By FELICIA KRIEG
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Local group People for Positive Action says a nonprofit organization is buying government influence.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is officially classified as a 501c3 tax-exempt nonprofit organization, Positive Action member Mary-Alice Shemo said at a recent press conference in Plattsburgh.
But, she said, it is not a true nonprofit agency but a lobbying organization with an agenda.
What she described as its shady activities, she said, have “gone undetected and unnoticed for a long time.”
On Friday in SUNY Plattsburgh’s Yokum Hall, People for Positive Action will screen and discuss the film “The United States of ALEC,” which is intended to inform the public about the 40-year-old organization’s activities.
State and federal legislators pay a nominal fee for membership in the 40-year-old ALEC, which holds conferences where representatives from some of America’s most wealthy and influential corporations propose model legislation for their consideration.
At the recent press conference, People for Positive Action members Bill Cowan and Shemo, as well as Plattsburgh residents Matt Hall and Tom Wood, spoke on behalf of the 2012 film “The United States of ALEC.”
Friday’s film screening in Yokum Hall on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus will include a discussion led by Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.
The screening of the film, produced by a company affiliated with television journalist Bill Moyers, is locally sponsored by Positive Action.
On its website, ALEC describes itself as a nonpartisan, “constructive forum for state legislators and private-sector leaders to discuss and exchange practical, state-level public-policy issues.”
But the model bills that the agency drafts and passes on to legislators are biased, Cowan said, adding that the documentary is one of the most devastating he’s seen, since it exposes the influence ALEC has on legislators, which sometimes finds its way into legislation.
In a press release promoting the film, the model bills are described as anti-union and in favor of replacing public prisons with privately run institutions and public education with private education.
ALEC, its detractors say, supports passing voter-identification requirements that would deprive many Americans of their ability to vote.
“It’s more than just laws and legislation,” Hall said at the press conference. “They work very hard to disenfranchise voters.”
On its website, ALEC said legislators “fully control ALEC’s model legislation process,” unlike groups in the private sector that draft model legislation.
And, the nonprofit argues, its model-bills effort is successful “because it provides legislators and their constituents with the kind of free-market, limited-government solutions they want.”
Wood said at the press conference that ALEC aims to put power in the hands of wealthy corporations instead of voters.
“Nothing ALEC is doing is necessarily illegal, but it raises a lot of questions,” Hall said.
ALEC’s activities should at least be transparent so the public is aware of them, Wood said.
When George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012 and said he was acting in self-defense, the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law was brought into question.
According to Common Cause, the law was drafted by the National Rifle Association, which promoted it through ALEC.
It has been passed in some form in more than two dozen states, Common Cause said on a website dedicated to the documentary.
Recent increased public and media attention caused some big-name companies to leave ALEC, Hall said.
Corporations that had left ALEC by July 2012 include Wal-Mart, Pepsi, McDonald’s, General Motors and Amazon.com, according to Common Cause’s website.
Current Private Enterprise Council members include representatives from the United Parcel Service, AT&T, ExxonMobil and Pfizer Inc., according to Common Cause.
ALEC has local ties. Georgia-Pacific is listed on Common Cause’s website as a member of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force.
A Georgia-Pacific media contact did not return a call for comment regarding the company’s membership.
About a year ago, Common Cause filed a legal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service asking for an investigation of ALEC’s activities.
The complaint claims the organization under-reports lobbying that aims to further the interests of private corporations.
In rebuttal, ALEC says on its website, “As legislatures and governors pursue the best solutions for their states, ALEC understands and expects that some groups may oppose solutions that emphasize free markets and limited government.”
The nonprofit wrote that its members are disappointed that organizations are misrepresenting what ALEC does to “advance their political agendas.”
Wood said that beyond informing the public about ALEC’s activities, he hopes Friday’s event will foster the kind of meaningful dialogue that is often lacking in modern society.
“Something that we’re missing in society is people getting together and discussing issues.”
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IF YOU GO
WHAT: "The United States of ALEC."
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday.
WHERE: Yokum Hall, Room 200, SUNY Plattsburgh campus.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, will lead a discussion. Running time is about 45 minutes.