Corporate lobby group gave cash awards to Cantor, 21 state lawmakers

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  • Dale Eisman

ALEC payments raise legal, ethical questions

A lobbying group funded by some of the nation’s richest corporations appears to have given ethically and perhaps legally dubious cash awards to nearly two dozen state and federal lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Common Cause said today.

Tax filings by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for 2008 and 2009 show cash payments to Cantor and 21 state elected officials who were honored by the group.

While rules spelled out in the House Ethics Manual bar members from receiving cash payments from outside groups, records maintained by ALEC indicate it gave Cantor $1,350 in 2009 in connection with his receipt of ALEC’s annual “Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award.”

In a letter sent to Cantor, R-Va., today, Common Cause asked the GOP leader to explain his apparent receipt of the ALEC payment and his failure to reveal it on the annual disclosure statement he and other lawmakers file with the House clerk. By copy of that letter, Common Cause also called the payment to the attention of the Office of Congressional Ethics. Here is a video of Cantor accepting the award.

“It appears Mr. Cantor and a substantial number of state legislators have accepted cash rewards for their work advancing ALEC’s pro-business legislative agenda,” said Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause. “And while most of these payments total only a few hundred dollars, a public official’s acceptance of any payment other than his or her government salary raises serious ethical – and perhaps legal – questions and, at a minimum, needs to be fully disclosed.”

Underwritten by firms including Coca-Cola, Pfizer, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, ALEC brings state legislators and corporate representatives together to draft and push for passage of hundreds of bills each year. The group operated in relative obscurity until last year, when the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy obtained and released thousands of pages of records documenting its involvement in the passage of hundreds of state laws.

Among other things, ALEC has championed lower corporate tax rates that would benefit its business members, a rollback of bargaining rights for public employee unions, and legislation making it more difficult for consumers injured by defective products to collect damages from manufacturers.

The Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award given Cantor in 2009 is ALEC’s most prestigious honor. Past recipients include former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and former Virginia Governor and Senator George Allen.

ALEC’s IRS filings indicate that the award has not always had a financial component but that in 2009 it included a $1,350 “cash grant.”

“Because House members are barred from accepting cash in any amount from outside groups and can receive gifts worth no more than a $100 annually from a single source, we’ve written Mr. Cantor to seek an explanation of his apparent acceptance of the ALEC award,” Edgar said. “We’ve also referred the appropriate documents to the Office of Congressional Ethics.”

ALEC’s IRS filings indicate the group made similar grants, all smaller than the Jefferson award, to 21 current and former state officials during 2008 and ’09. The “Champion Award,” presented in 2008 to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, carried a $1,250 cash grant. The “William Raggio Leadership Award,” presented to Texas Rep. Tom Craddick in 2008 and North Carolina Rep. Harold Brubaker in 2009, also was accompanied both years by a $1,250 grant.

In addition, ALEC reported making 18 “Legislator of the Year” Awards in 2008 and ’09. Each of the nine winners in 2008 received a $665 grant; the 2009 winners each received $395. A list of lawmakers receiving cash awards and the amounts ALEC reported paying is here.

While some states permit such payments to lawmakers, Edgar argued that legislators who accept them “cross a dangerous ethical line.”

“Citizens have a right to expect that their elected officials are working in the public interest,” Edgar said. “The acceptance of any payment, large or small, from a company, group, or individual – especially those that promote legislation – raises questions about whether the lawmaker receiving it has put a private interest ahead of his or her public service.”