House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro has repaid the American Legislative Exchange Council for a travel stipend he received for attending the organization’s July 2015 conference in San Diego, which he drove to at no personal cost while using a state fleet vehicle.
Montenegro had requested his travel be reimbursed roughly $300 by the organization, based on the federal mileage rate for the approximately 600 miles he drove from his home in Litchfield Park to the annual conference in San Diego.
But taxpayers were already covering the cost of his state-owned rental car and the gas to get to the conference.
The House paid the Department of Administration $315 for Montenegro’s six-day utility 4×4 rental and gas to and from San Diego.
But Montenegro filled out a form requesting a travel “scholarship” to pay for his travel expenses to the ALEC conference.
The scholarships are paid for by lobbyists and corporations that donate to the ALEC scholarship fund to cover lawmakers’ expenses to the organization’s conferences.
House GOP spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said that, upon realizing he had been “mistakenly” reimbursed by ALEC, Montenegro “promptly’’ repaid the organization from his own funds, not from House monies.
House Speaker David Gowan and Republican Rep. Darin Mitchell both drove state vehicles to the event, but neither requested the organization reimburse them for their travel, Grisham said.
House attorney Rob Ellman wrote in a Feb. 9 email that “ALEC mistakenly reimbursed the Majority Leader for his travel mileage.” Grisham said Montenegro realized the error himself, and offered to repay the costs following an Arizona Capitol Times article detailing the House’s use of state fleet vehicles.
But ALEC’s Arizona chair, Republican Sen. Debbie Lesko, said that isn’t what happened.
Lesko said that, after reading that the three lawmakers drove state cars to the ALEC event, she went back and checked if any of them had requested travel scholarships to attend. She found that Montenegro had filled out a form requesting a reimbursement for driving to the event.
When she discovered ALEC had reimbursed Montenegro, even though the taxpayers had already paid for his travel, she asked Montenegro to return the money.
He did so the next day, Lesko said.
Montenegro acknowledged to the Capitol Times in a Jan. 8 story on fleet vehicle use that he broke state rules governing fleet vehicle use by driving to the event with his wife. State law bars friends and family from traveling in state vehicles.
The House pays the cost of rentals and gas for lawmakers and their staff who use the Arizona Department of Administration’s fleet vehicles for “official state business.”
Using a state vehicle for personal business is a Class 2 misdemeanor under state law.
But Ellman, the House attorney, wrote in a Feb. 9 letter to the Capitol Times that the private conservative organization’s annual conference qualifies as an official state business purpose for elected officials.
“(You) should know that the annual ALEC conference is attended by state lawmakers from around the nation who meet with nationally renowned business leaders and policy experts specifically to discuss state policy and legislation. Attending such a conference is a quintessentially valid House business purpose. It is not a misuse of state funds to travel to an annual ALEC conference,” he wrote.
However, Lesko disagreed.
She noted that the state doesn’t pay for lawmakers’ travel or hotel or conference registration to ALEC events, and said the event is not official state business.
“We pay private membership dues. It does not come out of state money. It comes out of my personal pocket, and I’m a member of it. It’s a private organization,” she said, noting she never uses state resources to attend the event.
ALEC’s national spokesperson did not return multiple calls for comment.
Legislatures around the country don’t usually pay for lawmakers to attend ALEC conferences. And that’s by design, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
Nick Surgey, director of research for the Center for Media and Democracy, which runs the website ALECexposed.org and does investigative work on ALEC, said Montenegro appears to be caught in a classic case of “double-dipping,” and that repaying the funds doesn’t mean he didn’t do any wrong.
“That’s like putting the cookie back in the jar after you’re caught. I mean, you were going to eat the cookie,” he said.
Surgey said his organization has run into states vehemently claiming the event is not state business, and other states that just as strongly claim it is official state business.
“In terms of this question of whether it’s state business, it seems to come down to whether it’s convenient for it to be state business,” he said.
In Texas, for example, the Center for Media and Democracy attempted to get public records relating to the event from a lawmaker who attended one of ALEC’s conferences. The lawmaker argued that his attendance at ALEC events was not official state business and he therefore didn’t have to turn over public records related to the event.
“This seems to be the far opposite argument, which is that this is state business in the interest of the state, and therefore perfectly acceptable to use state vehicles,” Surgey said.
But such an argument could open up a can of worms for ALEC, which generally attempts to keep its activities hidden from the public.
If lawmakers attend an event in their official capacity, documents they receive at that event could fall under public records laws.
Attorney Kory Langhofer said the argument that the ALEC conference is official business would open the organization up to public records requests.
– Luige del Puerto contributed to this report.