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Where do the rich and political elite meet? Behind closed doors

5/16/2014, 1:13 p.m.
For a few days in March, the American Enterprise Institute welcomed scores of business and political leaders to a private ...
For a few days in March, the American Enterprise Institute welcomed scores of business and political leaders to a private annual meeting at a private resort on the Georgia coast. But only those who attended know what issues were discussed, strategy planned or promises made. (House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio). Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP.

Even some partisans criticize the secrecy - when the opposition is involved.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign attacked his potential general election rival, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, for attending the Democracy Alliance meeting in Chicago. McConnell accused Grimes of cozying up to wealthy environmentalist donors nationally while campaigning as a pro-coal Democrat back home.

Many Democrats have long vilified ALEC’s operations.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a liberal Democrat from Madison, Wisconsin, joined ALEC when he was in the state Assembly. He attended the group’s meetings starting in 2008 and then discussed their agenda publicly - something participants often decline to do.

Closed meetings at ALEC and AEI, Pocan said, are "definitely not good for public policy, and they’re not good for democracy.’’

ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling noted that the organization operates more openly in recent years, in part in reaction to critics who cried foul over ALEC members pushing conservative causes, such as limiting environmental regulations or penalties for violations, traced back to the group’s corporate and foundation backers.

Only legislators can submit proposed ALEC bills to a task force, he said, and the group now posts those proposals online before task forces meet. The end product is also posted after the meeting, allowing anyone to trace changes. ALEC also discloses its donors.

Putting all of that on paper, he said, is how critics can spot model legislation in a statehouse or know that ALEC has gotten money from conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the National Rifle Association and corporate giants like Shell, Texaco, Philip Morris and Union Pacific Railroad.

The American Enterprise Institute, meanwhile, maintains a code of secrecy around its annual meeting "to maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse,’’ Judy Mayka Stecker, an institute spokeswoman, said in an email.

Walker aides confirmed the governor’s attendance but declined further comment. Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was one of two Democrats out of the 18 senators and representatives who attended the event and perhaps the only public official who publicly disclosed his trip beforehand. But an aide told The Associated Press that the senator preferred to respect AEI’s policy and not discuss the meeting details.