ATLANTA (AP) — For a few days in March, the American Enterprise Institute welcomed scores of business and political leaders to a private annual meeting at a resort on the Georgia coast. But only those who attended know what issues were discussed, strategy planned or promises made.
That's because the ground rules for the invitation-only meeting required the participants' confidentiality — even if some were elected leaders, discussing the public's business.
An impressive array of power attended the conservative think tank's World Forum 2014, according to a printed program first disclosed in late April by the Center for Public Integrity: House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican congressional leaders; potential 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; Apple CEO Tim Cook; beer magnate Pete Coors; TD Ameritrade founder-turned-billionaire-conservative activist Joe Ricketts; and executives from multiple venture-capital firms.
Similar events occur across the political spectrum giving powerful people with deep pockets face-to-face exchanges with national and state leaders that the average American cannot match.
Last month, a group of liberals held closed sessions in Chicago under the banner of Democracy Alliance to talk political strategy for progressive causes. Conservatives complained that the gathering included top environmentalists like billionaire Tom Steyer, though a spokeswoman for Steyer told The Associated Press he did not attend.
And in early May, state lawmakers from around the country convened privately in Kansas City, Missouri, with business leaders as part of the corporately financed American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The group's task forces met to write recommended bills on topics from education and tax law to environmental regulation, labor law and criminal justice that ALEC's legislative members will sponsor in their statehouses.
Organizers and participants say the closed sessions allow public and private sector titans to discuss candidly topics ranging from foreign affairs and intelligence gathering to tax policy and elections strategy. But some open-government advocates say the events reduce confidence in the democratic process.
"This just creates more ways for mega-donors and elected officials to get together and talk about public policy behind closed doors," said Miles Rapaport, the president of Common Cause, a national group that advocates for less concentration of political power.
Boehner — who is an ALEC member according to the group's website — told The Associated Press that such events are "very educational." House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who attended the AEI forum in Georgia, said they promote "a free exchange of ideas."
Rapaport, of Common Cause, said open sessions — like meetings of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures — don't have to prevent candor.
At the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group that monitors influence in government, executive director Sheila Krumholz said politicians shouldn't be criticized "for getting out from behind their desks and getting information." Private meetings between "the regulators and the regulated" are part of the process, but the venue and the breadth of the closed gatherings matter, she argued.
"The concern is that these get-togethers offer opportunity for extended exposure in a relaxed setting," she said. "It's all very conducive to a good rapport. ... That's an invaluable advantage — and not one afforded to average constituents."
Even some partisans criticize the secrecy — when the opposition is involved.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's campaign attacked his potential general election rival, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, for attending the Democracy Alliance meeting in Chicago. McConnell accused Grimes of cozying up to wealthy environmentalist donors nationally while campaigning as a pro-coal Democrat back home.
Many Democrats have long vilified ALEC's operations.
Rep. Mark Pocan, a liberal Democrat from Madison, Wisconsin, joined ALEC when he was in the state Assembly. He attended the group's meetings starting in 2008 and then discussed their agenda publicly — something participants often decline to do.
Closed meetings at ALEC and AEI, Pocan said, are "definitely not good for public policy, and they're not good for democracy."
ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling noted that the organization operates more openly in recent years, in part in reaction to critics who cried foul over ALEC members pushing conservative causes, such as limiting environmental regulations or penalties for violations, traced back to the group's corporate and foundation backers.
Only legislators can submit proposed ALEC bills to a task force, he said, and the group now posts those proposals online before task forces meet. The end product is also posted after the meeting, allowing anyone to trace changes. ALEC also discloses its donors.
Putting all of that on paper, he said, is how critics can spot model legislation in a statehouse or know that ALEC has gotten money from conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the National Rifle Association and corporate giants like Shell, Texaco, Philip Morris and Union Pacific Railroad.
The American Enterprise Institute, meanwhile, maintains a code of secrecy around its annual meeting "to maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse," Judy Mayka Stecker, an institute spokeswoman, said in an email.
Walker aides confirmed the governor's attendance but declined further comment. Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was one of two Democrats out of the 18 senators and representatives who attended the event and perhaps the only public official who publicly disclosed his trip beforehand. But an aide told The Associated Press that the senator preferred to respect AEI's policy and not discuss the meeting details.