Inside ALEC: naked contempt for the press and public in Scottsdale
By Beau Hodai: DBA Press/PR Watch (of the Center for Media and Democracy)/In These Times
“Mr. Hodai had a history at the conference– not a very pleasant history. He was considered to be a persona non grata…”
– Westin Kierland General Manager Bruce Lange to Olivia Ward of the Toronto Star.
Evicting the press, part 1: meet Mr. Black
Scottsdale, Arizona– perched high on the eastern shoulder of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, a sea of pink stucco southwest kitsch ad nauseam. A town awash in money and golf courses, set against the backdrop of the jagged McDowell and Mummy Mountains.
At about 10:30 on the evening of December 1, I was sitting in the Waltz & Weiser Saloon, a sort of high-end sports bar tucked into a cove below the sub-lobby of the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa.
I had been swapping newspaper stories with Oliva Ward of the Toronto Star on one of the saloon’s overstuffed leather couches for over an hour. Over the course of that hour, the bar filled with attendees of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) 2011 States and Nation Policy Summit (SNPS).
My assignment was to cover the 2011 SNPS. ALEC had repeatedly made it very clear that my presence at SNPS was less than desirable. As such, ALEC refused to grant me media credentials. Nevertheless, I was a paid guest at the resort and thought I’d catch some liquor-loose-lipped lawmakers and lobbyists at the bar.
Most of the ALEC members trickling in to Waltz & Weiser were fresh from the ALEC “Holiday Gala” being held in one of the resorts many ballrooms. As drinks were consumed and new rounds ordered, the place began to take on a distinct “Animal House” vibe.
One pudgy squat man with an ALEC badge and slicked black hair had been screaming at a football game on one of the saloon’s many television sets for the better part of an hour before hotel security arrived.
The pudgy squat man leapt from his seat. He shouted to a group of tipsy girls– a nasal shout laced with an unmistakable Texas twang– that the outcome of the game would decide where he would party for New Year’s.
Ward and I were just about to turn in for the night (the place was getting too raucous for me to interview anybody) when I saw Phil Black, director of Kierland’s security team, approach a group of Phoenix police officers just outside the entrance to the bar. The cops had arrived close to an hour prior, glanced in at me and Ward, then stationed themselves just to the side of the door. When I saw the cops motion towards our location on the couch I knew that Black had not come for the drunken football fan.
Black entered the bar and headed straight towards me. “Would you mind coming with me, sir?”
Once outside Waltz & Weiser, we were joined by the cops and I was shuffled up the stairs to the resort’s sub-lobby.
“Did you leave anything you’re going to need inside the bar?” asked Black.
I stopped. This was no friendly chat. The bastards were going to kick me out of the resort.
“What’s this all about?” I asked. We were now in the sub lobby, Black facing me; a cop to either side, just behind me.
“We understand that you’ve attempted to enter ALEC events and been asked to leave numerous times,” said Black.
This was not true. I had been on my best behavior. I had known, since my first run in with Black the night before, that I was being watched.
The previous night, I had been wandering the grounds of the resort with a friend. As we passed by a cluster of cops, I glanced back. I thought it was odd to see so many cops in a resort.
One of the cops was staring, a look of intense and painful concentration on his face, at a sheet of paper. The paper displayed an array of photos. As was later explained to me by a cop working the resort, the paper was an identification guide of personas non grata provided to the cops by ALEC.
Moments later I was flagged down by an affable, well-dressed man. The man commenced to question me about who I was, why I was in Scottsdale, where I was from, what line of business I was in.
I gave vague answers– not knowing the man from Adam– and asked who he was.
“Oh, I’m with the hotel,” said Black. “Have a nice stay.”
About two hours prior to my meeting with Black at Watz & Weizer’s, I had wandered back into the ALEC “Holiday Gala,” a swirling galaxy of lawmakers and lobbyists hobnobbing, neat single malts in hand, cocktail dresses. There was no indication posted anywhere at this event that attendance was limited to ALEC members. Nevertheless, I had been tailed through the ballroom by a cop. After making a preliminary survey of the room, I stepped outside for a smoke. The moment I pulled the cigarette out of my pack I heard a voice behind me.
“Sir, are you part of the delegation?” It was the cop– later to be identified as Phoenix Police Department (PPD) Sergeant Lowe. I explained that I was not a member of ALEC, but that I was a guest at the resort. Nevertheless, Lowe explained that the gala was a private event and asked me to return to resort common areas.
Making my way to the door, Lowe in tow, I was approached by two nice girls with resort security.
