A Republican-dominated committee voted Thursday to recommend a half-million-dollar grant for promoting hunting and fishing to a group with no record in outdoors training, but with plenty of lobbying experience and close ties to outgoing Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder. The group, United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, will spend most of the $500,000 in taxpayer dollars on salaries for Tea Party leaders who have long railed against government spending.
United Sportsmen was the only group to apply for the sportsmen grant, and the Sporting Heritage Committee reviewing the application voted 4 to 1 Thursday in favor of approving it. The chair of the Committee, Scott Gunderson (a former Republican legislator and number 3 at the Department of Natural Resources) advised that the agency had little choice but to approve the grant. The budget states that the grant recipient must be notified by September 3.
The group has no record on outdoors education. Their activities to date include lobbying for an array of Republican priorities, from mining to the "Castle Doctrine," and working with Americans for Prosperity to organize campaign-related events and activities.
The purpose of the grant is uncontroversial, but Assembly Majority Leader Suder narrowly crafted its requirements to make few organizations eligible besides United Sportsmen. And, the grant was opened for bidding with essentially no public notice, so groups that would have been eligible claim they never knew about it.
One of the "educators" listed in the grant is Luke Hilgemann, Suder's former Chief of Staff, who in recent years has headed the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group founded and funded by David Koch, which purports to oppose government spending. United Sportsmen board members gave Suder $2,500 in campaign contributions last year.
The only Committee member to vote against their application, citizen appointee Mark LaBarbera, wasn't satisfied that United Sportsmen were eligible for the grant. "As my grandfather used to say, 'this just doesn't smell right,'" he said.
"This is the sort of cronyism that undermines the public’s trust in their state government," said Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo) in a press release.
Group Appeared to Treat Grant as a Sure Thing
At Thursday's meeting, United Sportsmen appeared to treat the grant as a done deal.
The group's president, Andy Pantzlaff, didn't attend the meeting in-person, and instead called in, informing the five-person Sporting Heritage Committee he only had thirty minutes to spare as they assessed whether to give his group a half-million in taxpayer dollars.
He was unable to answer questions about United Sportsmen's business plans and operating budget because he said he was "on the road."
Pantzlaff did not rule out using the funds to pay lobbyists or former legislators, saying only that he would "hire those who are most qualified."
Wisconsin Taxpayers Fund Anti-Government Spending Tea Partiers
The vast majority of the $500,000, two-year grant will be spent on staff rather than educational activities, according to the group's application. $370,000 will be spent on salaries and $20,000 on staff benefits, plus $56,000 on consultants.
These taxpayer-funded salaries will be paid to individuals who have long railed against government spending.
In addition to Americans for Prosperity's Hilgemann, the taxpayer-funded grant will apparently pay the salary of United Sportsmen board member John Keegan, who is head of the Sauk County Tea Party. Keegan is listed as an "educator" on the grant. Another "educator" who will be funded by the grant is Annette Olson, the Americans for Prosperity "Activist of the Year" for 2012, who also leads the Tea Party groups Women United for Liberty and Uninfringed Liberty.
The 501(c)(3) "Foundation" wing of United Sportsmen, which will be receiving the grant, was founded earlier this year. United Sportsmen itself formed as a 501(c)(4) in 2011 but does not appear to have filed returns with the IRS; however, it is known that it received a $235,000 grant from the dark money group "Citizens for a Strong America," which spent big to influence Wisconsin's Supreme Court case and recall elections in 2011.
Both the web domain for Citizens for a Strong America and United Sportsmen were registered by an Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin staffer named John Connors.