A Teleconference With The ACU’s David Keene Over The FedEx Pay Per Play Allegations

Today, David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union, did a blogger teleconference to address allegations made in a July 17, 2009 story in the Politico. I wrote about the story here in a post called A Reluctant Open Letter To The American Conservative Union: Fire David Keene.

Opening Statement

Most of what David Keene had to say right off the bat mirrored a release he sent out to the teleconference participants. So, in order to better get out his side of the story, I’m going to just let you read what he had to say,

POLITICO GOT IT WRONG,” SAYS ACU CHAIR DAVID A KEENE

ACU Chairman David A Keene rejected last week’s Politico charge that ACU was guilty of made a “pay to play” proposal to Federal Express “absurd.” “ACU is not, never has been and never will be for sale. The charge that ACU took a position to raise money is untrue. The charge that we changed that position to “punish” a potential supporter for not funding our efforts is untrue. Neither ACU nor I changed our position which was based on principle and we never got a nickel from anyone on either side of the issue.”

Last Friday, Politico carried a story alleging that as Chairman of the American Conservative Union I had approached Federal Express seeking a major contribution in return for ACU’s support for the company’s position in a fight with UPS and that when FedEx refused the requested contribution, I reversed my position on the issue and, in effect, threw in with UPS.

Politico’s reporter got his facts and his timing wrong and, as a result, reached conclusions that were wrong. My first inclination was to ignore what I considered an absurd story, but I cannot let such a vicious attack on my integrity and on the organization I chair go unanswered.

I’ve been around and know full well that “politics ain’t beanbag,” but I must say I was disappointed by the readiness of so many people including some who have known me for years to accept the Politico charges as true. Perhaps it’s the cynicism about everything and everyone political, but I have to admit that it took me by surprise.

The issue in question is an amendment to The Federal Aviation Authority Reauthorization Act of 2009 which would, by bringing FedEX under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, essentially deliver the company and its employees into the hands of The Teamsters.

The substantive reasons ACU believes conservatives should support FedEx on this were outlined as articulately and succinctly in a recent column by George Will who concluded quite accurately that “What UPS is doing is called rent-seeking — bending public power for private advantage by hindering a competitor.”

First, let me say that ACU did approach FedEx for support to assist in a just fight; we agreed with the corporation’s opposition to the amendment that would subject them to NLRB jurisdiction of the and wanted to do all we could to see that it is defeated.

ACU raises funds from individuals, foundations and, yes, corporations that agree with our positions on the issues and strongly believes that in this particular fight, FedEx is right and that UPS is trying to get Congress to take an objectively unjustifiable action simply to disadvantage a competitor. What ACU does not do is tailor its positions to attract contributors. ACU support is not now and never has been “for sale.”

ACU staff had been working to defeat the amendment even before preparing a funding request after learning that such a request might well be favorably received. That proposal was prepared by the ACU staff and sent to FedEx on June 30, 2009. While I knew a proposal was being prepared, I wasn’t personally familiar with its contents and didn’t even know until recently when or even if it had actually gone to FedEx.

At roughly the same time I was approached by a representative of Frontiers of Freedom, an organization founded and chaired by former Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop to see if I would be willing to sign on to a letter to FedEx objecting not to the corporation’s position on the NLRB question, but to characterizing the fight as a fight over a UPS effort to obtain a federal bailout. This was, of course, a mischaracterization of the fight which had nothing to do with a bailout and everything to do with a labor regulation.

Since words have precise meanings and since the letter I was asked to agree to was explicitly agnostic as to the amendment we oppose, I agreed to sign on. This nevertheless apparently upset someone at FedEx who contacted reporters to charge that I had sought FedEx financial support and when it was not forthcoming, switched sides … probably in return for funding from its competitor.

The timeline alone demonstrates the absurdity of the charges. Although the Frontiers of Freedom letter is dated July 15, 2009, the organization sought and received the ok from me to add my name to its letter on July 1, 2009. That is just a day after ACU fundraisers submitted its proposal to FedEx. I don’t know of anyone who believes that any corporation or funding institution would be willing or even capable of turning such a proposal around in a day. One would have to be incredibly naïve to expect an answer of any kind this quickly and we hadn’t gotten one. We certainly hadn’t been turned down.

