Following the bipartisan "John Doe" investigation into campaign finance violations by Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin Republicans are out for revenge. And the Kochs have their back.
This week, the Wisconsin state legislature will take up a trifecta of bills that will undermine the state's long traditions of clean and transparent government.
One bill will gut the state's campaign finance laws and retroactively decriminalize the secretive campaign finance schemes that Walker engaged in during the recall elections, opening the doors to new levels of dark money in state elections.
Another bill will cripple the the state's nonpartisan Government Accountability Board--considered a model for other states--and turn it into a toothless, partisan agency. The board of nonpartisan retired judges will be replaced with partisan appointees that are guaranteed to gridlock (like the broken Federal Elections Commission), and gives the legislature power to cut funding for an investigation that it doesn't like.
A third bill will prohibit Wisconsin's John Doe process, which was used to investigate Walker and is similar to a grand jury yet in front of a judge, from being used to investigate political corruption.
Taken together, the bills would eliminate most limits on money in elections, and render it nearly impossible to enforce the anti-corruption laws that remain.
"Mark on your calendars the week of Oct. 19, because the era of clean, open and transparent government in Wisconsin is over," declared Wisconsin State Representative Peter Barca. "I fear for the future of democracy in Wisconsin, and I am not overstating the problem in my judgment," he said.
Kochs Are Backing Big Money Bills
During public hearings on the bills last week, citizens lined up to register their opposition to the legislature's effort to push more secret money into politics. Few spoke up in favor of the legislation, which is little surprise given that poll after poll shows that both Republican and Democratic voters overwhelmingly support donor disclosure and limits on money in elections.
So who does support these measures? Lobbying data show the only organizations registering in support of the bills are big money players tied to the Koch brothers.
The only group lobbying in favor of the bill to deform the GAB is David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, which spent $10 million in Wisconsin during the recall elections. A newly-formed group called "Wisconsin Alliance for Reform" has begun running radio ads supporting the bill; its web domain was registered by Lorrie Pickens, a former leader of AFP, and its Executive Director is Luke Fuller, a former staffer for the bill's sponsor Sen. Leah Vukmir (who is also the number two at the Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, or "ALEC.")
The only groups lobbying in support of the bill exempting political corruption from John Doe probes is, again, Americans for Prosperity, as well as Wisconsin Family Action, a group that was implicated in the John Doe probe.
The only group lobbying in support of the bill to gut the state's campaign finance laws is Wisconsin Right to Life, whose Executive Director is Pickens, the former AFP leader who also registered the web domain for "Wisconsin Alliance for Reform." Pickens was implicated in the 1997 campaign finance coordination probe that resulted in the harshest penalty ever levied for election violations in the state, and which established the legal precedent for the Walker investigation.
Darkness Descends upon Wisconsin
The campaign finance bill would allow corporations and billionaires to donate unlimited sums to political parties. Those donations would be publicly disclosed, yet the bill also creates new means for special interests to spend millions supporting candidates without public scrutiny. This would usher in a new era of secrecy in Wisconsin elections.
Under the bill, almost any spending by outside groups like Americans for Prosperity can remain secret, even if the group is running ads expressly calling for the election or defeat of a candidate. As long as a group declares that express advocacy is not its "major purpose" it can keep its sources of funding hidden from the public. Groups engaging in express advocacy within 60 days of an election will need to report their spending, but can continue keeping their donors secret.
Plus, the bill would allow a candidate to raise money for an express advocacy group, creating a situation where the politician benefitting from the expenditures will know where the money comes from, but the public will not.
Additionally, the bill legalizes coordination between candidates and groups that run so-called "issue ads" that omit words like “vote for” or “vote against.” These ads are deemed to be entirely beyond the reach of Wisconsin law, including the law's disclosure requirements, even if a candidate raised money for the group running the ad and the candidate’s campaign told the group how to spend it.
This would codify the Wisconsin Supreme Court's deeply flawed ruling from earlier this year shutting down the campaign finance coordination probe into Governor Walker's 2012 recall campaign, decided by justices elected to the bench with millions in support from the same groups under investigation.
If the bill becomes law, a state politician could form their own shadow campaign committee, have it operate out of their campaign offices, and ask billionaires and corporations from around the country (or overseas) to contribute million-dollar checks, without any public disclosure.
