A bill moving through the Wisconsin Legislature would make it more difficult to track and accurately tabulate campaign donations from businesses and industries in state elections. Critics say it could also hinder investigations of illegal campaign fundraising like the one that resulted in the conviction of a Wisconsin railroad executive last year and others that could be part of the current "John Doe" investigation into Governor Scott Walker's staff.
As Governor Walker sets a pace to collect more campaign money, from more corners of the country, than any candidate in Wisconsin history, State Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) is sponsoring Senate Bill 292 to no longer require that individuals donating to political campaigns disclose their employer. Current law requires that all donations of $100 or more include the donor's occupation and employer so that organized streams of special interest money to candidates can be identified and made transparent.
Investigation into Campaign Abuses Would Not Have Been Possible
Grothman justified his bill by pointing to a number of mini boycotts launched on Facebook against companies such as M&I Bank, because their employees gave heavily to Walker in the 2010 election cycle.
But the proposal comes less than a year after employer information disclosed on campaign finance reports led to criminal charges against Wisconsin railroad executive William Gardner, notes Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks election activity and maintains a database of contributors to candidates for state office.
As CMD has previously reported, the Milwaukee District Attorney found that William Gardner, the CEO and president of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad (WSOR), instructed employees to make political campaign contributions to Scott Walker during the 2010 gubernatorial election and then reimbursed those donations from WSOR's corporate account. Through this money-laundering scheme WSOR spent a total of $53,800 on political contributions, vastly exceeding the $10,000 per person (or per corporation) limit required by Wisconsin law; Gardner used corporate funds to reimburse contributions from himself, his girlfriend, his daughter, and several employees.
Gardner's guilty plea was the first legal sanction coming out of a secret "John Doe" investigation into the activities of Walker's staff during the time he served as Milwaukee County Executive, but was running for governor. Subsequently, Walker staff have been indicted for embezzlement and for conducting campaign work out of Walker's county office using a secret email system. More charges are anticipated in this wide-ranging probe.
"This legislation would make such investigations difficult if not impossible," McCabe said.
A "Dagger to the Heart" of Wisconsin Disclosure Laws
Grothman, who is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and who became infamous last winter during Wisconsin's protests in support of collective bargaining when he referred to protestors as "slobs," says he decided to introduce his plan after activists called for boycotts of businesses that supported Walker. And he is no fan of Mike McCabe.
"It's entirely misleading and inappropriate to sit there and put that employer down there, so some goof like a Michael McCabe, sort of can publicize that I'm taking money from an employee of, say, West Bend Insurance Company, because of where I stand on insurance issues," Grothman said during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Transportation and Elections.
McCabe reminded the Senate committee during debate over Grothman's original bill that there is broad outcry for more campaign disclosure, not less. "This bill would blind voters to the financial interests of campaign donors," McCabe said. "This would be a dagger to the heart of Wisconsin's campaign finance disclosure laws."
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign created Wisconsin's first and only searchable online database of state campaign contributions more than 15 years ago. During that time, out of a total 673,804 records of individual contributions that have the occupation and employer of the donors, 84 percent are less than $250.
The Senate Committee on Transportation and Elections passed Grothman's bill January 23, 2012, after amending it to raise the employer disclosure threshold to $250, rather than eliminating the disclosure requirement outright.
Major Industry Donors to Walker Would be Shielded
Applied to the biggest fundraiser in the state, Grothman's bill would mask large amounts of special interest money destined for the coffers of Governor Walker. Walker has raised more than $12 million since taking office in January 2011. Due to a quirk in Wisconsin's campaign finance statute, Walker can collected unlimited sums of money from individuals pending the scheduling of a recall election, rather than being limited to $10,000. While most public attention has focused on the fact that Walker is pocketing $250,000 checks from out-of-state billionaires, Walker still raises a large amount of money in contributions under $250.
While donors with ties to manufacturing and distribution are currently Walker's top industry donors, accounting for more than $1.7 million of his funding, 40 percent of those donors gave between $100 and $249. In the banking and finance industry, which accounts for more than $1.3 million of Walker's campaign funds, 41 percent gave at least $100 but less than $250. These streams of special interest money would be masked under Grothman's bill.
The Walker campaign has a long track record of disregarding current law, by failing to disclose employers for over $500,000 worth of small contributions. The activist group One Wisconsin Now tallied the improperly reported contributions and is continuing to press for the campaign to be fined.
While the governor's former staff appears to be caught up in illegal campaign activity as part of the Milwaukee DA's John Doe investigation and while too much information is already missing from Walker's campaign reports, it seem to many observers that now is the wrong time for legislation to hide campaign contributors from public scrutiny.
*The photograph above came from Shutterstock images.