During a recent vacation trip to the South Dakota Badlands, my family and I made a short detour to a defunct nuclear...
The national treasurer for the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC), state senator Leah Vukmir of Wisconsin, had been evading process servers for weeks, with the help of her staff.
The process servers, hired by a public interest group bringing a lawsuit against Vukmir to try to get her to cough up information about her ALEC dealings, had tried to contact the senator again and again.
They waited outside her office. She didn't show up. They waited outside meetings she was supposed to take part in. She didn't show up. They asked the state attorney general's office for help in locating her. The attorney general's office refused, according to an affidavit in the case.
Finally, one of the process servers, Bruce Lowrey, tried to serve Vukmir's staff, leaving legal documents with Vukmir staffer Jason Rostan.
"I handed him the paperwork and asked him to make sure that he gets them to the senator," Lowrey stated in his affidavit. "He, at that time, started to call me a low life jerk and a f-..ing a..hole. I left her office and Jason Rostan chased me on a full run. When I got outside, Jason was running after me and he pushed me and knocked me down and threw the paperwork at me and continued to call me all kinds of vulgar names and kept trying to put the papers in my pockets.
According to an account in the Wisconsin State Journal, Lowrey told his wife and business partner about his bad experience, and she went back the next day to Senator Vukmir's office.
"One of the guys got rude and snotty and I told him to stop right there," Chris Lowrey told the State Journal.
"I told them, 'You guys are the ones who make the law, and you have to follow it. Be professional.'"
She then reached around behind the staffer and touched the legal documents to his hands, explaining that made the service legal, and left the papers on a desk.
"That office hopefully learned a lesson," Chris Lowrey told the State Journal. "I'm a Republican, and I was disgusted with their behavior."
Actually, what Vukmir's office learned was that they could count on ALEC and Wisconsin's attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, to make sure they didn't have to provide any information at all.
Van Hollen provoked outraged editorials from newspapers all over the state when he asserted in court filings that Vukmir could not be served with a court order demanding she comply with state open records law.
In a "motion to quash summons" the attorney general argues that the state constitution protects legislators from arrest and civil process during legislative session.
But as the Center for Media and Democracy, the group seeking Vukmir's ALEC documents, points out, this is a huge expansion of legislators' privileges.
The 1848 provision of the state constitution Vukmir and Van Hollen invoke was intended to cover legislative floor sessions that lasted a few weeks or months.
"But today, the legislature remains in session continuously, even during recess, for a full two years," CMD general counsel Brendan Fischer points out. "The same day that one session ends, the next one begins. Van Hollen's position would close off any possibility of enforcing any civil action against a state legislator."
And the case has much broader, national implications.
ALEC, a national organization of corporations and state legislators, has been working hard to hide its dealings from the public ever since the Center for Media and Democracy and other citizens' groups began drawing major national attention to the outfit and its efforts to push boilerplate legislation that helps corporate interests at the expense of the public in states around the country, through the web site ALECExposed.
Over the last two years, as public scrutiny increased, ALEC began stamping documents with a disclaimer saying documents it sends to state legislators are not subject to any state's public records law, Fischer points out. And the group has begun distributing its materials to legislators through an internet dropbox, instead of by email, to avoid possible open records requests.
"They prefer to operate in the dark," says Fischer.
That, presumably, is why Senator Vukmir has denied having any documents related to ALEC or the ALEC meeting she attended in Oklahoma, at which, according to text messages obtained by CMD, she wrote and introduced a piece of legislation herself.
Vukmir's claim that she has no record of the meeting is preposterous on its face. But the whole ALEC agenda is shady.
"It's concerning for any third-party group to keep its communications with legislators hidden from the public," says Fischer. "But especially a group like ALEC, which facilitates a special-interest agenda through access to lawmakers."
"There is such a strong possibility of the exercise of influence or quid-pro-quo corruption," he adds.
Vukmir has received thousands of dollars in ALEC "scholarships" for trips to ALEC conferences at expensive resorts where legislators are wooed by corporate lobbyists, according to records obtained by CMD.
As an ALEC leader she has sponsored ALEC bills secretly voted on by corporations, including bills to deregulate industry and siphon public money into private schools.
No wonder Vukmir, and ALEC, would rather operate in the dark.
Too bad the attorney general of Wisconsin is helping them keep the curtain pulled down.
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.