13 Lessons The Guardian Taught Us
Or how Scott Walker corrupted Wisconsin, as the leaked Doe documents reveal.
The more you look at the John Doe documents leaked to The Guardian the more stunning is the story it tells, not just about Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans, but about corporate leaders, the Wisconsin Supreme Court and even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This state has been transformed under Walker and it was a smelly and probably illegal campaign that helped accomplish this. Among the conclusions to be drawn from The Guardian’s review of 1,500 leaked documents:
1. Prosecutors had a strong case against Walker and company. For years, what little we knew about the secret probe left plenty of doubt on this. Now we know the prosecutors had abundant evidence of a pattern of behavior by Walker, who would meet with wealthy people and corporate leaders to get their support and then suggest they give to the #Wisconsin Club for Growth# because the non-profit “can accept Corporate and Personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure,” whereas a donation to Walker’s campaign would require disclosure and limit donations to $43,000. Walker was able to gain donations of as much as $1 million from individuals and the money was then used to support his campaign by R. J. Johnson, who ran both the Club for Growth and Walker’s campaign. As wealthy donor Fred Kasten wrote on his $10,000 check to the Club for Growth, he gave to the group “because Scott Walker asked.” And Johnson then used the $12 million raised to run “a soup to nuts campaign … Polling, focus groups and message development was a collaborative effort,” as he wrote in an email. Under the law at the time, that entire campaign would appear to be illegal.
2. This was anything but a partisan witch hunt. Given the evidence we’ve now seen, it’s hard to imagine how any prosecutors doing their job under the law as it existed in 2012 could decline to investigate this campaign collusion — regardless of which party was involved. That would explain why a group of both Democratic and Republican DAs and judges signed off on the case.
3. Walker has no answer to the charges. “It’s what we often see in media outlets where you get bits and pieces shaped to push their agenda,” Walker told WTMJ radio. They are making conclusions “without the full story,” he claimed. But Walker has had years to tell the full story, to set the record straight as to how he conducted his campaign, and has steadfastly refused.
4. State corporate leaders were very involved in this dirty deal. John Menard, Liz and Dick Uihlein, Ted Kellner, Jon Hammes, Kasten and others surely must have known they were giving money to a front group rather than directly to Walker’s campaign in order to skirt the law. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s pre-eminent lobbying group, would have known the law as it stood then was being flouted.
5. Most of the money came from out of state. More than $58 million was raised for the recall campaigns of Walker and Senate Republicans, much of it from donors outside the state. This included big national names like Donald Trump (who donated $15,000) and Sheldon Adelson ($200,000), hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Cohen ($1 million), Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone ($25,000) and hedge fund manager and conservative Manhattan Institute chairman Paul Singer ($25,00). Raising money nationally is increasingly common, yes, but in this case it was facilitated through a legally questionable scheme.
6. Some of the money involved direct corporate contributions, which raises legal questions. The Guardian document files show corporate checks were written by Larry Nichols, CEO of the Devon Energy, Harold Simmons and Contran Corporation, the Schneider National trucking company and others. As Matt Rothschild of the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has written, that presents legal issues: After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, he notes, “corporations have been allowed to give to outside groups but not in coordination with a candidate.”
7. Walker conducted some of this campaign fundraising on the public dime, the documents show. Yes, it’s likely many politicians sneak and raises money on public time, but again, not with this sort of legally questionable scheme.
8. Walker and Republican senators might not have survived a recall if not for this effort. They could not succeed without winning the vote of independents and as Johnson’s memo noted, a mass of micro-targeted mail-outs and TV advertising that was bought with the donations had the impact that they “moved independent swing voters to the GOP candidate.”
10. Now we know why conservatives were so desperate to kill the John Doe case. The evidence was so devastating the Wisconsin Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of demanding all files from the case destroyed, while Republican legislators passed a law ending all John Doe probes (but only of politicians) and scrapped the nationally acclaimed non-partisan Government Accountability Board. At all costs the truth about the recall campaign had to be silenced.
11. Non-profits may have engaged in illegal behavior. Groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the American Federation for Children surely had suspicions about the campaign coordination they were involved in. As a memo by Johnson noted: “Our efforts were run by Wisconsin Club for Growth … who coordinated spending through 12 different groups.” Beyond the suggestion of this illegal campaign coordination, these groups were also working with Club for Growth on a scheme to support a single political party, in violation of the tax code for 501(c)94)4 groups, as a legal complaint by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign now contends.
12. Donors were buying policy from Walker. Prior to Walker’s election, Menard had been repeatedly investigated, more than any state business, for environmental regulations under both Democratic and Republican governors. That’s come to an end under Walker, after he got that $1 million in dark money for his recall election. And Harold Simmons “the billionaire owner of NL Industries, one of America’s leading producers of lead used in paint until the ban, secretly donated $750,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth at a time when Walker and his fellow Republican senators were fighting their recall elections,” the Guardian notes. The company was later the beneficiary of a GOP-passed law signed by Walker that “attempted to grant effective immunity to lead manufacturers from any compensation claims for lead paint poisoning.” As Rothschild notes, there were three other laws passed by Walker and the Republicans, in 2013 and 2015, to benefit the lead paint industry.
13. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has become increasingly irrelevant to the Doe story. For years, Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice was the go-to guy for any stories about the John Doe investigation. He did an excellent job. But after frequent complaints from Republicans about this coverage, Bice seemed to back off from the issue. (As I’ve written, Bice seems to have been pushed by editors to go after Democrats more, though they have almost no power in this state.) Whoever leaked these documents clearly decided the state’s largest newspaper, with the most potential to embarrass Walker and Republicans in Wisconsin, could not be relied on to aggressively report on these damaging documents. That’s just another sign of how successfully Republican leaders have protected themselves from any scrutiny of their actions.
Defenders of the Republicans have suggested that Democrats, if they had the chance, would operate the same way. If true, that would be no defense. But frankly, speaking as someone who has been writing about politics since the early 1980s, I have a hard time imagining past leaders of either party engaging in this level of cronyism and corruption. Neither the Democrats under governors Tony Earl or Jim Doyle, nor the Republicans under Lee Dreyfus, Tommy Thompson or Scott McCallum ever engaged in such wholesale violation of campaign laws or conspired to end all legal investigations of their actions. These files lay bare a state where the democratic process seems broken, corruption rules, and to the victor belongs the spoils.