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Hidden cameras catch lobbyists, AZ lawmakers wining and dining

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PHOENIX (CBS5) -

CBS 5 Investigates rolled hidden cameras during a membership drive for one of the country's most secretive and controversial organizations. Lobbyists and state lawmakers mingled over steaks and drinks in a private room at the Valley's exclusive Donovan's Steakhouse.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, put on the event. The organization advocates for limited government, federalism and free markets.

But critics argue ALEC is nothing more than a massive lobbying group that uses legislators themselves to push legislation that has included so-called "stand your ground" bills and immigration measures like Arizona's SB 1070. 

"By my count, there were at least 17 members of the Legislature," said Robbie Sherwood, who is the executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive watchdog group that monitors ALEC activities.

Sherwood said backroom events such as the one attended by CBS 5 Investigates are hallmarks of the way ALEC does business. Every year, the organization flies legislators to a national meeting and pays for their stay. The meetings are often in Washington, DC.

"I don't know which special interests picked up the tab for those lawmakers, but it wasn't the legislators themselves," said Sherwood.

ALEC is organized as a nonprofit, and while these organizations are allowed to lobby, their lobbying activity cannot amount to a substantial portion of their overall mission.

"The laws that apply to nonprofits recognize that everyone has the right to express their opinion," said Ellis Carter, who is an attorney who specializes in nonprofits.

"If you are engaging in a substantial amount of lobbying, then your primary purpose is not a charitable one," said Carter.

At least one left-leaning organization filed a complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS exercises oversight of nonprofits.

But the ALEC public sector chair at the Arizona Legislature denies her organization is doing anything wrong.

"We advocate for things we believe in. It's a great organization," said Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Northwest Valley Republican, who is ALEC's point person at the state Capitol.

Lesko said the membership drive was just like any other organization's.

"I invited every single legislator, whether they were Republican or Democrat, to this meeting. Everyone could come," said Lesko.

When asked about the lobbyists who were also invited, Lesko denied they were there to work.

"There's lobbyists that come down to the state Capitol every day, too. That doesn't mean anything," said Lesko.

But the leaders of some other organizations told CBS 5 Investigates this is an example of the special treatment some lobbyists and organizations have.

"It is absolutely not a level playing field," said Steve Brittle, an environmental activist who is often at the Legislature.

"We don't have access," said Brittle.

The head of the Arizona Education Association, which is the state teachers' union, said he tries to get the attention of lawmakers by bringing dozens of taxpayers, who happen to be educators, to the Capitol during their breaks from school.

Asked how he competes with expensive steak dinners, Andrew Morrill said, "Ultimately what you have to have is some careful optimism."

Morrill likely has his work cut out for him.

While Arizona is not known as a state that spends heavily on education, it is known for immigration control, gun rights and private school tuition grants, three issues that have been associated with ALEC.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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