STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're following up this morning on our report on Arizona's immigration law. Yesterday we met an Arizona lawmaker who sponsored the bill. He's a long-time opponent of illegal immigration.
We also learned about an alliance of legislators and corporations that helped him to draft the legislation. Today, NPR's Laura Sullivan investigates that group.
LAURA SULLIVAN: Walk into the offices of the American Legislative Exchange Council and it's hard to imagine this is the birthplace of a thousand pieces of legislation introduced last year in statehouses across the country.
It's quiet, almost dark. Michael Bowman is the senior director of policy here. He explains only 28 people work here and they are not writing the bills. In many cases, corporations are.
Mr. MICHAEL BOWMAN (American Legislative Exchange Council): Most of the bills are written by outside sources and companies, attorneys, ledge counsels.
SULLIVAN: Here's how it works: ALEC is a membership organization. Some of the members are state legislators. They pay $50 a year in dues. Other members are private corporations like Reynolds Tobacco, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer. They pay tens of thousands of dollars a year. All told, tax records show as much as $6 million.
With that money, the 28 people in these offices put on three conferences a year. The companies sit around a table and write bills with state legislators, who then take them home to their states.
Unidentified Woman #1: ...sponsor the bill, Senator Pearce(ph).
Unidentified Man: Madam Chairman, committee members, thank you very much. This bill is...
SULLIVAN: One of those bills was Arizona's controversial immigration law. It requires police to arrest anyone who cannot prove they entered the country legally when they're asked. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants could be locked up, and private prison companies stand to make millions.
The largest prison company in the country, the Corrections Corporation of America, was present when the model legislation was drafted at an ALEC conference.
ALEC's Michael Bowman says that's nothing unusual.
Mr. BOWMAN: We usually pass about 200 bills a year.
SULLIVAN: So its effect - I mean, it's an effective way to get a bill passed.
Mr. BOWMAN: Well, yes, it is. But let me just say, it's not an effective way to get a bill passed. It's an effective way to find good legislation.
SULLIVAN: Most states define lobbying as pushing legislators to create or pass legislation. And that comes with rules. Companies have to disclose to the public what they are lobbying for and how much they're spending on it.
If these conferences were interpreted as lobbying, the group could lose its status as a non-profit, corporations wouldn't be able to reap tax benefits from joining, and legislators would have a hard time justifying attending a conference of lobbyists.
Bowman says what the group does is educational.
Mr. BOWMAN: ALEC allows a place for everyone at the table to come and debate and discuss and to ask questions. And you have legislators who will ask questions much more freely in our meetings because they're not under the eyes of the press, they're not under the eyes of the voters. They're just trying to learn a policy and understand it.
SULLIVAN: Much about ALEC is private - its finances, its donors. ALEC rarely grants interviews. Bowman won't even say which legislators are members.
You've got private corporations that are paying money to sit in a room with legislatures, half the time, you said, bringing forth legislation that they themselves have written, in the hopes that those legislatures will bring it back to their states. You're a former lobbyist. Is that lobbying?
Mr. BOWMAN: No, because we're - we're not advocating any position. We don't actually lobby it. We don't tell members to take these bills. We don't ask them to vote for the bills. We just expose best practices. And so all we're really doing is developing policies that are in model bill form.
SULLIVAN: So for example, last December Arizona Senator Russell Pearce sat in a hotel conference room with representatives from the Corrections Corporation of America and several dozen others. Together they drafted model legislation that was introduced into the Arizona legislature two months later, almost word for word.
Bowman says this kind of meeting is just informational. But first ALEC has to get legislators to their conferences. They encourage them to bring their families. Corporations sponsor golf tournaments and throw parties at night, according to interviews and records obtained by NPR. Bowman says that's nothing special.
Mr. BOWMAN: We have breakfasts and lunch. They're at like Marriotts and Hyatts. They're just normal chicken dinners. Maybe one night they actually may get steak. Yeah, we feed the people. We think that, you know, it's OK to eat at a conference.
SULLIVAN: Videos and photos from a recent 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 a 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.
Kirk Adams is Arizona's speaker of the House. He went to ALEC's recent gathering in San Diego.
Mr. KIRK ADAMS (Speaker of the House, Arizona): If we were to believe that a dinner with a lobbyist would purchase a member's allegiance to their issue, then we have much larger problems than that. It's just simply not been my experience at all.
SULLIVAN: So do you pay your own way to the ALEC conferences?
Mr. ADAMS: I have accepted scholarships from ALEC. I don't think they pay full transportation costs or anything of that nature.
SULLIVAN: Here's how it works. ALEC's Michael Bowman says legislatures get something called a scholarship to cover conference expenses. But it's unclear where that money is coming from.
Senator Russell Pearce used one of these scholarship funds to come to the annual conference. Who paid for that?
Mr. BOWMAN: You'd have to ask Senator Russell Pearce. I mean, probably various corporations and lobbyists in his state helped pay for him to go to the event.
SULLIVAN: But there's no public record of who would pay for that.
Mr. BOWMAN: No.
SULLIVAN: Pearce said he received the money from ALEC. ALEC's Michael Bowman later said Arizona legislature Bob Burns would know. Burns was in charge of pooling money for scholarships. But Burns did not respond to NPR's request asking where the money came from.
Unidentified Woman #2: Hi.
SULLIVAN: Can I take a look at the state legislators' financial disclosure forms?
Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible)
SULLIVAN: In an office at the Arizona statehouse, a review of records show that not one Arizona legislator who went to the conference reported receiving any gifts of meals, parties, baseball or banquet tickets from a private corporation.
Senator Pearce and a dozen others wrote that they received a gift of $500 or more from ALEC.
A review of the two dozen states now considering Arizona's immigration law shows many of those pushing similar bills across the country are ALEC members. In fact, five of those legislators were in the hotel conference room with the Corrections Corporation the day the model bill was written.
The prison company didn't have to file a lobbying report or disclose any gifts to legislators. They don't even have to tell anyone they were there. All they have to do is pay their ALEC dues and show up.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News