Is Walker Guilty — Or the Law Meaningless?
After the latest Doe document dump, no other conclusion is possible.
The latest release of documents in the stalled John Doe probe of Scott Walker’s campaign committee leaves only two possible conclusions. Either Walker’s campaign committee violated the laws against coordination between candidates and independent advocacy groups. Or the law prohibiting such collusion is meaningless and should be overturned.
Walker has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong without going into much detail. Meanwhile, lawyers for the conservative advocacy groups who are also under investigation are moving ever closer to saying the laws against such collusion — which the Doe prosecutors were seeking to enforce — are actually meaningless.
For years there seemed to be a bright line separating candidate electoral committees and those shadowy independent advocacy groups. Under the law, the names of donors to electoral candidates must be disclosed and there are limits on how much they can contribute. But donors to issue advocacy groups — groups that don’t expressly urge you to vote a certain way — can be anonymous and there are no limits on how much they can donate.
In the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United decision opening the door to unlimited donations to issue advocacy groups, the court quoted the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision to explain why these unlimited donations wouldn’t necessarily help candidates. First, because the “absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate… undermines the value of the expenditure to the candidate.” Since the ads aren’t coordinated with the candidate’s campaign, they might not help and might even run counter to the candidate’s message.
Perhaps more important, the court also quoted Buckley v. Valeo to the effect that if there is no coordination with the candidate, then he or she can’t know who gave the donation, which “alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidate.” In short, the lack of coordination assures “a substantially diminished potential for abuse,” making it difficult for wealthy individuals and companies to give untold millions in anonymous donations to buy certain policies from elected officials.
So how did the Walker campaign interact with “independent” groups like the Wisconsin Club for Growth? Was there an “absence of prearrangement or coordination” as the Supreme Court has suggested? On the contrary. R.J. Johnson served as both an advisor to the Walker campaign and to the Club for Growth. And the newly released documents reviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel show that Kate Doner, a Walker campaign consultant, wrote an email to Johnson saying Walker wanted the Club for Growth to exclusively coordinate campaign themes. “As the Governor discussed … he wants all the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging,” she wrote. In short, all those “independent” groups would have their ads overseen by Johnson, who was also Walker’s campaign advisor.
Was Walker unaware of who was donating to these independent advocacy groups, meaning no quid pro quo was possible, as the Supreme Court has suggested? On the contrary. Walker took charge of donations to the Club for Growth. “The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth,” said an April 28, 2011, email from Doner to Johnson. “Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure.”
The documents also show a pattern of the Club for Growth receiving generous checks from donors soon after Walker was advised to solicit funds from them. Those included, the JS story noted, $250,00 from hedge fund CEO Paul Singer, $100,00 from manufacturer Maclean-Fogg Co., $50,000 from Atlanticus Holdings CEO David Hanna‘s trust, $50,000 from hedge fund chairman Bruce Kovner, $50,000 from natural gas and oil producer Devon Energy, $15,000 from Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone and $15,000 from Trump. And Stephen Cohen, the founder of SAC Capitol Advisors, gave the Wisconsin Club for Growth $1 million less than a month after Walker was scheduled to meet with someone from the company.
Walker has said he helped solicit contributions to the Club for Growth primarily to help GOP senators who faced recalls. But the court filings suggest “he was involved in raising more than $1 million for Club for Growth in the months before his own recall election,” the Journal Sentinel concluded. Club for Growth, in turn, gave $2.5 million to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group, which then ran ads promoting Walker and blasting Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who ran against Walker in the 2012 recall election. These ads came after Walker was scheduled to participate in a conference call arranged by James Buchen, then a leader of the WMC.
In their lawsuit challenging the John Doe investigation, the Club for Growth and its attorney David Rivkin argued there were Democratic or liberal politicians in Wisconsin who might have violated laws against campaign coordination, which I’ve written about in detail and discounted.
Rivkin now seems to have dropped that argument and instead contends that what Walker did was comparable to President Barack Obama actions, in helping raise funds for Democratic super PACs like Priorities USA. Perhaps, that amounts to the old defense that “they all do it,” which would mean no one could be arrested for tax evasion or speeding.
The striking thing about Rivkin’s response is that he doesn’t deny that Walker and the supposedly independent Club for Growth coordinated their fundraising and campaign ads. He’s instead saying everyone does it and therefore what Walker did is “certainly not a crime.”
Federal judge Rudolph Randa has essentially accepted that argument and we now await a decision by the federal Court of Appeals. Rivkin and his boss Erik O’Keefe, head of Wisconsin Club for Growth, clearly hope to eventually convince the U.S. Supreme Court as well. They may succeed, though Urban Milwaukee contributor Bruce Thompson has noted reasons why the Supreme Court may uphold the laws against candidates coordinating with independent advocacy groups.
But regardless of how the law might eventually change, it clearly prohibited such coordination, and we’ve now seen abundant evidence that Walker was engaged in such activities — certainly enough evidence to justify a John Doe probe. Walker has adopted the mantra of conservative talk radio that this is a “witch hunt” against him. If so, that would make him a witch, because there’s clear evidence he was doing precisely what prosecutors were hunting to find.
- The new Doe documents were apparently released by mistake and available for only a few hours on August 22, but the Journal Sentinel jumped on the release and grabbed the information. Their team of reporters has done excellent work analyzing the documents.
- Is Walker afraid of Mike Gousha? For my money, Gousha is by far the best moderator of candidate debates. Often the media panel asking questions in other debates is woefully weak. Gousha, by contrast, asks tough questions and quick, punchy follow-up challenges. Walker has agreed to do two debates and turned down a third that Democratic challenger Mary Burke accepted, jointly sponsored by a long list of media groups. Walker also turned down the debate that Gousha wanted to do for Channel 12 and Marquette University Law School.