“Hi… you’re the one on the motorcycle, right? You’re with ALEC? You’re a guest at the resort? Just so you know, this is a private function, so we just ask that all our regular guests stay in the main area… Okay?”
Okay, no problem. I left. I explained to Black that this was the extent of my one and only ‘incident.’ I nodded to Sgt. Lowe over my left shoulder. “Ask him,” I said.
“Nevertheless,” said Black. “The ALEC people don’t want you here… and we understand that your reservations were made under false pretenses…”
I asked Black why– given the fact that I had not been accused of any crime– I was surrounded by armed, uniformed cops. Were Phoenix police usually engaged in evicting hotel guests who were suspected of having made hotel reservations under “false pretenses”? Must be a slow night…
And, how could a person even make a hotel reservation under false pretenses, I asked. I had given the front desk my valid photo driver’s license and my credit card. I was planning to stay in the resort for two days and those two days had been paid for… “False pretenses?”
Black would not elaborate further, limiting his conversation only to statements emphasizing the resort’s urgent need for me to vacate the premises immediately.
Black said that he would– with the help of these nice police officers– escort me up to my room and help me pack.
I was, as Sgt. Lowe explained, being “trespassed”– which meant that I was being formally advised that I was not welcome on Kierland property. If I returned, or refused to leave following this advisory, I would be arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.
ALEC defined: public outrage and public-private mockery
ALEC bills itself as being the nation’s largest bipartisan legislative membership organization, dedicated to the advancement of “federalism” and “Jeffersonian ideals.”
The simple reality of ALEC is that the organization serves as something of an intermediary, a conduit through which roughly 2,000 state legislators (the vast majority of which are Republicans) are paired with legions of lobbyists representing more than 300 global and national corporations.
ALEC holds three major conferences each year for member lawmakers, lobbyists and member “think tanks.” At these events, corporate sponsors (and their lobbyists) pony up enough cash to pay the travel, boarding and dining expenses of thousands of state lawmakers. Invariably, these conferences take place at premiere resorts throughout the nation. At the end of such conferences, member lawmakers contentedly carry pieces of ALEC “model legislation” to their home assemblies for introduction.
These pieces of model legislation are generated by ALEC’s nine task forces: “Civil Justice;” “Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development;” “Education;” “Energy, Environment and Agriculture;” “Health and Human Services;” “International Relations;” “Public Safety and Elections;” “Tax and Fiscal Policy;” and “Telecommunications and Information Technology.”
The task forces are jointly chaired and comprised of both public and private sector members. Before any piece of “model legislation” can leave a task force for general consumption, it must be approved by both the task force’s public and private members.
Such private sector members participating in (and ponying up the dough for) the 2011 SNPS included: GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Arizona Public Service Company (APS, a private subsidiary of Pinnacle West Capital Corporation), Salt River Project (SRP), Freeport-McMoran Copper and Gold, Pharmaceuticals Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Altria, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, State Farm Insurance, Johnson and Johnson, the American Bail Coalition, Diageo, UPS, Koch Companies Public Sector, Exxon Mobil, American Petroleum Institute, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and AstraZeneca– to name a few, not to mention the slew of contributing “think tanks” with deep financial ties to far-right-afield billionaire/financiers David and Charles Koch.
Due to this reality and reports detailing how ALEC has disseminated some of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent years– model legislation based on Arizona’s controversial SB 1070; model legislation intended to eliminate both minimum and working wage requirements; model legislation aimed at decimating both public and private employee unions; and model legislation aimed at the privatization of public services, from schools to prisons– ALEC has come under increased scrutiny and criticism.
As a result of this scrutiny, a number of public advocacy organizations have called for the reform of loopholes utilized by ALEC to further the aims of its member corporations. Primarily, these calls have targeted ALEC’s status as a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization. 501 (c) (3)s must adhere to strict lobby and legislative/political activity restrictions. ALEC, critics argue, is in fact a lobbying entity.
And, as a result of growing public malcontent with lawmaker malleability in the face of corporate greed, lawmakers attending ALEC events have been met ever more frequently by members of the public voicing their displeasure with the organization.
The 2011 States and Nation Policy Summit was no exception to this trend.
On November 30, the first full-fledged day of the conference, rows of police in full riot gear stood along along Kierland’s eastern gate, providing a living buffer between the street and middle-aged men in funny pants playing the rounds on the Kierland course. Helicopters swarmed above the site, providing an easy homing beacon for anyone looking to find the conference.
The resort’s southern gate was much the same as the eastern: metal barricades, huddles of police officers and hotel security screening each visitor though a phone-book-thick stack containing the names of legitimate resort guests and registered conference attendees– nearly 1,000 state lawmakers, the creme of the corporate lobby crust and right wing “think tank” luminaries.
