The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) came under attack this week as Republicans fast-tracked bills to dismantle Wisconsin's nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) and gut the state's campaign finance laws.
During a hearing on SB 294, Sen. Leah Vukmir, made a series of false claims to paint the GAB as inept and partisan. She claimed that the GAB had failed to investigate CMD for not abiding by lobby disclosure laws, when in fact CMD does no lobbying in Wisconsin. The charges were especially egregious as Vukmir is the second-highest-ranking legislative official in the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that has demonstrably lobbied in Wisconsin and in other states, but has never registered as a lobbyist in Wisconsin.
The GAB was created in 2007 as the nation's first nonpartisan elections and ethics watchdog. It is directed by a board of retired judges. Sen. Vukmir voted for the creation of the GAB, but the agency is now in the GOP's crosshairs because it helped investigate serious allegations of illegal coordination between Scott Walker's campaign and outside groups during the 2011-2012 recall elections.
Over and over again in Tuesday's marathon hearing, citizens objected to Vukmir's bill and demanded to know who was behind it.
Today, CMD can answer that question. The only group lobbying in favor of the bill to kill the GAB is David Koch's Americans for Prosperity.
CMD delivered the following letter to Sen. Vukmir on Thursday afternoon.
October 15, 2015
Dear Senator Vukmir,
On Tuesday you testified about what you consider to be the failures of the Government Accountability Board (GAB). We are writing to ask you to correct the record regarding our organization and other errors in your testimony.
You stated that in "September, 2012: An AFL-CIO report shows they paid the Center for Media and Democracy for lobbying, despite the CMD not being registered to lobby. The GAB did not investigate."
This suggestion of wrongdoing by our organization appears to originate from one of the groups in the John Doe campaign finance probe, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and its Director Eric O'Keefe, which made a similar assertion in federal court in 2014 through their lawyer David Rivkin.
We believe any suggestion that CMD engaged in any wrongdoing is false and libelous. CMD promptly and publicly objected to their assertion and other false claims in our press release: "Wisconsin Club for Growth Makes False Claims in Federal Court." It is reckless to repeat the Wisconsin Club for Growth's claims without acknowledging our response, which is easily accessible on our website.
As we stated: "O'Keefe/WCFG also falsely allege that CMD illegally spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying in Wisconsin in 2013, implying that this is 'materially identical' to the alleged criminal activity under investigation in the John Doe. Although CMD received a donation to support its research regarding lobbying by corporations and others, CMD does not lobby Wisconsin legislators about Wisconsin bills."
CMD did not register to lobby in Wisconsin because CMD does not lobby Wisconsin public officials. There was nothing for the GAB to investigate.
Similarly, your colleague Senator LeMahieu suggested that there also should have been an investigation of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters for purported "coordination." This nonsense was met with gasps in an audience full of League volunteers who register thousands of Wisconsinites to vote every year, both Republicans and Democrats, on a shoestring budget.
It is difficult to imagine how you and Senator LeMahieu can be acting in good conscience in likening the activities of small nonprofit organizations that do not spend a single dollar on electioneering with the $20 million secret money operation that influenced the 2011-2012 Wisconsin recalls.
Indeed, Kevin Kennedy shed new light on this John Doe probe at Tuesday's hearing when he noted:
"What the board had was specific evidence about communications involving a state public official and activities related to campaigns, both express advocacy and issue advocacy, where the candidate's campaign manager was buying the ads for the other groups, sharing the placement of those issues. There was the evidence that was presented that was pretty detailed about the type of activity and planning, which tended to line up exactly with the restriction that the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld back in 2006, which lined up with the Federal Court decision at that time. What the board said is if this is true, it merits investigation to find out whether the laws have been broken."
State and federal courts have found that coordination has occurred if there has been substantial discussion or negotiation over an ad's contents, timing, audience, or placement. See Federal Election Commission v. Christian Coalition, 52 F. Supp. 2d 45, (August 1999); Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation et al. v. State Elections Board (No. 99-2574); see also Election Board Op. 00-2.
If RJ Johnson and the express advocacy organizations spending the most during the 2011-2012 recall elections, such as the Republican Governors Association, engaged in express advocacy coordination, the conduct would be in clear violation of the law as it exists today and would be illegal even under the new bill proposed by Speaker Vos and Majority Leader Fitzgerald.
