An Update From The American Conservative Union + The UPS Letter: Was Anyone Paid?

Earlier this week, I wrote a couple of posts (See here and here) about a scandal involving the American Conservative Union. According to the Politico, they went to FedEx, asked for 2 million dollars to go to work on their behalf on a key regulatory issue, and when FedEx declined their offer, the ACU’s chairman, David Keene, signed on to a letter taking the position of the primary adversary on the issue, UPS.

There are a couple of updates to the situation that need to be discussed.

First off, I received a letter today from the ACU’s David Keene. Although we don’t see eye-to-eye on this issue, I’ve found him to be intelligent and gracious. In order to be fair, I want to post part of the email. It gives the ACU’s side of the story explaining how this issue developed and it notes some welcome changes that are going to be made there in an effort to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again.

From David Keene’s email,

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My failure was that a.) I didn’t review a proposal sent out by my staff before it went out. Had I reviewed it I can assure you it would not have gone out in the form or using the language it did. The fact that it could reasonably be read as it was really says it all. Inadvertent though it was, the language used gave the impression that what our critics believed to be true was, in fact true. That will not happen again;

b.) I agreed to sign a coalition letter submitted to me by another group, reviewed it cursorily while on vacation and gave it my ok without much deep thought about it or without checking with others within ACU. That is also something that won’t happen again; and,

c.) I wasn’t in touch with the ACU staff so that we would all know what had happened when it hit the fan. In today’s world you cannot afford not to respond immediately when charges are made or you’ll have an incredibly difficult time catching up with them to set the record straight. I was at a conference in Cleveland while the Politco story was being written and when it appeared while ACU’s Executive VP was in Atlanta. Neither one of us for the reasons above, knew exactly what was going on and we weren’t able to communicate because my cell phone wasn’t working well. The result was confusion and a staff back in Virginia that didn’t have any idea either of what was going on or how to respond to it.

One who cannot learn from screw-ups like this ought to go on permanent vacation and that’s not something I am not quite ready to do. However, we have instituted some reforms or changes in how we will be doing things at ACU that should allow us to avoid these problems in the future:

1. Our Board’s Executive Committee will meet monthly and, as part of that meeting, review requests for assistance and the language used therein.

2. Requests that we sign on to letters or join in coalition efforts will be reviewed by the Chairman and staff at a weekly staff meeting before we agree to do so.

3. I will phase out my private work and move into the ACU offices where I will be involved in providing day to day leadership for the organization.

David Keene’s email and my previous posts speak for themselves. I will let people read them and form their own conclusions, although I will note that on the UPS letter, he has now hinted a couple of times that he really didn’t read it all that well. Once during the teleconference and once during his email: “I agreed to sign a coalition letter submitted to me by another group, reviewed it cursorily while on vacation and gave it my ok without much deep thought about it…”

If David Keene signed onto the email without properly reading what he was signing and has been a little too proud to come right out and say it, that could explain part, but not all of this matter. I’m not saying that’s what happened, just saying that it looks like a possibility at this point.

Setting that aside, there’s another issue here. Conservatism is not just a movement; there’s a business angle to it. Some of that is unavoidable. Just to give you a personal example, I make money off of columns and advertising. If I didn’t, I couldn’t make a living at this and spend so much time doing it. What happens on a small scale for me, happens on a large scale for talk radio hosts, think tanks, and groups like the ACU. They have to make a living and no one should begrudge them that.

However, politics is not always an ethical business and the rules can sometimes be a bit fuzzy. What one person may view as a clear ethics violation, the next looks at as a grey area, and the third views as A-Ok.

Just to give you an example, Armstrong Williams was paid almost a quarter of a million dollars to promote No Child Left Behind, legislation he said he supported, on his radio show and in his columns. That did significant damage to his reputation and everyone seems to agree that it’s improper to get paid by an outside group specifically to support a position that you already agree with. But, if a business does a huge ad buy with the New York Times and then its columnists happen to start writing columns taking a position that business supports, is that unethical? Few people seem to think so, but that sort of thing happens on a regular basis. It gets even trickier for blogs, where the sales staff and writer often happen to be the same person. Long story short, ethics in this business can be much murkier than most people may realize.

….Which brings me back to the UPS letter that David Keene signed onto. That letter peaked my interest because it was signed by several people of note on the Right despite the fact that I don’t consider it to be taking the conservative position on the issue. Moreover, it’s not exactly a hot topic. In fact, I’d think that at the moment, just about the only people who would be fascinated with this topic would be UPS, FedEx, and the unions — all of which, coincidentally, are flush with cash. Couple that with the fact that the letter itself comes across like it was written by a PR hack at UPS, as opposed to an activist who just happened to take an interest in the issue, and it caused my antenna to go up.

To be blunt, the letter smells and I would be shocked if palms weren’t greased to get some of the signatures on that UPS letter. So, who signed it?

Malcolm Wallop
U.S. Senator (ret.)

George C. Landrith
President, Frontiers of Freedom

Grover Norquist
President, Americans for Tax Reform

David Keene
President, American Conservative Union

James L. Martin
President, 60 Plus

Chuck Muth
President, Citizen Outreach

Karen Kerrigan
President & CEO, Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council

Duane Parde
President, National Taxpayers Union

David Keene’s signature has been discussed in depth already, so I emailed everyone else who signed the letter and asked them whether they or their organizations had received any money to sign onto their letter. All of them were alerted that their answers (or non-answers) would appear in an article on RWN and all of them were given plenty of time to get in their responses.

Out of that group, only one of them, Chuck Muth of Citizens Outreach responded. He denied that any payment was received for the signature on the letter and, I believe him. After discussing the issue in a bit more depth via email, Chuck pointed me to a small anti-Federal Express blog he has called FedExcess and gave me a bit more detail on why he was particularly interested in this issue,

As for FedEx, I actually started following their escapades a little over a year ago (the first two posts on on a completely unrelated issue: their abuse of the independent contractor statutes. As someone who uses IC’s almost exclusively, what they were doing was a direct threat to my own, legitimate, business model. So once this deal with FedEx and the RLA hit my radar screen, I was already pre-disposed to looking at this issue very closely.

Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested in this issue if it wasn’t for my previous interest in the IC issue. And once I discovered that FedEx was trying to hike the identities of those behind their misleading use of the “bailout” term in their campaign, I was like a dog on a bone. I don’t like it when someone tries to pull the wool over my conservative eyes.

After reading that, it makes perfect sense that Chuck Muth is signed on to this letter.

But, can the same be said for a guy like Grover Norquist? What about Malcolm Wallop, Frontiers of Freedom, and some of these other groups? I don’t know, since they didn’t answer the email. Of course, if you were paid to sign onto the letter, it probably would be smart not to respond to a press inquiry about this issue in hopes that it will go away. Maybe that’s it, maybe it’s not, but either way — if any of these people or groups happen to end up signing onto another suspicious letter, it may give people something to reference back to when they’re doing research.

In any case, I wanted to lay down an ethics marker on this issue: it’s not okay for a conservative organization to take money to take a non-conservative position. I strongly suspect some conservatives or conservative organizations were simply bought and paid for — on immigration, for example, and that’s not acceptable. Furthermore, I understand that people have to make a living, but when there is money involved — sometimes, very large amounts of money — these conservative organizations need to be very careful not to damage their credibility or abuse the faith that people put in them.

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