Flanking both entrances were assembled approximately 200 protesters who had turned out to decry what their correctly perceived to be undue corporate influence over elected lawmakers. These protesters, comprised of several activist groups loosely united under the banner of “Occupy ALEC”– in most part an offshoot of “Occupy Phoenix” and a group known as “AZ-Resist”– were a somewhat mixed bag.
Among them were a contingent of “anarchists:” dressed mostly in black, some wore bandanas and marched back and forth in front of police lines shouting their grievances. Some sat, quietly looking at the sidewalk, loose hands propping up cardboard signs bearing the words: “WAKE UP.”
Other protesters, the seemingly less visible majority, were a little less colorful than the anarchist set. Some joined group chants. Some shouted for police to join them. They were working people. They were teachers. They were retirees. They were Christians. They were Democrats. They were Independents. They were immigrant’s rights activists. They (at least some) were undercover cops. They were not so sexy to the assembled news vans across the street as the anarchist kids.
Regardless of dress or issue-specific grievances, the overarching concern running through the crowd engaged in the ALEC “occupation” stemmed from this perception of the conference: their legislative public servants were being wined and dined in a private ($300-per-night) resort by a coordinated assemblage of private monied interests, while they– the public– were being held at bay by public servants of the executive branch dressed in riot gear.
Traffic rolled past, a steady flow of sports cars, SUVs, trucks packed with tools and landscapers. Some drivers leaned on their horns in approval. Some growled, “GET A FUCKING JOB!”
A man in a BMW convertible, trying to gain entrance to the resort, revved his engine and jerked his car toward protesters as police worked to keep the drive open. A man leaving the resort made a point of driving by protesters slowly, his window down, pointing his finger and laughing.
11 a.m., November 30, inside the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, beyond the rows of police, beyond severe looking Kierland security personnel zipping around on Segways, through the heart of the marble and brass lobby, past ornate floral arrangements and rows of glass-encased waterfalls, ALEC SNPS attendees gathered in one of the resort’s many dining halls to hear former ALEC member and Arizona Governor, Jan Brewer, deliver her keynote address at the day’s plenary lunch.
Acting as emcee, recently-retired Louisiana State Representative and outgoing ALEC public sector National Chairman, Noble Ellington, addressed the assembled lawmakers and lobbyists.
“You just can’t imagine what a thrill it is for me to look out over this room and see the crowd that is here. It is just so exiting and I hope you feel the same way that ALEC is on the move,” drawled Ellington. “We’ve got things goin’ our way and we’re bound to be doing something right, or we wouldn’t have the helicopters flying around and the demonstrators…”
According to Phoenix Police Department (PPD) spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump, the first of a series of confrontations between some 200 protesters gathered outside the eastern gate of the resort and PPD had occurred at about 10 o’clock on the morning of November 30.
According to Bret “Buddha” Cary, an activist and organizer with Occupy Phoenix, a group of the anarchist had brought a “black block” with them to the protest.
The “black block” consisted of a large canvas banner supported by a wooden framework. The banner served two purposes: to convey a message (“Shut Down ALEC”) and to serve as a barricade between police and protesters.
The anarchist marched toward the front of the protests and placed the block directly up against the police barricade. This move, according to Cary, seemed to make the police very nervous.
At first police tried to push the block back with their own barricade. Eventually, an officer reached over the police barricade and grabbed hold of the banner, tearing it apart. The cop then began throwing pieces of the black block– pieces of wood, nails and canvass– back at the protesters.
A protester screamed, “No! No! No!” as pepper spray was sent out in bright orange streams to the crowd.
Cary and others tried to obtain the name of the officer who had reached over the barricade and grabbed the “black block.” According to Cary, the officer would not divulge his name and retreated to Kierland grounds, smiling smugly at the protesters from a distance. Following the incident, Cary filed a complaint with PPD internal affairs. He has received no response to his complaint.
Cary is a family support group facilitator with the Phoenix area National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Cary is also a small business owner in the Phoenix area. He owns a hot dog stand. Cary pays Home Depot $950 per month for the privilege of operating the stand in the parking lot of one of their stores.
