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The Company You Keep: Top Brands Risk Reputation over ALEC Connection to Trump Phone Call

Any company's decision to leave ALEC is easier after a lawyer linked to the group seemed to advise the president during that infamous weekend phone call.
By Tina Casey

There they go again. The high-profile corporate lobbying organization ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) has been on the receiving end of unwelcome attention over the past several years, costing it the membership of top brands like Coca-Cola, Amazon and McDonald’s. The decision to quit ALEC seems all the more prescient after last weekend, when a lawyer associated with the organization appeared to advise outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump on his attempt to overturn election results in Georgia.

Brand reputation trumps lobbying power

Much has been reported over the years about ALEC, infamously dubbed as a “bill mill” for conservative state legislators and a grooming station for legislators-to-be.

Though ALEC positions itself as an organization of and for legislators, corporations reportedly fund almost the entirety of its budget. That can lead to reputational risk, and for some companies, the risk has not proved worth the reward.

During the Barack Obama administration, ALEC’s position on gun rights, climate change, and voter suppression got it into hot water with Amazon, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Enterprise, among others. The roiling of the membership roll continued during Trump’s term in office. Even ExxonMobil has considered joining other top brandsincluding BP, Royal Dutch Shell Group, Ford and Expedia, in a rush for the doors.

A connection to ALEC further puts brand reputation at risk

The decision to leave ALEC resonates all the more following the events of last weekend, when the Washington Post reported on, and released a full transcript of, a phone call that President Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Saturday.

Presidents make phone calls all the time, but this one followed 60 baseless lawsuits by Trump allies seeking to undercut President-elect Joe Biden’s right to take office on Jan. 20, raising concerns over a constitutional crisis if not an outright coup.

Media reports on the erratic behavior of Trump-affiliated lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Lin Wood, and Sidney Powell have also fed into the narrative of a power-hungry election loser clinging desperately to his own interests over respect for the democratic process.

Into this history-making picture steps ALEC. The organization reportedly suspended its focus on voter ID laws after 2012. However, in the run-up to the 2020 election, reports surfaced that it revived its interest in election legislation through a new, unpublicized "Political Process Working Group," to be spearheaded by an ALEC-affiliated lawyer named Cleta Mitchell.

As reported by Slate among other news organizations, Mitchell has firmly established her relationship with ALEC in recent years. In October 2019, she moderated the “How to Survive Redistricting” panel at an ALEC event, featuring four experts described as “among the architects and defenders of some of the most notorious gerrymanders and voter suppression plans of this decade.” The Milwaukee Sentinel Journal adds that Mitchell has also represented the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Rifle Association in addition to ALEC.

If the name Mitchell rings a bell, it should. Cleta Mitchell was among a group of top White House officials sitting in on Trump’s now-notorious Saturday phone call seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. The transcript reveals that she took an active role in the conversation.

Consequences, anyone?

The corporate fallout from the phone call has yet to materialize, but Mitchell’s affiliates are already feeling the heat.

Unlike Trump’s other top legal advisors, Mitchell is not a small-time attorney with a disproportionately high media profile. Quite the opposite. Mitchell has generally flown under the media radar despite her involvement with the NRA and other high-profile clients.

Until her resignation on Tuesday afternoon, she was a partner at the firm of Foley & Lardner, which is described as a “large, elite, multi-city firm” by the legal news organization Law and Crime.

Foley & Lardner appears to be taking the matter seriously. By Monday, the firm posted its response to Mitchell’s involvement in the call, in which it emphasizes that “Foley & Lardner LLP is not representing any parties seeking to contest the results of the presidential election” and that the firm recently “made a policy decision not to take on any representation of any party in connection with matters related to the presidential election results.”

The firm also noted that its attorneys could act in their private capacity, but it is difficult to see how that could relieve Foley & Lardner from the association in the publics eyes.

While Foley is investigating Mitchell’s involvement in the phone call, she could also face blowback from the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where she is a longstanding board member and serves as the current board secretary.

The Bradley Foundation has gained a reputation for financing voter suppression, among other conservative causes, but its status as a nonprofit precludes it from overt political activity. For now, the organization is taking a “no comment” approach, but odds are that, like Foley & Lardner, it will also seek to distance itself from the controversy.

As for flying under the media radar, that era appears to be over for Mitchell. Last month, senior reporter Vivia Chen of The American Lawyer named Mitchell to her 2020 list of the “Worst, Most Atrocious Lawyers of the Year,” joining such luminaries as Kayleigh McEnany, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Jenna Ellis, Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein along with Rudy Giuliani.

Though some corporations have publicly quit ALEC only to return at a later date, the Mitchell affiliation may finally motivate a permanent separation. That’s especially likely given the reenergizing of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has drawn attention to the fact that Trump is focusing his overthrow efforts on a state with a high Black population and a history of race-based voter suppression.

After all, voter suppression is one thing. An outright attempt at a coup, bloodless or not, is quite another.

Image credit: Jacob Morch/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey