling, the vice president of public affairs for ALEC, asked us to turn off our cameras and signaled to the deputies to have us removed when we started asking questions at the hotel in Savannah where Georgia legislators and corporate lobbyists were meeting behind closed doors discussing laws. We were wearing our state issued Georgia House and Senate credentials, but were kicked out because we were "not credentialed" by ALEC.
Earlier this week we were in Washington, DC on another assignment and offered ALEC another opportunity for an interview while were in town. We received no reply.
While Meierling still won't talk with us, he did speak to conservative talk show host Erick Erickson, insisting that we would have been welcome inside the meeting had we simply pre-registered for ALEC credentials. Erickson and Meierling insisted we had booked the hotel "under an assumed name." My whole family stayed at the hotel that week, and my wife and I booked the room under the name "Keefe" which I assumed 46 years ago at birth.
The radio interview also attributed a quote that ALEC was a group of "angry white men" to the wrong Georgia senator. Meierling and Erickson told listeners the quote came from Senator Nan Orrock, a democrat who was a member of a "left wing competitor of ALEC."
But Senator Orrock didn't say that. Republican senator and former ALEC member Renee Unterman told us ALEC was a group of "angry white men…controlled by industry".
We reported Senator Unterman had received thousands of dollars in "scholarships" from ALEC to attend events at the same time she helped pass an ALEC bill into law in Georgia. Senator Unterman told us she dropped out of ALEC, but she was angry the organization continued to count her as a member. "They continue to use my name to make it look like they have women in the Georgia delegation," Senator Unterman said.
Erickson summed up Meierling's interview by writing that the meeting was "open to the press" and had I applied for ALEC credentials, I "could have gone behind the very doors he claimed were closed in his face."
But ALEC changed the media policy after our report.
Had we accepted ALEC's media credential before or during our investigation, we would have been bound by the organization's rules barring the media from "business meetings" like the one they pulled us out of, and we would have had to ask for ALEC's blessing to record anything else.
Under the same policy that existed at the time, several reporters have been barred from covering previous ALEC task force meetings. Two years earlier, Meierling told a Washington Post reporter, "our business meetings are not open, and so the subcommittee meetings and task force meetings are not open." Other reporters have been denied media credentials altogether because ALEC didn't like what they had reported, and we were not the first reporters escorted from a hotel by police on the ALEC payroll.
ALEC's media policy both before and after our coverage of the Savannah event requires us to ask for permission to rebroadcast any video of ALEC meetings. We have unaired video inside the committee meeting showing the top state lobbyist for the cell phone industry sitting across from a Georgia legislator, and in the meeting they were talking about proposed laws. After ALEC spokesperson Bill Meierling wrote to us that the organization is all about "transparency", we asked him if we could air the footage from inside the committee room.
We still have not received an answer.