Ellington went on to thank multinational pharmaceutical giant Novartis for sponsoring the day’s luncheon (“Would you join with me in thanking Novartis for this luncheon today? They have been some really good friends to ALEC and we thank them so much…” said Ellington. * Fun fact of the day: as an incidental aside, it worth noting that Novartis was formed as the result of a merger between Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz in 1996. In 1938 Sandoz chemist Albert Hofmann developed the psychoactive compound lysergic acid diethylamide, today commonly known as “LSD” or “Acid.” Similarly, Bayer, which, through its subsidiary, Bayer Healthcare, has a longstanding role in ALEC’s Health and Human Services Task Force, first began the production of over-the-counter diacetylmorphine under the brand name “Heroin” in the late nineteenth century. In light of these facts, it is somewhat ironic that former Reagan Attorney General and Chief Policy Advisor Edwin Meese, III, took the ALEC/Novartis stage not long after Gov. Brewer’s keynote address. As I am sure many of you recall, it was First Lady Nancy Reagan who coined the anti-drug catchphrase, “just say no!” Much, much more could be said here on the legacies of both the Reagan administration and ALEC in their “tough” approach to the “War on Drugs,” as well as other sentencing matters, but we are slipping down a tangential rabbit hole…) and led the assembly in a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The outgoing chairman then introduced ALEC Director of Communications Kaitlyn Buss. Buss, cooed Ellington, had “a beautiful voice” and would be treating the assembly to her rendition of the national anthem.
Before the hushed assembly Buss sang. She did have a beautiful voice.
“If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, you’re probably in the wrong crowd,” said Ellington.
By the time Buss was hitting her high note, “For the land of the Freeeeeeeeee….,” PPD officers had treated Occupy ALEC protesters to a second round of pepper spray.
Betsy Schuler, an activist from the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, was pepper sprayed as part of that confrontation.
According to Schuler, officers were trying to force approximately 100 protesters gathered by the resort’s east entrance further back toward the street by moving barricades into the crowd. Schuler said that the protesters were shouting and that a band was playing, but that the group was being nonviolent.
At one point, Schuler says, the police stopped moving the line, shortly after which, an officer reached over the barricade and started pepper sprayed her group of protesters. Schuler got a facefull of the stuff. The officer, recalled Schuler, stood behind police barricades, smiling smugly.
Schuler was a part of a delegation of Unitarian Universalists who had joined the protests as peacekeepers.
Schuler, a former teacher of 20 years, said she currently derives an income from various stock investments.
By the time Arizona House Majority Whip and ALEC Public Sector Chair, Rep. Debbie Lesko, kicked off her remarks on the Novartis stage with open mockery of ALEC’s critics, several protesters had been placed under arrest and loaded into paddy wagons.
“We have some critics– we saw a few of them outside– because a group recently wrote a large report criticizing ALEC,” said Lesko, referencing a report (“ALEC in Arizona: The Voice of Corporate Special Interests in the Halls of Arizona’s Legislature”) released by People for the American Way Foundation (PFAW) and Common Cause on November 28. “And so, what better way is there to explain Arizona’s involvement in ALEC by reading right from that very report?! So, here we go…“
“‘Arizona has one of the highest concentrations of ALEC legislators of any state in the United States,’” began Lesko, reading from the report– her delivery on par with that of an eighth-grade glee queen reading cue cards at a pep rally.
“‘At least 50 of the 90 legislators now serving in the legislature are ALEC members…’”
Uproarious applause, some “woooo!”‘s thrown in.
“Yay Arizona,” said Lesko. “”Two-thirds of the Republican leadership in the Arizona House and Senate are ALEC members and the last three Arizona Senate presidents– including the current one– all served in ALEC roles.’”
Lesko spent the next few moments gushing with pride. No mention was made of the fact that the immediate-past senate president referenced in the PFAW report was former Arizona Sen. Russell Pearce who had lost a recall election less than a month prior to the conference. Pearce’s defeat was due in large part to the senator’s sponsorship of SB 1070 and to his seat on the ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force alongside Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s foremost operator of private immigrant detention facilities.
“Way to go Arizona!” shouted Lesko.
By the time Brewer had polished of her bizarre opening volley, seemingly accusing protesters of being union plants, seven of the governor’s constituents, ranging in age from 20 to 52, were being processed at a police substation for detainment at Maricopa County Jail, on charges ranging from criminal trespassing and criminal damage to aggravated assault.
“It’s truly, I must tell you, an honor to be with you today to welcome you all to Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, the state too strong for any union sponsored boycotts to bring down! And their presence is so eloquently so in demonstrating. They’re out there… they’re out there,” said Brewer scornfully. “Anyway, thank you all for coming today. And thank you to all you from the business community, I certainly thank you for your private sector sponsorship.”
Ezra Kaplan, a member of Occupy Phoenix, was one of those arrested.
Kaplan was working as part of the media chain for the Occupy ALEC protest. As such, Kaplan was on site with his camera, taking photographs in the moments leading up to the “black block” incident.
