Apparently the corporate warlords who fund the American Legislative Exchange Council are a little weak in the knees.

How else to explain their freak-out last week at their annual meeting at Chicago’s posh Palmer House Hilton after U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., dared to ask a few ALEC members their views on “stand your ground” laws?

On Aug. 6, Durbin sent a letter to about 300 current or former corporate members of ALEC to ask a couple of simple questions. The assistant minority leader wanted to know whether the organization or corporation was still a supporter of ALEC and whether they backed “stand your ground” laws (“For Minnesota think tank, ALEC haters’ witch hunt hits home,” Aug. 14).

In September, Durbin plans to convene a subcommittee hearing to study such laws in light of the Florida verdict acquitting George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Inasmuch as ALEC’s support was critical to Florida’s 2005 decision to pass the nation’s first stand-your-ground law, it seems reasonable to ask ALEC’s members and funders whether the Trayvon Martin case changed their minds.

The bad publicity ALEC received after an unarmed Martin was shot dead by Zimmerman led many corporations to withdraw their support for ALEC. The group creates cookie-cutter legislation with the primary goal of enriching the corporate bottom line. Dozens of companies like Express Scripts and Wells Fargo and Wendy’s and Coca-Cola bailed on ALEC.

So isn’t it reasonable for Durbin to find out which companies are still standing their ground on “stand your ground”?

No, responded ALEC. It’s intimidation.

That’s right, a U.S. senator daring to ask an opinion of a corporation or advocacy organization is “political intimidation,” according to the statement ALEC put out last week. The group followed it with a breathlessly written letter on Monday defending the organization’s right to assemble (which nobody was questioning).

The letter was signed by about 300 state lawmakers from 39 states.

This is what makes this war of words so interesting. The real purpose of ALEC is to allow corporations and wealthy benefactors to avoid state ethics disclosure laws. As the nonprofit group Common Cause has meticulously noted in its complaint to the Internal Revenue Service, ALEC pretends it’s a nonprofit charity when really it’s a highly sophisticated lobbying organization that allows corporations to launder their donations without showing taxpayers which lawmakers they are buying and selling.

That’s how the corporations want it, and that has nothing to do with freedom of speech or other constitutional protections. It’s deceit, plain and simple, and it has a negative effect on the legislative process.

“Corporate America has the right to express its opinion,” Durbin said in an interview. “The difference here is this is a secret operation and they’ve become a major political force.”

It’s perfectly responsible for Durbin to send fact-finding letters before holding a hearing on whether it’s a good idea to have laws that allow unarmed people to be gunned down when armed people get frightened.

In fact, about 20 recipients of his letter have already written back to let them know they do not support “stand your ground” laws.

“We’ve not received any who said they supported ‘stand your ground’ laws,” Durbin said.

Maybe that’s what ALEC is afraid of.