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ALEC’s next target: state AGs who go after companies

A year ago, even a divining rod would have been tempting to a reporter trying to tease out details about the workings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The group’s corporate, ideological and lawmaker members wouldn’t admit to an association, much less describe the model bills cooked up at its cushy confabs.

Today, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. One need only pick up one of the 4,000 documents recently obtained by Common Cause, which has filed complaints against the group here and at the national level, and out tumble nuggets of political chicanery.

Exhibit A: The agenda from last week’s ALEC meeting in Charlotte, N.C., where its task forces polished proposed bills that are likely to pop up in the next legislative session here and around the country.

At the meeting, ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force considered a proposal entitled the ALEC Attorney General Authority Act. The boilerplate is pretty impenetrable -- one more reason lawmakers don’t write these themselves -- but the summary attached for members’ advance consideration lays out the gist pretty neatly:

“Just as a private attorney cannot bring a suit on behalf of a client without the client agreeing and authorizing such action, and then only within the guidelines allowed by the client, so it should be with the attorney general. Rather than an attorney general deciding on his or her own what authority the office may have to bring a lawsuit, the authority should be defined by the state as reflected by the specific decisions of the legislature via statute. The legislature, not the attorney general, is best positioned to balance the competing concerns that go into the decision of whether to allow a cause of action and under what circumstances.”

Now in English

In even plainer English: AGs, who are typically the consumer’s lone public advocate these days, may not file suit against, say, a tobacco company, a mortgage fraudster or a national company flaunting state law, unless the legislature passes a bill saying he -- or in our case, she -- can.

"This legislation would have prevented [an attorney general] from suing tobacco manufacturers in the ‘90s for tobacco-related health costs associated with the Medicaid program,” said Mike Dean, head of Common Cause of Minnesota. “It is easy to see why corporations would want to stop these types of lawsuits because tobacco manufacturer were forced to pay $6.1 billion in a settlement to the state of Minnesota."

Attorney General Lori Swanson
Attorney General Lori Swanson

The legislation could have stopped the lawsuit that state Attorney General Lori Swanson filed against Accretive Health for its debt collection practices, he added.

Dean earlier this week asked Swanson and the state’s Board of Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure to investigate whether ALEC misrepresented itself to the AG’s charities registry and is skirting lobbying disclosure laws.   

"It is fitting that after Common Cause states around the country began to call on state attorney generals to hold ALEC accountable, that ALEC drafted legislation to weaken the office of attorney general," Dean said.

The proposed law would also force the AG, when she does take action, to first exhaust all administrative remedies: “For example,” explained the summary the group sent to members in advance of last week’s meeting, “just as a citizen would usually have to go before the state Public Service Commission to challenge the reasonableness of a utility rate, so should the Attorney General when the Attorney General is suing on behalf of the citizens of the state to challenge the reasonableness of utility rates.”

It probably goes without saying that a legislature that would tie its AG’s hands thusly probably would not be terribly quick to enact statutes directing the state’s attorney to take action against the corporate interests that wrote the model bill in the first place.

The firm

Just who are they? Essentially, the tort reform posse. Click around on the afore-linked wiki, for instance, and you will note that the civil justice task force is populated by a number of attorneys who work for a law firm called Shook, Hardy & Bacon, which does some lobbying.

The firm’s corporate clients are too numerous to list, but they include heavy hitters in the tobacco, oil, banking and pharmaceutical industries -- precisely the corporate sectors most worried about an active AG.

The lone Minnesota lawmaker member listed as of 2011 is Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

Should Minnesota AG Swanson be quaking in her Capitol alcove? We checked in with Mike Hatch, her predecessor and a prolific filer of consumer-protection actions.

After spitting out a few expletives you can imagine for yourself, he noted that Minnesota has case law that would likely complicate things for the ALEC bill here. In a case called Mattson, the state Supreme Court ruled that there are certain core functions each state office must fulfill.

“If there are prisoners in prisons, they must be fed,” he said. The treasurer must handle money, police must see to public safety and so on.

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Comments (14)

Call for Shook, Hardy & Bacon!