“There were the reinforced banners [the "black block"] and the police line. In between those two, there were several gentlemen sitting on the ground, kind of locking arms in peaceful protest. At one point, two officers decided to pick up a metal barricade and slant it down on top of [the seated protesters], pushing them to the ground, trying to get them to move,” said Kaplan.
As such, Kaplan saw the incident as an opportune moment to capture images of police brutality, so he entered the area between the banner and the police line and began taking pictures.
“Suddenly the police line moved right into the banners and I was pinned right between them,” said Kaplan. “I was basically standing there, with my hands above my head, peacefully and calmly talking to the officers, telling them ‘I’m trying to get out.’”
Kaplan was then seized by officers from behind police lines and forced to the ground “with a knee on my head and a knee on my neck,” being cuffed by no less than three officers.
Kaplan recalls a strange incident that took place as he was laying on the ground behind the police line. As officers on Kaplan’s back were shouting, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!,” he looked up and saw man in plain clothes. “Yeah, stop resisting, Ezra,” the plain clothes man said.
Kaplan was at an absolute loss as to how this man– whom he took to be a detective, given the man’s lack of uniform– knew his name. No citation had yet been issued. He had not yet been processed. His ID had not yet been taken.
Comments made by PPD spokesman Crump on the circumstances that precipitated the “black block” incident and the buildup of police on the site prior to the incident may shed some light on this strange occurrence.
Crump stated that PPD had received information indicating that “some individuals” were planning to “disrupt” events at Kierland. The source of this intelligence, Crump stated matter-of-factly, were online postings made by protesters themselves.
“It’s public, they post it on websites– you can follow it, I can follow it,” said Crump. “If you’re trying to get a gathering together and you do that publicly, then that’s information that’s provided to anybody. So, for those that are providing that information on websites, they should have enough smarts to realize that law enforcement can use that same material. We don’t pull any punches either.”
Furthermore, Crump stated that police action during the “black block” incident had been directly informed by real-time intelligence obtained from other sources: plain clothes PPD personnel interspersed through the crowd. Such intelligence sources, said Crump, provided police with accounts not only of what was being done in the general protest, but also of what was taking place behind the nefarious “black block.”
“[Protesters] used the banner to hide behind and engage in your illegal activity– behind that banner,” said Crump. “They were doing things like shaking paint cans, and they were using poles to stick them under the pedestrian walkway gate that we put up. And they were trying to do that hiding behind those banners. And so those banners were pulled down when they tried to [push police barriers]. And that is when pepper spray was deployed at those who were the ones engaging in aggressive behavior.”
When asked exactly what crime PPD believed protesters to be plotting, as justification for all this surveillance– given the fact that Crump had cited only protester intent to “get a gathering together” via the internet and the shaking of paint cans– let alone the fact that protesters have uniformly stated that the crowd had possessed no poles or sticks until after police reduced their banners to a mass of rubble (consisting mainly of poles and sticks), which they flung back into the crowd– Crump seemed to grapple for an answer.
Hodai: “What [illegal activity] were they doing behind this banner?”
Crump: “They were facilitating being able to push through the line– I thought I told you that already. They were sticking poles… they were taking the poles and putting them under the barricades. And then on a counter movement, they were going to topple the the barricades over onto the officers and be able to rush the facility.”
Hodai: “Right, so basically they were putting levers in place, is that the idea?”
Crump: “Well, I…ah… yeah, the ah… ah…I guess the bottom line is that they are attempting their maneuver at trying to gain access to the property.”
According to Crump, the Phoenix Police Department has made over 100 arrests and expended nearly $250,000 in overtime pay to officers in pursuit of such activity since the outset of Occupy Phoenix and related protests in mid October.
Kaplan was placed under arrest and charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing. According to Kaplan, PPD continues to hold his camera as “evidence.”
Kaplan is a student at Prescott College and is in his senior year, working toward a degree in education. He also works part time at a Phoenix-area substance abuse treatment center.
On December 2, an additional 12 protesters were arrested by Tempe police on trespassing charges during a related protest at Salt River Project (SRP) offices in Tempe, Arizona.
SRP Manager of State Government Relations Russell Smoldon serves on the ALEC Private Enterprise Board. Smoldon is also Arizona’s ALEC private sector chair. As such, Smoldon is the principal ALEC fundraiser in the state– tasked with extracting donations from lobbyist and their principals for Arizona lawmaker attendance at ALEC events.
And, from the Novartis stage in the Kierland dining hall packed with lawmakers and lobbyists on November 30, Smoldon used the occasion to lobby his fellow lobbyists on behalf of the governor’s political action committee (PAC).
