Walker and the Russian Connection
Ex-governor got more from Russia-connected tycoon than first reported. Why?
Yesterday Urban Milwaukee published new data by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) on the state’s top 20 individual donors and on the list was the Russia-connected business man, Leonard Blavatnik, of New York City, who gave $100,000 to the state Republican Party in August 2018, at a time when the party was controlled by Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker had earlier received $1.75 million for his run for president from Blavatnik’s company Access Industries.
Why the donations? That involves a murky mystery that might make a good John LeCarre novel. Blavatnik, you see, is a Soviet-born and Russian-raised American citizen who co-owns businesses in Russia with two oligarchs there, Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg, who are close to Vladimir Putin, as the Dallas News has reported
For years Blavatnik had been a relatively small time — and bipartisan — political donor. In fact he gave $5,000 to Democrat Mary Burke’s run for governor against Walker in 2014, according to WDC records.
While oligarchs like Deripaska and Vekselberg could not legally make such donations, their friend Blavatnik could, because he is an American citizen. This has raised suspicions about Blavatnik’s sudden transformation into a mega-donor to Republicans.
Blavatnik gave a $250,000 donation to Walker’s Our American Revival fund (supporting his run for president) just days after Walker met with accused Russian spy Maria Butina, who has pleaded guilty to attempting to infiltrate Republican political circles and influence US relations with Russia before and after the 2016 presidential election. Butina had developed a friendship with officials with the National Rifle Association and used that connection to meet Republican candidates for the 2016 election. She met with officials in the campaign of Donald Trump and with Walker himself.
At an NRA convention in 2015 Walker met with and had his picture taken with Butina and her mentor Alexander Torshin, deputy head of the Russian Central Bank. “Butina also attended his presidential campaign launch in Wisconsin in July 2015,” as the Associated Press reported.
She sent a message to a Russian official about Walker’s campaign launch two days afterward, federal investigators noted in a court document. Though Walker as presidential candidate had criticized President Obama as soft on Russia, Butina was pleased by his comments.“We talked about Russia.I did not hear any aggression towards [Russia, Putin], or my compatriots,” Butina wrote. She also noted that Walker was then leading in the polls.
Walker’s campaign officials passed off the encounter with Butina as brief and uneventful. But Joanna Beilman-Dulin, research director for the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, noted the donation from Blavatnik to Walker’s committee came just days later: ”The timing of this quarter-million dollar contribution sure looks like Scott Walker’s non-meeting meant something to somebody.”
The group also pointed to Walker’s 25-year connection to the NRA, with whom Butina and other Russian officials had been working, noting the NRA had donated $3.5 million to Walker, beginning with a $250 donation to his 1993 State Assembly campaign.
Months after its $250,000 donation to Walker, Blavatnik’s company gave $1.5 million to a super PAC supporting Walker’s presidential run. “The super PAC returned $1.2 million of that sum after Walker dropped out.” the Journal Sentinel reported.
Blavatnik’s $100,00 donation was made last August, at a time when Walker looked like he could win reelection, which would have set him up for another run for president, something Walker clearly had his eye on.
Why does any of this matter at this point? Because the issue of Russia’s courting of Trump and other Republican officials is still being investigated and raises national security concerns. And because these kinds of murky mega-donations by people like Blavatnik have exploded since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited campaign donations by corporations and labor unions.
And changes in Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws pushed by Walker and Republican legislators make it easier for both parties to solicit such donations. As Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign notes: “The changes in Wisconsin’s campaign finance law give shady people like Blavatnik a lot more influence than ever before. He can now give unlimited amounts of money to the Republican Party, whereas before he could only give $10,000. And he can give unlimited amounts of money to some ‘issue advocacy’ group that can now coordinate with the candidate Blavatnik likes, and we’ll never know about it because that group doesn’t have to disclose this.”
The result is less transparency and less democracy, making Wisconsin a magnet for shady operators seeking favors from politicians of either party.
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