A brazen scheme? ALEC software giveaway to GOP lawmakers violated FL campaign-finance laws

Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last week

By: - August 2, 2021 7:00 am

Florida’s Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

An organization backed by major corporations gave state legislators, including at least two from Florida, campaign software worth thousands of dollars in violation of state campaign-finance law, according to complaints filed by three progressive organizations.

The alleged gifts from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed last week in Salt Lake City, amount to illegal in-kind campaign contributions, according to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), Common Cause, and the Alliance for a Better Utah.

Recipients in Florida include, but might not be limited to, Republicans Rep. Spencer Roach and Rep. Jason Fischer, according to a complaint filed with the Florida Elections Commission. Roach is an attorney and represents part of Lee County in the Legislature. He is listed as vice chair of the Public Integrity & Elections Committee in the state House. Fischer represents part of Duval County.

It’s hard to know the exact number of Florida legislators who may be involved because ALEC doesn’t release its membership list, the organizations said.

“ALEC keeps its membership list secret — they don’t publish it,” said David Armiak, research director for CMD, during a telephone interview.

A separate whistleblower complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service alleges the software transfer to ALEC’s predominantly GOP membership evidences broader campaign-related activity in violation of ALEC’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit.

“Voters deserve to know who is buying influence with their elected officials, and that is exactly what ALEC is doing in providing this software to legislators,” Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, said in a written statement.

“This is sophisticated software worth thousands of dollars that aids the reelection efforts of these legislators, and the legislators know that. This isn’t buying a legislator a cup of coffee to bend their ear about your bill. These are valuable in-kind contributions, plain and simple,” she said.

“ALEC has abused its tax-exempt status for a decade or more,” said Eric Havian, an attorney for CMD. “I can only hope that we have not become too accustomed to fraud in plain sight, and that the IRS will finally take action to stop taxpayers from subsidizing ALEC’s partisan electioneering and lobbying.”

Fischer and Roach have yet to reply to requests for comment.

The progressive organizations have filed similar complaints in 14 other states, asking government watchdogs to investigate and if possible identify other lawmakers who received the software.

ALEC, backed by some of the country’s biggest corporations, gathers state lawmakers for workshops and distributes model legislation for introduction in statehouses. Recent examples would ban state limits on greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change and an “Energy Discrimination Elimination Act,” forbidding discouragement of fossil fuels.

“While ALEC publicly emphasizes the ‘constituent research and engagement’ benefits of the [software] service, the voter database and management software provided by ALEC is clearly designed to help ALEC legislators win reelection,” the elections complaint alleges.

ALEC has claimed the software, “ALEC CARE,” developed by GOP affiliated consultancy VoterGravity,  would normally cost $3,000 but distributed it as a “member benefit,” the complaint adds.

“Voter Gravity explicitly markets the software as a ‘powerful’ tool for political campaigns from ‘an approved mobile app vendor for the Republican National Committee and fully integrated with the RNC’s database,” the complaint says.

Florida law defines a campaign contribution as “a gift, subscription, conveyance, deposit, loan, payment, or distribution of money or anything of value, including contributions in kind having an attributable monetary value in any form, made for the purpose of influencing the results of an election or making an electioneering communication.”

The law limits contributions to $1,000 per legislative candidate. Persons knowingly making or accepting gifts worth above that amount are guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year imprisonment. Corporate violators face fines of as much as $10,000 and could love their right to do business in Florida.

“Provision of the voter management software to support election campaigns constitutes an illegal in-kind campaign contribution by ALEC whether or not ALEC members ultimately used it for their campaigns,” the complaint alleges.

“ALEC’s disclaimers and transparent repackaging of a powerful campaign tool as “constituent communications” do nothing to reduce its campaign value.”

The IRS complaint identifies the whistleblower as  “a current legislative member of ALEC,” identified in the document as “Legislator,” calling this person “a classic insider” appalled at what ALEC was doing.

The software log-in page states that the tools can’t be used for a political campaigns, but “many of its features can have no other plausible use,” the document says.

“The software came preloaded with individual-level voting information, including voter history and political party ideology; views on ‘hot button’ electoral issues like taxation and gun control; income and donor status; metrics like ‘Turnout Score’ and Republican National Committee voter identification numbers; and numerous other data points exceedingly helpful for a re-election campaign but largely irrelevant to ‘constituent service,’” the complaint says.

“Moreover, Legislator noted that CARE’s analytical and dashboard tools were also primarily campaign related and not particularly useful for constituent service, tracking elements like ‘Identified Supporters,’ ‘Door Knocks,’ ‘Walklist Stats,’ and ‘Phone Bank Stats,’” it says.

“ALEC CARE is a brazen scheme to help ALEC’s overwhelmingly Republican members win reelection,” Arn Pearson, CMD’s executive director, said in a written statement.

“The fact that ALEC’s constituent management program typically costs ‘thousands of dollars,’ but it is being provided free of charge to selected legislators, would constitute a contribution to the legislator,” Marcus Owens, former director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service, told CMD.

“The fact that there may well be sub rosa links, meaning secret, between databases created by the management program and organizations engaged in partisan political activity suggests another potential electioneering event,” Owens said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.