When we said that conservatives needed to do a better job selling the philosophy of limited government and fiscal responsibility, this isn’t exactly what we meant.  According to Politico, the American Conservative Union attempted to get Federal Express to pay millions of dollars to engage the ACU on their behalf over a political fight with UPS on legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill.  The ACU’s executive vice-president Dennis Whitfield told FedEx that the ACU stood foursquare against the bill, which would have made it easier for unions to organize at individual FedEx facilities.  When FedEx took a pass on the offer, the ACU reversed itself and aligned with UPS instead:

The American Conservative Union asked FedEx for a check for $2 million to $3 million in return for the group’s endorsement in a bitter legislative dispute, then flipped and sided with UPS after FedEx refused to pay.

For the $2 million+, ACU offered a range of services that included: “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.)”

The conservative group’s remarkable demand — black-and-white proof of the longtime Washington practice known as “pay for play” — was contained in a private letter to FedEx that was provided to POLITICO. …

In the three-page letter asking for money on June 30, the conservative group backed FedEx. Rebuffed, the group signed onto a two-page July 15 letter backing UPS.

FedEx and UPS, fierce competitors in the package delivery business, are at war over a provision under consideration in Congress that would expand union power at FedEx.

FedEx currently has one U.S. union contract for its entire express business. Under a change passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, FedEx — like UPS — would have to negotiate union contracts for individual locations, which FedEx claims would make it much more difficult to promise worldwide regularity for deliveries.

The ACU sponsors the largest annual gathering of conservative activists in the nation, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).  I’ve attended three times, and it serves as both a social support and a strategic-planning forum for activists on the Right.  That’s the kind of salesmanship we need for conservative values.

If Politico has this right, and they have the letter on their website, this is exactly what we don’t need.  Their offer in writing contains nothing but their support for the fight against this bill.  The ACU’s eventual public position — that FedEx has been “misleading the public and legislators” — only came after FedEx refused to pay the ACU over $2 million for their services.  That looks a lot less like a principled position, and a lot more like sour grapes, or the business end of an extortion attempt.  Someone has misled the public in this instance, and it doesn’t appear to be either FedEx or UPS.

The range of services offered calls into question the integrity of the entire organization.  Does the ACU normally offer its public commentary for rent?  Who else has paid for endorsements in David Keene’s columns, or those of the ACU board members?  It would be also fair to ask Keene or the board knew of Whitfield’s proposal before it went out, although it would be difficult to imagine that Whitfield could have offered so much in services for that much compensation without having approval from Keene and/or the board in the first place.  The ACU’s about-face on the issue right after FedEx’s refusal would be difficult to explain as well.

I e-mailed Whitfield and left a voice mail message with the ACU seeking a response on this article.  When I receive it, I’ll add it to this post.

Update: Via James Joyner, Whitfield has issued an e-mailed press release (which I haven’t received and is not yet on the ACU website), which he quotes in part:

Mr. David Keene’s name was on a letter prepared by another organization.  This was a personal decision on his part and he was not representing ACU at the time.  No permission was given by ACU, and no logo was provided by ACU, to the organization who issued the letter in question.

ACU’s policy position on this issue has not changed and it will not change.

ACU’s positions on important policy issues have never been for sale.

ACU does not support moving businesses under the jurisdiction of the NLRB or expanding the federal government’s power, reach or authority under the NLRB.

That doesn’t address the issue, however.  Whitfield offered Keene’s column as a venue for opposing the NLRB expansion that would benefit UPS.  After FedEx refused to pay Whitfield $2 million, Keene took a public position opposite that of the organization he heads — and that’s just a coincidence?  And why was Whitfield offering Keene’s column for sale in the first place?

This is a distraction from the main issue.

Update II: I now have the full statement, thanks to the ACU:

The following statement is being issued by ACU Executive Vice President Dennis Whitfield due to Politico’s unverified accusations contained in an article and a false headline editors chose to publish today regarding the NLRB:

“An article containing a false headline has been published by Capitol Hill newspaper Politico today regarding an issue with expansion of the National Labor Relations Board.

This article concerns two letters; one issued by ACU and another issued by a separate organization.

Mr. David Keene’s name was on a letter prepared by another organization.  This was a personal decision on his part and he was not representing ACU at the time.  No permission was given by ACU, and no logo was provided by ACU, to the organization who issued the letter in question.

ACU’s policy position on this issue has not changed and it will not change.

ACU’s positions on important policy issues have never been for sale.

ACU does not support moving businesses under the jurisdiction of the NLRB or expanding the federal government’s power, reach or authority under the NLRB.

In fact, as we pointed out last year when auto bailouts were first proposed, the actions of organized labor in Detroit helped lead to a downfall of America’s storied auto industry.  This is a clear example of what can happen when organized labor extends its fingers too far into American business.

In this regard, ACU stands with the policy that FedEx should not be placed under the NLRB.

This was ACU policy – before and after – any letters in question were drafted.

No contributions, to date, regarding this issue have been given or promised to ACU from any organization mentioned in the Politico article.

ACU is happy to receive support from individuals and organizations that support our policy objectives and we will continue to do so.”

– DENNIS E. WHITFIELD, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT ACU

This still doesn’t answer the issues raised by Whitfield’s letter to FedEx.  Whitfield calls the Politico story “false,” but note that he never denies writing the letter to FedEx that promised that Keene would write supportive columns for FedEx’s position if they paid the ACU more than $2 million.  That’s not “receiv[ing] support from individuals and organizations,” that’s selling a service.  It certainly left FedEx with the impression that they could buy Keene’s public support, and when he acted (either as an individual or as head of the ACU) to oppose their position after FedEx declined to cough up $2 million, it looks a lot like Keene decided to exact a little revenge for FedEx’s decision.

The ACU needs a better explanation than this, in light of Whitfield’s letter.  If they admit that Whitfield wrote it, then people should know which Keene columns were prompted by payments and which were not, as well as their board’s actions.

Update III: I put up a picture from CPAC that showed Rep. Paul Ryan, who has nothing at all to do with this story (the ACU sponsors CPAC, as noted above).  I replaced it with a picture of David Keene, and I apologize to Rep. Ryan.

Update IV: National Review reported on Keene’s pay-for-play activities in 2003.

Tags: Paul Ryan