One of the firm's main clients is Altria, a.k.a. Philip Morris, USA. Their view of tobacco litigation is understandable, if repulsive.

Thanks for another valuable heads up

So much for balance of power. The AG is part of the executive branch no? Wouldn't this legislation actually violate the constitutions separation of powers clauses?

It is interesting that the

It is interesting that the belief in "individual responsibility" is accompanied by a concerted effort to gut the mechanisms by which accountability is enforced.

Defund oversight agencies. Limit private lawsuit awards. Reduce statute of limitations. Increase burden of proof. Reduce the court system to penury.

Now, require approval by legislators and governors to pursue lawsuits in the public interest.

The hell with existing statutes, laws, rules and regulations--make prosecution a political decision, with legislators, lobbyists, governors, advertising and votes.

And who will have the money and time to get the decision they want?
.

I am shocked. Shocked!

…to find the lone Minnesota lawmaker representative is Mr. Drazkowski. He seems so even-tempered and reasonable…

This could backfire

They may be thinking only of stripping AGs of their authority to pursue illegal activities by corporations, but I couldn't help thinking that the AGs who participated in the lawsuits against Obamacare did so on their own. Maybe their legislatures would approve, but it wouldn't matte if they didn't. When supposedly a state joined a suit, it was really just a governor or AG doing it on their own. It seems this bill could stop that too.

Though I suppose they would include an exemption for legal challenges to federal law, making it clear only big business is above the law.

Mr. Speaker

This would be the ALEC that Speaker Zellers can't recall whether he's a member or not, right? Is he still unsure of his status?

There are 26 reported members of ALEC from Minnesota's legislature. Every single one is a Republican. This is a partisan political organization and any claim of being a charity should be revoked.

The Role of the Attorney General

In Minnesota, the Office of the Attorney General is a constitutional office separate from the Governor. The AG is elected by popular vote and is not accountable to the governor and is not constrained by the Governor and is totally independent of the Governor. The Office of the Attorney General does provide legal services to state agencies which are part of the Exective Branch but those attorneys work for the AG, not the Governor. There are numerous examples where state agencies and the Governor have sought permission to use outside counsel because they disagree with the AG.

The proposal from ALEC to effectively place the Office of the Attorney General under the thumb of the Legisalture is arguably one of the worst proposals to ever see light. Our Legislature is incapable of determining when or if legal action needs to be taken of behalf of Minnesota citizens. Legislatures get to make make law. It is the responsibility of the AG to enforce those laws. The Courts are the proper determinant for whether cases go forward or not - the Legislature should never have the authority to do that.

Citation

Thanks for this report. Cited at Investor's Business Daily —

IBD • “ALEC And The Left's War On Free Speech”

http://news.investors.com/article/611679/201205161838/left-targets-alec-...

Sort of like. . .

"Minnesotans Concerned for Life and the Left's [War on Religion]", ["War on the Unborn"], ["War on the Opponents of Genocide"], ["`You', Whoever `You' Are, Because `You' were Not Aborted and `Your ' Mother never used Birth Control"], etc., etc. etc.. . .

Reality

Great link citation:
ALEC=Fascism
Empower the corporations to deny the average worker.
It didn't say we the corporations it said "we the PEOPLE"
Its not about money ALEC-Fascists its about individual liberty and survival as a country!
Can we draft corporations to fight wars?
They were created to help the country, not for them to suck the countries marrow!

IBD?

I think IBS is more like it.

ALEC

The Koch brothers are members of ALEC and intimately involved in the Walker agenda in Wisconsin. They would like a return to feudalism as an economic system. You can be sure, if Walker survives his recall, that he will push for "right to work" legislation in Wisconsin in spite of his recent denials concerning this.

ALEC

The AG is the protector of the people. It quite obvious from this article that the GOP wants to remove all power and safeguards from the average person. Think about it before you vote GOP.

ALEC vs. AG's

ALEC's mentality on this is akin to a policeman having to get city council approval before he can pursue the person who just broke into your house and stole your belongings.
With the billions that companies spend on lobbyists and campaign contributions to our legislators, do you honestly believe they would approve an AG to take any legal action against any company, regardless of how many citizens are ripped off or killed by their negligence or greed?