Had I been interested only in raising money, I would not have signed on to the Frontiers of Freedom letter because by doing so, I was at the very least making it less rather than more likely that they would contribute to our efforts. I signed on, however, because I thought the letter was correct on the merits and because, quite frankly, I was not relating it to the substance of the NLRB issue.

Politico charges that by signing the Frontiers of Freedom letter, I reversed my position on the amendment ACU had until then opposed. This is simply untrue. Anyone who reads the Frontiers of Freedom letter will discover that it states explicitly that one can agree with the substance of the letter regardless of one’s position on the NLRB issue. I can only conclude that the author of the Politico article never even bothered to read it.

Let me be clear on this. I continue to agree with Senator Wallop’s objection to the mischaracterization of the issue and I also I continue to oppose extending NLRB jurisdiction to FedEx. Neither I nor ACU has changed our position on this and won’t, though I must admit that I am less than impressed with the manner in which FedEx has treated me and ACU in this matter.

Given the nature of the allegations, I guess I should also say for the record that we have neither asked for nor received any support from UPS as a result of our position on this issue. This should surprise no one since we think UPS’s position on the NLRB question is flat wrong and we continue to believe conservatives should oppose that corporation’s attempt to use its influence in Congress to disadvantage its competition.

Years ago when Lyn Nofziger was unjustly charged with wrongdoing, I wrote him a letter in which I told him that the only good thing about the experience was that before it ended he would know who your real friends were and who would walk away from you at the first sign of trouble.

Lyn thanked me for the letter and the thought, but said that on reflection thought he’d rather not to have had to find out.

He had a point.

The Q&A Session (What follows are notes, not quotes)

The letter you signed that was pro-UPS — what was the point of it? Why did you care why it was labeled as a bailout?

We are not a lone actor in the movement. I read the letter, thought it was a valid point. The letter explicitly said it didn’t take a side.

But, why did it matter if it was so labeled?

I think words mean something. If everything we’re dealing with is a bailout issue, then nothing is a bailout issue. It’s really emblematic of exactly what the Obama Administration is doing. They’re trying to force unionization on the American people. It shouldn’t be cloaked as something it isn’t.

Are you going to demand a retraction from Politico?

I guess we could, but they probably wouldn’t do it. We have asked FedEx for an explanation. Two immediate reactions: this is such poppycock it should be ignored, but it hurts our reputation. I want people to know exactly where we’re coming from. If the Politico’s story was right, people would be justified in being angry. But, it’s not true. This damages not just us, but the conservative movement.

(Question from me) In the statement you sent out to everyone before this teleconference, you endorsed a George Will quote that said, “What UPS is doing is called rent-seeking — bending public power for private advantage by hindering a competitor.” You also noted that you, “think UPS’s position on the NLRB question is flat wrong.”

However, the letter you signed onto for UPS, in places, seems to say exactly the opposite. It refers to the amendment as “equal treatment of both companies under our nation’s labor laws,” and “asking that the government treat both competitors the same.”

What I agree with them on was the bailout point. Not on those other parts. The letter doesn’t take a position per se.

(Follow-up from me) Well, respectfully, I think the letter from UPS seemed to me to be a straight-up endorsement of their position.

I didn’t see it that way. It was all about the language for me. I don’t know about the motives of other people.

Do you think people are just disappointed in conservatives these days?

I think people have been disappointed a lot by conservatives of late and I think some people just assume this stuff is true.

Is the ACU planning anything on the recent health care battle?

Yes, and we have to be careful because health care and energy policy are two of the very important parts of the American economy.

Do you think you’ll get any resistance from conservatives over this issue?

Well, politics ain’t beanbag. These things stand and fall on their merits. We try to get the whole movement together.

I think there were some questions about what was really going on inside the ACU and that drew some of the criticism.

No board member can be employed by the ACU. That causes some confusion.

