The New York Times, the paper that published the Wisconsin professor's op-ed piece -- the op-ed piece that revealed Republican party operatives are requesting access to his emails -- has a follow-up report this morning. The Times has taken a look at the openness of Wisconsin's open records law.
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said that he would not detail why the records request was filed and said it was inappropriate for Professor Cronon to question his motives. “I find this troubling,” Mr. Jefferson said. “Like anyone else filing a public records request, I don’t have to give a reason.”
As a state that prides itself on encouraging government transparency, Wisconsin has a far-reaching open records law that provides journalists and others with a means to pull back the curtain of government to ensure that it is working properly.
Indeed, this week local news organizations have combed through about 50,000 e-mails sent to Gov. Scott Walker to evaluate the truthfulness of his assertions that, despite the tens of thousands of protesters outside his office, a majority of people who wrote to him were supportive.
(Governor Walker fought to keep the e-mails secret before eventually agreeing to turn them over and pay the news organizations’ legal costs.)
These open records rules can also be applied to those residing much farther down the hierarchy of state government, like a tenured professor at a publicly financed university.
No, no "but." The request from the Republican party is legit under Wisconsin law, and the University of Wisconsin will response to the request selectively.
The university is in the process of responding to the request, a process that includes removing documents that are exempt, like communications with students and discussions of unpublished research. “This is not unusual,” said Lisa Rutherford, director of the university’s legal office. “We get hundreds of requests a year in all different varieties.”
The professor, William Cronon, is a particularly distinguished and gentlemanly academic with a track record of American historical scholarship and engagement in contemporary history. It's not at all unusual that the current debates in Wisconsin and the behaviors of its politicians would engage his interest. Fellow Wisconsinite and friend John Nichols has written about him this week.
Because he in an engaged intellectual, rather than a distant and disconnected one, Cronon has observed the great debate over Governor Scott Walker’s assault on labor rights and related attempts to consolidate power with a sharp eye. And Cronon has contributed to that debate in the best tradition of the public intellectual, developing a “Scholar as Citizen” blog that, among other things, examines the role played by Washington-based think tanks and corporate-friendly advocacy groups in shaping Governor Walker’s policies and agenda.
“After watching the sudden and impressively well-organized wave of legislation being introduced into state legislatures that all seem to be pursuing parallel goals only tangentially related to current fiscal challenges—ending collective bargaining rights for public employees, requiring photo IDs at the ballot box, rolling back environmental protections, privileging property rights over civil rights, and so on—I’ve found myself wondering where all of this legislation is coming from,” Cronin wrote in his first blog entry.
The professor developed a study guide at the website that asked questions and provided answers about the activities of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group organized almost forty years ago by movement conservatives to influence lawmaking in the states. “The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills’ that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)”
Ah yes. ALEC. Arizona. Immigrants. Private prisons.
ALEC. Last June, questions were asked about that "legislative exchange" group.
[Arizona] State Senator Russell Pierce is the perp, immigrants are his victims, and driving the getaway car are "private prison companies, like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group, which stand to reap substantial profits as more undocumented residents end up in jail."
Other perps include the "non-profit" American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) with corporate connections that run all the way down the highway to your favorite strip mall. ALEC is operating illegally, but what the hell, they're making big bucks for their sponsors. ...Prairie Weather 6/26/10
Last year NPR did a series of reports about ALEC. No wonder Republicans would like to bury NPR under a large pile of steaming rightist excrement. NPR reported on the vital corporate/ALEC connection. No, wait. It's not just a connection. The legislators and the profiteers are joined at the hip.
Last year, two men showed up in Benson, Ariz., a small desert town 60 miles from the Mexico border, offering a deal.
Glenn Nichols, the Benson city manager, remembers the pitch.
"The gentleman that's the main thrust of this thing has a huge turquoise ring on his finger," Nichols said. "He's a great big huge guy and I equated him to a car salesman."
What he was selling was a prison for women and children who were illegal immigrants.
"They talk [about] how positive this was going to be for the community," Nichols said, "the amount of money that we would realize from each prisoner on a daily rate."
But Nichols wasn't buying. He asked them how would they possibly keep a prison full for years — decades even — with illegal immigrants?
"They talked like they didn't have any doubt they could fill it," Nichols said.
That's because prison companies like this one had a plan — a new business model to lock up illegal immigrants. And the plan became Arizona's immigration law.
The American Legislative Exchange Council. The name sounds so worthy, so non-profit, so helpful to American democracy. But it's not. It's just another "Americans for Prosperity" (Koch), or "American Crossroads" (Rove). The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is about money and power.
Last December Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce sat in a hotel conference room with representatives from the Corrections Corporation of America and several dozen others. The group voted on model legislation that was introduced into the Arizona legislature two months later, almost word for word.
Bowman says that type of meeting is an informational exchange, meant to help legislators understand policy.
But first ALEC has to get legislators to the conferences. The organization encourages state lawmakers to bring their families. Corporations sponsor golf tournaments on the side and throw parties at night, according to interviews and records obtained by NPR.
Bowman says that's nothing special: "We have breakfasts and lunch. They're at Marriotts and Hyatts. They're normal chicken dinner. Maybe sometimes they get steaks. Yeah, we feed the people. We think that it's OK to eat at a conference."
Videos and photos from one recent ALEC conference show banquets, open bar parties and baseball games — all hosted by corporations. Tax records show the group spent $138,000 to keep legislators' children entertained for the week.
But the legislators don't have to declare these as corporate gifts.
Consider this: If a corporation hosts a party or baseball game and legislators attend, most states require the lawmakers to say where they went and who paid. In this case though, legislators can just say they went to ALEC's conference. They don't have to declare which corporations sponsored these events.
That brings us back to American history professor at Wisconsin, William Cronon. Cronon has set up a blog, "Scholar as Citizen," as a result of the current mess. In it he writes about what he politely calls Wisconsin's "debates."
...Last Tuesday night, March 15, I launched my first-ever entry for a blog I had long been planning on the theme of “Scholar as Citizen,” about how thoughtful scholarship can contribute to better understandings of issues and debates in the public realm. In my first blog entry, I published a study guide exploring the question “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” I by no means had all the answers to this question, but I thought I had found enough useful leads that it was worth sharing them to help others investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council further. So I posted the link for the blog on Facebook and Twitter, sat back, and hoped that viral communication would bring the blog to people who might find it useful.
My little ALEC study guide succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Within two days, the blog had received over half a million hits, had been read by tens of thousands of people, had been linked by newspapers all over the United States, and had been visited by people from more than two dozen foreign countries. Many readers expressed considerable interest in the activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and said they were grateful for the guidance I had tried to provide for people wishing to learn more about it. (A smaller number of readers were much more hostile, and you can read their comments on the blog.)
All this was welcome, and I’m greatly heartened by the thought that an organization that has exercised such extraordinary but almost invisible influence over American political life for the past forty years may finally start to receive more of the scrutiny that its far-reaching activities deserve.