“[Gov. Brewer is] the author of a new book. And every time I speak, I am required to put in this plug,” said Smoldon. “Her new book is entitled, ‘Scorpions for Breakfast.’ If you go to JanPAC.com– J-A-N-P-A-C-dot-com– you can contribute to the governor’s PAC, which will do great things for America. And, for a $100 contribution, you will get an autographed copy of the book from the governor.”
Evicting the press, part 2: rejoining our inquisition already in progress…
Hodai: “Surely you can see this is an odd time to be kicking someone out…”
Black: “That’s one person’s opinion. This is a 24-hour business.”
Hodai: “That’s a hell of a statement.”
– Conversation between Kierland Director of Security Phil Black and Hodai at approximately 11 p.m., December 1, 2011.
I was, by no means, the only reporter in attendance at the 2011 SNPS to face near arrest or harassment by police.
Bob Ortega, of the Arizona Republic, stepped outside Kierland’s eastern gate on the morning of November 30 to scope out the ALEC occupation. Ortega was one of the few reporters to be credentialed by ALEC for coverage of the conference.
Following the “black block” incident, the Ortega attempted to return to the conference. He was stopped by police in riot gear, pepper spray in hand, at the Kierland gate.
The cops told the Ortega that he could not enter the grounds. Ortega showed the officers his ALEC-issued press credentials, identified himself and identified the paper he represented.
“I don’t care who you are, turn around and leave or you’re going to be arrested,” retorted one of the officers.
Ortega persisted in arguing his point, explaining that he had permission from both ALEC and Kierland security to attend the conference– at which point a cop grabbed him by the arm from behind.
Ortega narrowly escaped arrest by convincing one of the cops to check with hotel security before sending him off to Maricopa County Jail.
This brings us the the interesting arrangement between PPD, Kierland and ALEC.
A few days prior to the conference, ALEC Senior Director of Membership and Meetings Chas Cirame sent out an advisory to conference attendees stating that, due to planned protests at the event, ALEC would be hiring additional security personnel to protect conference attendees. As such, Cirame advised conference attendees to wear their ALEC identification badges at all times– except when wandering off resort grounds.
I had been on the lookout for this additional security from the moment I arrived at Kierland. I was interested to see what firm of private spooks ALEC would employ. I had no idea at that time that ALEC had actually rented themselves real cops.
As was explained by Black during my eviction: all of these PPD officers on Kierland grounds– uniformed and armed– were actually off-duty and being paid, as one cop put it, “really well,” to help ALEC and Kierland keep undesirables out of the hair of conference attendees.
These were true ‘rent-a-cops’– the best money could buy.
While Sgt. Lowe, another cop and Black supervised me pack in my room, two other officers harangued Ward outside of Waltz & Weiser’s.
“Do you know this man? Do you know this man,” a rented cop demanded of Ward, referring to me. “Do you know this man? Do you know this man???” he continued.
Ward raised her hackles. Channeling the persona of her British mother, she let loose a fusilade of indignation:
“What do you mean? How dare you ask me such a question?! Are you putting me up on some sort of morality charge?! I am a Canadian citizen. Are you telling me that in the Westin hotel, I am not allowed to sit with a man to whom I am not married?!? I have continually attended meetings [at the ALEC conference] where I have been told that this is the land of the free and that Arizona is one of the free-est states in the union. So, what is going on here? Why are you asking me these questions?!”
“So, you know this man?” said the cop.
The officers eventually abandoned this cutting-edge line of interrogation and told Ward was told she was “free to go.”
Ward later received a somewhat more cogent response to her questions from Kierland General Manager Bruce Lange.
“Mr. Hodai was considered to be a persona non grata from the conference,” Lange told Ward (“America’s Secret Political Power,” Toronto Star, December 17, 2011). “Not by the hotel, not by the police. . . He clearly presented a threat to the conference, based on his history.”
Lange did not elaborate as to what “history” he was referring.
Lange could not be reached for comment.
When asked why Ward had been interrogated by police under contract with Westin during my eviction, Kierland Director of Communications Stephanie Dowling parried (with a fine example of post-9-11 verbal contortionism):
“We have a great team in place. Our main objective, our goal with anything– and we certainly understand everyone’s concerns in this situation– is to protect our property and our guests, regardless of what organization they represent. That includes our friends from the media and everyone else. The safety and security of our guests is our number one priority– so, if there was any reason, or any situation that might have affected that– that would drive [hotel security's] reasoning behind asking someone to leave.”