Donors who max out on contributions directly to campaigns will have a new conduit for giving money, with the full knowledge of the candidate, but no disclosure to the public. Special interests seeking political favors — but not public scrutiny — can curry favor with candidates without questions from the media.
The bill would also undermine Wisconsin’s ban on corporations and foreign funds in elections. Because this bill would deem “issue advocacy” beyond the reach of Wisconsin campaign finance law, if it is enacted candidates could ask corporations—and foreign corporations—to spend on Wisconsin elections, as long as they bankroll groups whose ads stop short of saying “vote for” or “vote against.”
Koch Industries, one of the largest privately-held companies in the country--and which has helped fund Americans for Prosperity--could cut a check directly from the corporate treasury at a candidate's request, and the public would have no way of knowing.
Scott Walker Shows that Dark Money Scenarios Are Not Hypothetical
These scenarios are not hypothetical. Documents made public in the “John Doe” probe into Governor Walker show that secret fundraising will inevitably follow if issue ad coordination is legalized.
In those documents, prosecutors list email after email of Governor Walker secretly fundraising for Wisconsin Club for Growth (WiCFG), which raised and funneled some $20 million into the recall races via “issue ads” from donors who kept their identities secret. Walker’s staff advised the governor to "stress that donations to WiCFG are not disclosed" and to tell donors "that you can accept corporate contributions and it is not reported."
There is the $1 million deposit into the club's account from Stephen Cohen, the founder and manager of SAC Capitol Advisors, less than a month after the governor was scheduled to meet with an SAC representative.
There is the March 2012 email from Walker to his fundraiser stating that "Bruce and Suzie Kovner said they want to give more" and, 10 days later, a $50,000 check from Bruce Kovner arriving in the club's account. The check's memo line reads "501c4-Walker."
And there is the 2012 email from Walker's fundraiser to the governor regarding "meetings to make happen while in Sea Island...Paul Singer: Grab him." A few months later, $250,000 was deposited into the club's account from the infamous vulture capitalist.
Veteran journalist Michael Isikoff revealed that another secret donor was Jon Menard, and linked his $1.3 million donation to $1.5 million in tax credits from Walker's jobs agency and special treatment from Walker's Department of Natural Resources.
And, as the Wisconsin legislature debated a controversial mining bill last term, the public never knew that the CEO of the out-of-state mining company that sought the legislation had secretly donated at least $700,000 to the club.
There is no constitutional requirement that issue ad coordination be legalized. In fact, federal election law regulates coordination between candidates and groups that run issue ads near an election, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this law in 2003. Additionally, in a recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on Wisconsin law, prominent conservative jurist Frank Easterbrook wrote:
"No opinion issued by the Supreme Court, or by any court of appeals, establishes . . . that the First Amendment forbids regulation of coordination between campaign committees and issue-¬advocacy groups—let alone that the First Amendment forbids even an inquiry into that topic."
As if that were not bad enough, last-minute changes to the bill by Speaker Robin Vos would even provide for more secrecy around direct contributions to candidates, which must be disclosed: donors will no longer need to provide the name of their employer, creating new hurdles for identifying which industries are supporting which candidates.
Justifications for "Reform" Built on a Foundation of Lies
Average Wisconsinites aren't calling for a less effective elections agency, more secret money in state elections, or new protections for corrupt politicians. Yet Scott Walker and his allies in the legislature have drummed up a false narrative to try and justify this naked power grab.
For over a year, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and outfits like the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity's "Wisconsin Watchdog" have depicted the John Doe probe as a partisan witch hunt that was not grounded in state law. Yet these depictions--coming from media outlets with close ties to the groups under investigation--were entirely untrue.
The probe was, in fact, led by Republicans, and involved the enforcement of established Wisconsin law; indeed, a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice had previously been fined $20,000 for engaging in the same kind of conduct as Walker and his allies. Claims about aggressive pre-dawn raids were undermined by audio of the searches. Other purported justifications for the trio of bills--like the GAB allegedly accepting "Mickey Mouse" on recall petitions--are also false.
Yet with complete Republican control of the legislature and governor's mansion, none of this matters. The bills are expected to pass along party lines this week.