A small GOP lobby shop tied to the Tea Party and David Koch's Americans for Prosperity, and which was active in the state's recent recall elections, was awarded $500,000 in taxpayer dollars in what some are calling a backdoor, sweetheart deal cooked up by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) State Chair, outgoing Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder.
The United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation was the only applicant for a newly-created grant to promote hunting, fishing, and trapping in the state, despite the organization having no record in outdoors training. The grant was slipped into the budget bill by Suder and barely advertised, and other outdoors groups with more experience in the area were largely excluded. Suder has ties to United Sportsmen, and announced last week he would be leaving the Assembly for a higher-paying job in the Walker administration.
The organization's record, thus far, appears to be that of a lobbying organization for an array of Republican priorities, from mining to the "Castle Doctrine" -- neither of which has anything to do with hunting or fishing -- and working with Americans for Prosperity to organize events and support Republicans in the 2011 recall elections.
The Foundation wing of the group, which has received the grant, only incorporated in January.
Although United Sportsmen describes itself as a membership organization, there is little indication it has a wide membership list; its Facebook page, for example, only has 290 followers, many of whom are politicians or right-wing leaders.
The grant, if approved by a panel reviewing the application on Thursday, will go almost entirely towards paying the salaries of United Sportsmen's staff and consultants.
"This last minute, half million dollar raid on the public treasury ought to be rescinded immediately," says Jay Heck of Common Cause Wisconsin. "To award this huge chunk of scarce, taxpayer money to a new group with no track record or experience in hunting, trapping and fishing and with obvious partisan, special-interest ties appears, at the very least to be a quid pro quo conflict of interest."
Taxpayer Dollars Funding the Tea Party?
United Sportsmen was incorporated in June 2011, just weeks before the hotly-contested Senate recall elections when, apparently in coordination with Koch's Americans for Prosperity, it sent misleading absentee ballot applications with the incorrect date for the elections.
At the time, minimal information was available about the organization, but readers of the Brad Blog uncovered how United Sportsmen's website was purchased by John W. Connors, an Americans for Prosperity staffer and former Walker campaign volunteer.
This was not Connors' first foray into the dark money arts. Earlier in 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy uncovered how Connors had also purchased the domain name for a mysterious group called "Citizens for a Strong America," which subsequently spent hundreds of thousands on the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. (That election, between Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg, was being treated as a referendum on Governor Scott Walker's controversial anti-union legislation). The street address for the domain name registry was the same as that of AFP.
United Sportsmen of Wisconsin received $235,000 from Citizens for a Strong America in 2011, according to the latter group's tax filings. That same year, Citizens for a Strong America funneled a stunning $916,045 to a pro-life organization called Wisconsin Family Action, which also appeared to have been involved in Americans for Prosperity's absentee mailing scheme: its address was the same as the "Absentee Ballot Application Processing Center" listed as the destination for AFP's absentee ballot submissions.
Unlike Citizens for a Strong America, United Sportsmen continued its political activities after the recall elections. It also maintained its AFP ties. In October of 2012, for example, the group worked with AFP and the National Rifle Association to sponsor "Freedom Fest," a party at the Kalahari Resort featuring politicians like U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, right-wing talk show host Vicki McKenna, and Brian Fraley of the MacIver Institute, as well as the head of Governor Walker's Department of Natural Resources. Activities included a "Freedom Phone Bank" and presentations titled "Rules for Radicals" and "Grassroots Lobbying."
United Sportsmen presents itself as an organization focused on hunting and fishing, but its lobbying efforts suggest a broader agenda. The main legislative priority for the group this session in terms of lobbying hours was the promotion of a bill to ease the way for a controversial open-pit iron mine that environmentalists and tribal groups fear will contaminate groundwater. That bill was a top priority for Governor Walker and legislative Republicans (as well as Americans for Prosperity), who promoted it as a jobs measure.
"Conservation only happens when people have jobs," United Wisconsin said in a statement at the time.
Narrowly-Tailored Sweetheart Deal Involves Suder's Former Chief of Staff
The sportsmen's grant was slipped into the Wisconsin budget with minimal debate by then-Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, who has close ties to many of those involved with United Sportsmen.
For example, one of the educators listed in the United Sportsmen grant is Luke Hilgemann, Suder's former Chief of Staff and now Chief Operating Officer of the national Americans for Prosperity in Washington DC After leaving Suder's office in 2011, Hilgemann led the Wisconsin chapter of AFP; he was promoted to the national group earlier this month. (AFP-Wisconsin is now led by David Fladeboe, who was also a Suder staffer.) Other educators include Darren LaSorte, a longtime Washington DC lobbyist for the NRA. United Sportsmen board members and their families gave Suder $2,500 last year.