I have to earn a living. I work for a living in the private sector. I work at the ACU. It can lead to some confusion. I was on vacation when the letter went out. Had I been here, someone might have said this could be an issue.

(Question from me) In a reference to a post on Redstate, have you or anyone at the ACU ever been previously paid by a client to write a column?

We have never done that and never would. If I ever wrote about anything that a client was paying us for, I would mention it. If a client was paying us to work for them on a particular issue, I would mention it if I wrote about that issue — even if they weren’t directly paying for a column. But, I don’t do that.

The lesson learned here is that we need to react faster to the news cycle.

I agree. Napoleon said he ignored as many questions as possible, and 90% of them went away.

Was too distracted talking to other participants on the teleconference via IM to do justice to this question.

The party is backing Rubio over Crist and…

If we could pick out one race to get conservatives involved in, it would be Rubio over Crist. The establishment is trying to pick Crist over Rubio. The party is picking the wrong guy. Every decade or so, the guys in DC think they can pick people better than the people in the states and it’s politically stupid.

We’d also love to do one of these calls every month assuming I am not at a disaster at the center of the call.

Can you tell us more about what the ACU is doing on health care?

We went through this in 1993. Everybody thought Hillarycare was going to pass in 1993. People thought we were going to tinker with it and fix it, then the people turned on it, and the politicians did. The people on the Hill have a two week long timeline. You can’t think short term considerations.

Thank you for your time, everyone!

Summary: David Keene was warm, personal, completely unflustered and acted like this was all a silly misunderstanding that he wanted to clear up. I also give him credit for saying all the right things to appeal to conservatives (Rubio over Crist even!). As a matter of fact, this is the only time I can remember a conservative in trouble going to a teleconference full of conservative bloggers to get a friendly audience after a scandal which is groundbreaking and judging by all the slow, looping, softball questions he got (Quin Hillyer did start things off well, but it got very fluffy afterwards), very smart.

That being said, there’s still a problem. David Keene’s story doesn’t seem to add up. As I told Amanda Carpenter over at the Washington Times

“I am still willing to be convinced, but I haven’t heard an explanation for why the ACU wanted to charge FedEx $2 million to publicly back a position they supported, and yet David Keene signed on to a letter that seems to take the opposite position for free.”

David Keene is saying that he signed onto the pro-UPS letter because he didn’t like the use of the word “bailout.” While FedEx is over-reaching a bit by using the word “bailout” on its website, a cursory glance at the page seemed to show that overall, it was a fairly straightforward explanation of what the bill will do that even the ACU probably wouldn’t disagree with once you got beyond the word “bailout.” Given the amount of hyperbole that flies around DC on a daily basis, I have a little trouble swallowing a claim that the misuse of that word merits a letter signed by the likes of David Keene, Grover Norquist, and Chuck Muth — especially since the letter they signed, claims to the contrary, is a strongly pro-union position that’s designed to slow FedEx down to help UPS. While I can understand conservatives saying, “This is confusing, I am not taking a position at all,” on this bill, alarm bells go off for me when I see conservatives signing onto something like this. Since that’s the case, I have sent every public signer of that letter an email asking them to confirm that they weren’t paid anything to sign onto that letter. The results — or non-results of those emails, will be published tomorrow at Right Wing News.

But, back to Keene. I really want to believe him, but he didn’t just fall off the hay truck. This is a very sharp guy who is not going to sign onto a letter without knowing what’s in it. I also have a lot of trouble buying into the idea that a $2 million package was sent over to FedEx without him having any idea this service was offered,

Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU’s Chairman David Keene and / or other members of the ACU’s Board of Directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)

So, it’s a service they’ve never offered before, but on this one contract that makes it into the public light, it’s available and he didn’t know anything about it? Coincidentally, he denies that FedEx had turned down their offer. He also denies that a letter he signed that directly contradicts his own stated position and the position of the ACU means anything? Look, David Keene is a likable guy and the ACU is a likable organization, but I don’t buy it. To me, it looks like they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar and they’re desperately trying to figure out a way to explain it. Does that mean that I think the ACU has a lot less credibility than it did before this story came out? Unfortunately, it does.

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