A frame from WXIA-TV's report on the American Legislative Exchange Council.
A recent investigative report by Atlanta's NBC affiliate captured a "state representative from New England" schmoozing with lobbyists at a Savannah conference hosted by the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council.
Rep. Bob Helm
In the footage, obtained by a hidden camera in a hotel bar, the lawmaker's face is blurred. The story does not identify him by name. But his voice is unmistakable: that of Rep. Bob Helm (R-Fair Haven).
"It was me, unknowingly being recorded and photographed," says Helm, who serves as ALEC's Vermont state chair. "I had no idea. But whatever I said, I can go to bed with it. I can sleep fine. It was the truth."
Helm's 50-second cameo comes near the end of a six-and-a-half-minute piece documenting ALEC's role in drafting and promoting state legislation friendly to its corporate sponsors. In the story, WXIA-TV chief investigative reporter Brendan Keefe attempts to cover a recent ALEC retreat in Savannah, but he's rebuffed and eventually kicked out of the hotel.
In footage obtained the night before his unceremonious departure, Keefe captures Helm explaining how such conferences are financed.
"Do you have to pay your own way?" the reporter asks Helm, who appears to be eating dinner and having a drink at the bar.
"Well, on a trip like this — and that's where you come in, ma'am," Helm says, turning to a female lobbyist sitting to his left. "On a trip like this, I'm the state [bleep] state chair of ALEC, and I look for financial supporters, lobbyists and the like, such as yourself, to send us, like, a couple thousand bucks every so often. That gives me money to help those folks with. Now on the other hand—"
"We pay more to be here," the lobbyist interjects. "So it helps support them."
"You do, you do," Helm says.
"I see," Keefe says. "So the lobbyist fees to come to the event actually helps subsidize the legislators coming here."
"That's right," the lobbyist says. "That's right."
Founded in 1973 to promote conservative causes in state legislative bodies, ALEC has been criticized in recent years by liberals who say it provides corporate benefactors too great a role in crafting legislation. It came under fire for pushing "stand-your-ground" gun laws in Florida and other states after the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. That episode prompted dozens of corporations to drop their sponsorships of the organization.
It's unclear how much influence ALEC enjoys in Vermont. According to Helm, who says he's chaired the organization for the past three or four years, some 20 legislators are members.
A spokeswoman for the group did not respond to an interview request.
"ALEC supports businesses and supports capitalism and supports allowing people to keep their income and spend it on business growth and that type of thing," says Helm, who has served in the House for 24 years and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "I think that's a good thing. I don't know what's so nasty about it. Last I knew, it's all very legal."
According to Helm, ALEC foots the bill for his hotel rooms when he attends its conferences. He says he spent $700 to $750 traveling to Georgia and expects the organization to reimburse him $350. Legislators pay $50 a year in dues.
"And then corporate interests — people outside of government, who want to belong to ALEC and believe in it, and I've found these people to be not demanding, very helpful at these meetings — they put in the bulk of the funding that tries to establish a few dollars for this kind of thing," Helm says. "To get legislators to listen to the business side of things."
Helm himself raises money for ALEC's Vermont chapter from companies that do business in the state, he says.
"You go through the lobbyists to get to the business corporations. I know that's a bad word. Whatever it is, you use the lobbyists to get to them," he says. "I don't get a lot of money that way, but we get a little bit — and a little bit we make go a long way."
ALEC has not registered in Vermont as a lobbying entity, nor as a political action committee. It's not clear whether its actions require it to register as either.
Former governor Howard Dean, who forwarded the WXIA story to Seven Days and others, says he was outraged when he saw it. He says ALEC attempts to "bribe" legislators to support its positions.
"That was one of the most shocking videos I've seen in 35 years in public life," Dean says. "They're basically giving legislators money and paying them to come to these meetings. In exchange, they get full participation in the legislative process, without any public view at all."
While Helm defends his affiliation with ALEC, he decries WXIA's use of a hidden camera.
"That's an invasion of privacy, I think. Having a conversation with you, not telling who they are, what they're going to do with the conversation, leading you to believe they're friendly and then, all of the sudden, you're on national television," Helm says. "He's just a disgusting reporter. That's all."
Keefe did not respond to a request for comment.
To Helm, the whole episode is much ado about nothing.
"I don't think it's worth an article, myself. If I can't be pro-business, then I'm not only getting out of the legislature, I'm getting out of the state. That ain't right. It's just not right," he says. "You guys in Burlington — you guys in Chittenden County — you just don't get it. It's easy street for you. You're in another world up there than the rest of the state. I know you look at me with glazed eyes, but that's the truth."