By suggesting the GAB failed their duties even though they were presented with "specific evidence" that Wisconsin law had been violated suggests that you would prefer that the Board make decisions based on partisanship, not the law.
Other inaccuracies in your testimony include:
Your claim—May 2011: "The GAB rules that the recall for Senator Dave Hansen will be held on July 19th, while the recall for Senator Robert Cowles will be held on August 9th, despite both Senators representing parts of Oconto and Brown counties."
False: These dates were based on the decision of a circuit court judge who refused to deviate from the statute in setting election dates. The GAB asked that all the recalls be on the same day and the court refused, facts of which you should be aware.
Your claim—December 2011: "The GAB rules that 'Mickey Mouse' is a valid signature on recall petitions if it is accompanied by a Wisconsin address."
False. The GAB never accepted Mickey Mouse on a recall petition. Wisconsin law does presume that recall petition signatures are valid—explicitly saying that it is the job of the candidate, not the board, to challenge recall signatures. However, the GAB did find and did remove four false signatures from recall petitions, including Mickey Mouse and Adolf Hitler. The GAB should not be punished for following the law that the legislature has written.
Your claim—December 2012: "GAB staff admits that they have been involved in John Doe II since August without informing the GAB Board."
False. GAB Board Chair Gerald Nichol responded to these false claims in January and stated, "all of the Board Members have been closely involved in overseeing all of the staff's investigative activities. And I can assure you that the staff has taken no action in these matters without the Board's full knowledge and prior approval."
Your claim—May 2014: "GAB staff admits that they had not conducted post-election reviews to determine if individuals with ongoing felony sentences may have voted in the 16 elections held from February 2010 through April 2014."
This charge leaves the false impression that felons were voting in those elections. You fail to note is that in each of these elections GAB provided clerks with lists of felons to make sure they were not registered and did not vote. As the GAB previously explained, the only thing that did not happen in a timely fashion was the audit to make sure that the clerks did their job.
Additionally, you state in your testimony that the GAB "failed to mail postcards" to inactive voters, but you fail to note that all of the post cards went out the door. As the GAB previously explained, some were late because clerks had not finished their work recording who had voted in the previous election.
We were amazed, after hearing you condemn the GAB board for being out of touch in your testimony, to read in the paper today that you are now condemning the board for being too informed. Your letter to the Department of Justice alleges that the GAB may have violated the open meetings law because GAB board chairman Judge Gerald Nichol, a former Republican prosecutor, explained that one way he keeps in touch with the board is by asking staff to email board members updates on important matters. This type of information dissemination in no way violates the open meetings law. Indeed, a GAB spokesperson stated that the procedure was created and designed to specifically avoid a walking quorum.
This cascade of misinformation suggests a thinly veiled effort to destroy the independent GAB due to its involvement in the John Doe investigation. It is notable that while citizen after citizen protested the proposed dismantling of the GAB, the only organization lobbying in favor of the bill is the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity.
Furthermore, we find it troubling that you did not call on the GAB, ever, to investigate the extensive unregistered lobbying by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has lobbied you and your colleagues to introduce and pass its bills.
As an ALEC board member, you know that Common Cause and others have filed IRS complaints alleging that ALEC has violated federal tax law in numerous ways, including acting as a business lobby while telling the IRS it spent nothing on lobbying, claims ALEC has denied. CMD and Common Cause have submitted as evidence a plethora of emails showing ALEC directly lobbying lawmakers, based on public records requests.
In one of our stories, "Echoing ALEC's Playbook, the Real Story of Walker's Tort "Reform," we detail ALEC's lobbying in the state of Wisconsin for the first bill Governor Scott Walker signed into law, the tort reform bill. ALEC emailed you and other members of the state legislature urging that the bill be passed quickly, and then thanking you and other ALEC members for passing the bill, which included multiple bills in ALEC's lobbying agenda. Here is one of many examples of ALEC's secretive lobbying.
ALEC has never registered as a lobbyist in Wisconsin.
Accordingly, we ask that you formally correct the committee record on the erroneous claims you have made, and include this letter as part of the committee record.
Lisa Graves, Executive Director
Brendan Fischer, General Counsel