When asked what threat to the “safety and security” of conference attendees I posed, Dowling declined to discuss the matter further, stating that Kierland would never compromise the privacy of a guest by discussing that guest’s eviction with the press.
Dowling: “We really need to see these as two separate situations… as separate conversations. We would not release particular information about a guest… even if they were kicked off [the property]. We would not want to jeopardize the privacy of the individual.”
Hodai: “Well, I tell you what: I am that guest and I give you permission to speak to me, as a member of the press, about what happened.”
Dowling: “Well, I do really appreciate you calling…”
It should be noted that Black later (once he was aware that I was recording the eviction) refused to restate any reason for the eviction, flatly denying that he had ever stated that ALEC did not want me on the premises.
Regardless of this denial, Dowling indicated– as had Lange in his conversation with Ward– that information supplied by ALEC to Kierland had been the cause of my eviction.
According to Dowling, the argument that my reservation had been made under “false pretenses” stemmed from the fact that my reservation had initially been made under a different name (the reservation had initially been made for Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) Executive Director Lisa Graves). This reservation was later changed (by Westin personnel, at the behest of CMD) to my name.
Furthermore, according to Dowling, the reservation was problematic in that it had been made as part of the “ALEC block.”
This was true. CMD had made the reservations through an open registration portal on the ALEC website. This registration process did not require ALEC membership or approval– it was simply open to any and all those who wished to stay in the resort during the course of the conference. As such, my reservation had been made as part of the “ALEC block”– though at no point did I ever claim to be a member of ALEC.
According to Dowling, at some time during the course of the conference, ALEC personnel reviewed the Kierland reservation roster and identified me as being “not part of the conference.” Furthermore, Dowling, citing information apparently supplied to Kierland by ALEC, insisted that CMD had falsely claimed to be a member of ALEC at the time the reservation made. CMD unequivocally denies this assertion.
“I don’t know where the miscommunication came from. I do know that that was the information that we were given by ALEC,” said Dowling.
When asked if it is standard Westin Kierland practice to throw paid guests out on the street in the middle of the night due to “miscommunications,” Dowling said that Westin would never do such a thing without good cause and without alternative accommodations offered.
No such accommodations were offered in my case– unless those other accommodations were at the Maricopa County Jail.
And, just as Kierland has been unable to elaborate on what “safety” threat I posed to the ALEC conference, at least some of the cops involved in the eviction seemed to know that the situation was absurd. They knew that I had been accused of no crime. These were just guys working on their off time, looking to take home a little more pay.
This was not true of Sgt. Lowe. He couldn’t seem to get it through his head that I was not someone who posed an imminent threat to the safety of the conference; that I was just some guy that the powers of the hour didn’t like– that I was being booted and threatened with arrest because I was a journalist who had caused some discomfort to those powers.
As I was being escorted from my room, through the lobby and out to the curb, Lowe asked me for my ID so that he could file a report detailing how I had been “trespassed.” I provided him with my driver’s license. As he jotted down my information, we struck up a conversation.
(It is worth noting here that Lowe never filed any report with PPD detailing the incident. The only report detailing the activities of law enforcement in relation to this incident are maintained by Kierland. Kierland has declined to disclose any details of those reports.)
Lowe stated that it struck him as odd that I would carry an audio recorder. Of course, Lowe said, individuals in law enforcement carried recorders, “such as I am recording this entire conversation with you.” He showed me a little silver recorder tucked into his utility belt.
“Most normal folks who are out and about don’t carry recorders on them… just so you know,” said Lowe.
Lowe went on to state that the only non-law enforcement people he knew of who carried audio recorders were those who were expecting trouble.
I explained that reporters routinely carry recorders– that this was not a violation of law.
“Do you, by any chance have journalistic credentials,” asked Lowe.
I did not, of course, as ALEC had refused to credential me.
“Most folks who claim to be journalists, if they stumble on a story are actually able to say ‘hey, I have media credentials,’” explained Lowe. “If they are carrying a recorder, they are carrying credentials at the same time. You see my dilemma?”
I did not see his dilemma.
“My dilemma is believing your story,” Lowe retorted. “You understand that?!”
He was getting red. He seemed upset.
Outside, escorted to the sidewalk of the resort’s eastern entrance– where protesters had endured rounds of pepper spray the day before– I waited for my ride. Waiting with me were Lowe, three other rented cops, Black and two members of his resort security team. Seven Kierland security personnel in all, all working at the behest of ALEC, all for one reporter– at least four of them with guns. I was flattered.
Epilogue: who is your hotel in bed with while you’re in bed at your hotel?