And, the grant requirements were narrowly drawn to make few organizations eligible besides United Sportsmen, and was opened for bidding with essentially no public notice. According to Jason Stein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
The motion said the grant can be given only to groups that are "not an affiliate of a national federation or organization." That meant conservation groups such as the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and state chapters of Pheasants Forever, National Wild Turkey Federation and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation were prevented from applying for the grant.
And due to the lack of public notice, several eligible groups weren't aware of the grant until after application deadline. Reached last week, Don Kirby, executive director of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, said he had no knowledge of the grant.
"Our organization would have been interested to pursue this," Kirby said. "I'm more than a little disappointed to find out now." The Wisconsin Waterfowl Association has a long history of running Learn To Hunt and other training events.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, praised the purpose of the grant but questioned the narrowly-drawn criteria. "We aren't criticizing the purpose of this at all," said Meyer. "We think its purpose is important. But clearly it looks like it was put together for one group."
In contrast with United Sportsmen, the Wisconsin Wildlife Foundation lobbied against the mining bill, expressing concern about mining's impact on lakes, wetlands, and groundwater.
Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), who was part of the budget committee, told the Journal-Sentinel he hadn't realized how uncompetitive the grant really was. "In hindsight, it seems like a sweetheart deal for one group that has ties to Scott Suder," Mason said. "That was not how it was described."
Led by Right-Wing Apparatchicks
United Sportsmen's Tea Party and right-wing ties are well established.
For example, United Sportsmen board member John Meegan is president of the Sauk County Tea Party, and worked with the political training group American Majority to train Tea Party activists and organize pro-Walker rallies at the height of anti-Walker protests. In addition to training Tea Party activists and grooming candidates, American Majority sponsors the Media Trackers website. Meegan is also on the board of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, which promotes for-profit virtual schools like those operated by ALEC member K12 Inc. Meegan is listed as one of the educators in the United Sportsmen grant application.
Also working with the group is Annette Olson, the Americans for Prosperity "Activist of the Year" for 2012,who makes the vast majority of posts on the United Sportsmen Facebook page and has testified on behalf of the group. Olson is also listed as one of the educators in the grant. She leads the Tea Party groups Women United for Liberty (which appears to have an association with Freedomworks) and the pro-gun Tea Party group Uninfringed Liberty. Uninfringed Liberty describes itself as having "a strong emphasis on the second amendment because it protects all liberties and freedom," and says it works to "participate in vetting and promoting conservative candidates that best exemplify the basic principles of liberty." The group boasts of its lifetime membership in the NRA and Gun Owners of America, and supports "open carry." Both Uninfringed Liberty and Women United for Liberty have also held activist trainings with American Majority.
At the state Republican Party convention in 2012, Olson was peeved that the convention hall didn't allow concealed carry, and sponsored a motion urging the party to only hold its events on properties that do.
Those extreme views on guns are reflected in United Sportsmen's lobbying efforts. It was one of just a handful of groups to lobby in favor of Wisconsin's "Castle Doctrine Act," which mimics the infamous ALEC "Stand Your Ground" law implicated in the Trayvon Martin case. No other group purporting to focus on hunting, fishing, and conservation is listed as lobbying on the bill.
Olson and two other United Sportsmen representatives stood behind Governor Walker as he signed the "Castle Doctrine Act."
Will Wisconsin Fund Tea Partier Salaries, in Perpetuity?
The grant will pay United Sportsmen $200,000 this year and $300,000 in 2014. According to the group's grant application, $370,000 will be spent on staff salaries and $20,000 on staff benefits, plus $56,000 on consultants, the Journal-Sentinel reports.
A five-member committee dominated by Republicans will review the grant on Thursday, and then disband. The committee will include Scott Gunderson, DNR executive assistant and a former Republican legislator; Sen. Neal Kedzie (R-Elkhorn), chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee; Rep. Al Ott (R-Forest Junction), chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee; and two both appointed to the committee by the DNR.
If the grant is approved, United Sportsmen will receive $450,000 in every two-year budget for perpetuity.
Many have noticed how odd it is for a Tea Party-connected group opposed to government spending to turn around and use their political connections to ask for a handout.
"How ironic that this phony front group, with such close ties to Americans for Prosperity -- which professes to be in favor of cutting government spending -- would burden Wisconsin taxpayers in this manner," says Common Cause Wisconsin's Heck. "They should have asked the Koch Brothers -- who finance AFP -- for the handout instead."
You can contact the commission reviewing this grant application here.
This article has been updated.