Wisconsin State Capitol, Archbob
An explosive exposé in The Guardian based on documents leaked from a secret “John Doe” investigation shows Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s behind-the-scenes strategy to raise money from billionaires and corporations seeking favors as he worked to head off defeat in a 2012 recall election.
The leaked documents—which had been ordered destroyed by Wisconsin’s corporate-friendly state supreme court—shine a light on democracy’s distortion by the donor class. New revelations include:
- A $15,000 check handed to Walker by Donald Trump in his 5th Avenue office.
- Even bigger cash gifts flowing to Walker from other billionaires including casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, hedge-fund mogul Paul “The Vulture” Singer, and Wisconsin’s own anti-union billionaire Diane Hendricks.
- A state government put up for sale to special interests including a lead-paint manufacturer seeking immunity from legal liability and a mining corporation seeking favors from the governor and state legislature.
- A State Supreme Court tapping the same network of big donors who funded Walker--and then sitting in judgement of the legality of those donors’ contributions.
Walker faced an historic recall election after he pushed through Act 10, his controversial union-busting law, triggering rallies of 150,000 citizens and a petition drive that gained nearly one million signatures calling for the vote on Walker’s removal.
Thanks to Walker and his allies, Wisconsin has become ground zero for “dark money” groups that are taking power in U.S. elections through undisclosed donations.
The Guardian reviewed 1,352 pages of documents from the John Doe investigation of the Walker’s campaign’s alleged collusion with outside groups. The investigation, led by Republican former federal counter-terrorism expert Francis Schmitz, was halted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which called for the “complete destruction” of all records from the investigation.
Fortunately, the records were not destroyed. As The Guardian observed,
“This latter-day equivalent of a book burning could have condemned the John Doe investigation into permanent oblivion, leaving voters none the wiser.”
The Guardian’s well-documented summary reveals Walker’s nation-wide support web of wealthy donors, giving him a war chest of $58.7 million, which helped him defeat Democratic opponent Tom Barrett in the June 5, 2012 recall election.
Key to Walker’s success was the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which, as a tax-exempt group, does not have to disclose its donors. Emails leaked in the investigation show how Walker got around campaign finance limits and disclosure laws by asking donors to give to Club for Growth instead of to his campaign.
The John Doe documents also shine a light on donations from corporations seeking favors. Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who made a fortune selling toxic lead-based paint as CEO of NL industries up until his product was banned in 1978, secretly shelled out $750 million for Walker and Republican legislators facing recall efforts, using the Club for Growth as a conduit. (Simmons gained national notoriety in 2004 for providing $3 million for the “Swift Boat for Veterans” smear effort against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry). One of Simmons’ central concerns in Wisconsin: limiting the rights of lead-paint poisoning victims to sue the paint corporations for damages. NL and the rest of the lead-paint industry sold lead-based products until 1978, despite knowing since 1904 that lead paint caused learning disabilities and physical damage to children.
At the same time Simmons was making his donations, state Republicans were pushing two laws signed by Walker to severely restrict the liability of the lead-paint makers. A federal court later overturned the retroactive immunity Simmons got for damages sought by the families of lead-poisoned children.
The enormous influence of the lead-paint donations, coupled with in lobbying expenditures, led Peter Earle, attorney for children afflicted with disabilities caused by lead-paint contamination, to question how such flagrant corporate domination can foster a sense of legitimacy for the government:
"What I see is a corrupt morass of government in Wisconsin that has been fueled by corporate money. How can people have faith in a system like that?"
The Guardian’s release of the John Doe documents comes just before the U.S. Supreme Court is to take up an appeal by prosecutors to revive the investigation.
While the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates in its disastrous Citizens United decision for the ever-increasing flow of “dark” undisclosed funding as well as money coming directly from corporate treasuries, the case will present Justice Anthony Kennedy, who actually wrote the majority opinion, with a chance to review (and hopefully reverse) the actual results of his decision.
Even as he wrote the Citizens United decision, Kennedy noted the importance of guarding against corruption of our political system through campaign contributions that are used as a quid pro quo for political favors from a candidate.
The revelations this week show precisely how the effective removal of spending limits, the lifting of disclosure requirements, and the collaboration of candidates and “third-party” funders leads to a rigged political system. Wisconsin has fostered a politics of “payoffs and paybacks” where special interests like the mining and lead-paint industries funnel unlimited, secret piles of cash to politicians like Walker in exchange for policy favors.
Donald Trump said it best:
“When you give to them, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
Roger Bybee is a labor studies instructor, longtime progressive activist, and writer who edited the weekly Racine Labor for fourteen years.