Tucson-based civil rights attorney Stacy Scheff believes that Westin Kierland violated federal constitutional law when they threw a journalist (and paid guest) out into the dead of night– due to the simple fact that the journalist evicted had written critically of (and was not liked by) the organization hosting a conference at the hotel.
Essentially, Scheff argues, federal law, which holds the hotel industry under heavy sway as a form of interstate commerce, provides protections for certain protected classes under the Civil Rights Act. As such, “viewpoint” (i.e. critical members of the press) may well be incorporated as such a protected class.
“Civil rights law holds that places of public accommodation may not discriminate against guests based on their race because [such discrimination] impacts interstate commerce, giving Congress authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate what would normally be a private activity– running a hotel,” said Scheff. “A similar argument can be made for hotels that discriminate on the basis of the guest’s viewpoint, because like race, classifications which discriminate against an unpopular viewpoint are considered automatically suspect and subject to ‘strict scrutiny’ by courts.”
According to PPD spokesman Crump, off-duty PPD officers contracted by a private entity as private security may only engage in “routine police functions,” i.e. upholding the rule of law.
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides that: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
As such, it hardly seems likely that the act of evicting journalists from hotels, for the simple fact that they are journalists, is a legitimate “routine police function.”
So, why would Kierland go to such lengths– exposing both themselves and police officers under their employ to the possibility of litigation– just to spare ALEC the presence of one reporter?
An examination of Westin’s financial affairs may shed some light on this.
Westin is owned by Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc. (Starwood Hotels), a subsidiary of Starwood Capital Group (SCG).
Starwood Hotel’s siblings in the SCG family include: Starwood Energy Group Global, LLC (Starwood Energy), Starwood Property Trust, Inc, Starwood Real Estate Securities, LLC., SH Group and iStar Financial, Inc..
One of the chief concerns of the Starwood family is corporate taxation, as evidenced by lobby reports filed by one of the top nation’s federal lobby shops, Federal Policy Group (FPG), on behalf of Starwood Hotels.
Ironically, as ALEC is an organization that boasts of having 100 alumni in both the U.S. House and Senate (only five of which are Democrats), FPG is also credited with having helped to shape the current federal GOP legislative landscape– having been paid over $100,000 in late 2010 by the Republican National Committee (RNC) for “political strategy” consulting. Much of this consultation dealt with establishing the extension of Bush-era tax cuts as a major GOP initiative for 2011.
Over the course of 2010 through 2011, Starwood Hotels has paid out over $280,000 to FPG for lobbying services rendered in the field of corporate taxation.
More telling of Starwood’s political agenda, however, is the $320,000 in lobbying fees paid by Starwood Hotels over the course of 2010 to federal lobby behemoth, DLA Piper.
DLA Piper was charged by Starwood Hotels with the primary tasks of monitoring labor and taxation legislation (primarily as these two issue areas pertained to the federal minimum wage and real estate taxation).
According to lobby reports filed during this time period, one of the legislative items Starwood Hotels was most concerned with ‘monitoring’ through DLA Piper was the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009 (EFCS).
EFCS aimed to enhance the ability of unions to collectively bargain for better pay, working conditions and benefits. The bill also sought to enhance federal protections for unions, union members and union organizers against unfair labor practices and employer retaliation. All told, EFCS (which died before committee with the expiration of the 111th Congress in January, 2011) represented a threat to numerous anti-union measures advanced by ALEC and their member corporations at the state level.
Federal lobbying and ideological similarities aside, Starwood and ALEC have a much closer relationship at the state level– particularly in Arizona.
Starwood Energy Group’s sole lobby representative in the state is FirstStrategic Communications and Public Affairs.
FirstStrategic has been active as an Arizona ALEC donor/participant consulting firm for several years and represents the lobby interests of several other ALEC member corporations/trade associations in the state: Apollo Group, Inc., the Arizona Association of Realtors, CenturyLink and ALEC Arizona Private Sector Chair, SRP.
Furthermore, Starwood Energy Group is among the top solar energy providers in the state. As such, Starwood Energy was involved in the inception, along with both SRP and 2011 SNPS “chairman” corporation, APS, of the Sonoran-Mojave Renewable Transmission Project (SMRT)– a nascent project intended to establish a renewable power delivery grid through the states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
According to SRP spokesman Scott Harelson, SRP has since withdrawn from the project.
Starwood was also involved with APS and Lockheed Martin, in the development of an aborted Arizona solar generation plant in 2009.
Interestingly enough, as Starwood is primarily involved in the field of solar energy production, one of the workshops open to lawmakers at the 2011 SNPS focused on deregulation of the solar industry.