Embattled Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker came under fire today after news broke about statements he made in a 20-minute phone call from a Buffalo-area alternative news reporter, Ian Murphy of the Daily Beast, posing as David Koch, a billionaire whose corporate PAC directly supported Walker and who has given millions to groups that have run ads to aid Walker's rise to the state's highest office. (Listen to the call here.)
As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, the Koch PAC not only spent $43,000 directly on Walker's race, but Koch personally donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association which spent $5 million in the state. Besides the Governor, the Koch brothers have other "vested interests" in the state.
They include Koch Pipeline Company, which operates a pipeline system that crosses Wisconsin. It also owns Flint Hill Resources, which distributes refined fuel through pipelines and terminals in Junction City, Waupun, Madison and Milwaukee. Koch Industries also owns the C. Reiss Coal Company, a power plant supply company located in Green Bay, Manitowoc, Ashland and Sheboygan.
The Koch company opened a lobby shop in Wisconsin two days after Walker was elected. Many protesters have suspected that the "budget repair bill" provisions allowing the no-bid sell-off of any state-owned heating, cooling, or power plant, plus new rules on pipeline transport may be of interest to Koch. The company has denied any interest in these assets.
Pink Slips as Poker Chips Raises Legal Concerns
At the start of the call, Walker eagerly reports on all he is doing: First, he tells the fake Koch brother about a plan to change Senate rules on pay to reel-in the out-of state Democratic senators who are holding out to protect collective bargaining. The new rule would force the Senators to pick up their paychecks in person. This rule was passed in a partisan vote in the Senate yesterday -- a move that went unnoticed by the mainstream press. The fake Koch asks Walker how they might get others in Senate to vote to stop collective bargaining. Walker responds that he's involved the Justice Department in investigating whether the union is paying the absent Democratic senators to remain out of state, or providing them with food, shelter, etc., saying it would be an ethics violation or potentially a felony. Wisconsin legislators are well aware of these rules and have already stated they are using their own money while they are out of state.
But the Governor also explains how he is going to lay off thousands of Wisconsin workers as a tactic to get the Democrats to cooperate: "So, we're trying about four or five different angles. Each day we crank up a little bit more pressure. The other thing is I've got layoff notices ready, we put out the at-risk notices, we'll announce Thursday, they'll go out early next week and we'll probably get five to six thousand state workers will get at-risk notices for layoffs. We might ratchet that up a little bit too."
The move has been called "despicable" and "ruthless" and "sickening." But most importantly, if Walker is choosing to lay off workers as a political tactic when he wasn't otherwise planning to do so, then it is not just morally repugnant, but legally questionable. State and federal contract and labor law has protections against this type of abusive behavior and inappropriate quid pro quo.
This morning the Capital Times quotes the state's former Attorney General: "There clearly are potential ethics violations, and there are potential election-law violations and there are a lot of what look to me like labor-law violations," said Peg Lautenschlager, a Democrat who served as Wisconsin's Attorney General after serving for many years as a U.S. Attorney. The head of the state teacher's association, Mary Bell, reminds us: "He literally planned to use five to six thousand hardworking Wisconsin taxpayers as political pawns in his political game. He actually thought through a strategy to lay people off -- deny them the ability to feed their families -- and use it as leverage for his political goals."
Kids and Hired Thugs
Walker also says he considered then rejected the idea of hiring troublemakers to disrupt the rallies, which have been packed with elementary school children and high schoolers. When fake Koch says "We'll back you any way we can. But what we were thinking about the crowd was, uh, was planting some troublemakers." Walker says: "we thought about that," but he rejected the idea in case it back-fired, but not in the way one might think. He didn't want to "scare the public into thinking maybe the governor as to settle to avoid all these problems."
Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said Thursday "very unsettling and troubling." "I would like to hear more of an explanation from Governor Walker as to what exactly was being considered, and to what degree it was discussed by his cabinet members. I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers," the chief said.
Wisconsin Ethics Rules
Wisconsin has the toughest ethics law in the nation. Public officials are prohibited from soliciting or receiving anything of value if it could reasonably be expected to influence or reward official actions. The rules against "pay-to-play politics" say a public official is prohibited from taking official action in exchange for political contributions, or anything else of value for the benefit of a candidate, political party, or any person making certain candidate-related communications. You can't even take a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.
Earlier in the call, Walker had asked the fake Koch for help "spreading the word," especially in the "swing" districts, in defense of his determination to break the unions, and help get calls in to shore up his Republican allies in the legislature. Walker benefited from a high-dollar "issue ad" campaign by groups funded by Koch group before the election. Americans for Prosperity, which Koch chairs, also promoted and funded a couple thousand counter-protestors last Saturday.
On the same day that the scandal broke here in Wisconsin, Americans for Prosperity went up with a $342,000 TV ad campaign in support of Walker –- an enormous sum in a state like Wisconsin. If such ads are effectively coordinated with the Governor's office, they may be subject to rules requiring greater disclosure of expenditures and contributors.
Toward the end of the call, the fake Koch offers to fly Walker out to California, after they "crush the bastards," and show him "a good time," to which Walker responds enthusiastically, "All right, that would be outstanding." But,Wisconsin rules bar state officials from taking action for something of value. After Walker agrees to the junket, the fake Koch adds, "And, you know, we have a little bit of a vested interest as well" to which Walker responds, "Well that's just it."
So while Walker did not apparently not recognize Koch's voice, he certainly recognized his name, eagerly recounting his efforts to crush collective bargaining in Wisconsin to an out-of-state billionaire backer and thanking him for all Koch had done for him. The entire conversation raises ethical concerns that warrant much closer examination, especially with Wisconsin's tough pay-to-play rules. A week ago the Center for Media and Democracy filed an open records request for the Governor's phone records, email records, and other communications. Perhaps these records will help us understand all the influences behind the Governor's recent radical actions.
Wisconsin is not Illinois; it has a reputation for being a squeaky clean state where lesser scandals than this have brought down political officials. Governor Walker likes to complain of "outside agitators." It's hard to imagine an outside agitator with more influence and money than the Koch-family.
Updated at 2:30 CST/02-24-11.