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Like the GOP contortionists who are trying to hang on to their dignity while supporting Donald Trump, Wisconsin conservatives have some tricky maneuvering to do. Do conservative values include soliciting contributions from wealthy donors in exchange for special favors (including helping a lead paint manufacturer poison poor kids in Milwaukee with impunity), ignoring the laws that say candidates can’t coordinate with outside groups, and destroying evidence? If not, how do state Republicans defend Walker’s fundraising spree and the exchange of favors dramatically detailed by The Guardian exposé of documents leaked from the 2012 John Doe investigation?
One GOP strategy is to try to distract the public. Conservatives are demanding to know who the leaker is, as if the “crime” of leaking the documents were more important than the crimes the documents reveal. Another strategy is to keep on pretending that there’s nothing to see here. State Republicans keep repeating their talking points: The John Doe investigation was a politically motivated fishing expedition, a gross violation of donors’ privacy, and, besides, state courts have already ruled that nothing illegal occurred.
That last point is absurd, since we now know the justices on the state Supreme Court who shut down the investigation and ordered documents destroyed got millions for their own campaigns from the very same Walker allies whose activities were being investigated. As Walker himself put it in an email to Karl Rove, “Club for Growth was key to retaining Justice Prosser.”
Neither Justice David Prosser nor his colleague Michael Gableman, both of whom received major campaign contributions from Wisconsin Club for Growth, recused himself from the case involving Walker’s coordination with Club for Growth.
Prosser argued, weakly, that if the case had come up within a year of Club for Growth’s spending on his behalf, he would have recused himself because of the obvious conflict, but since several years had passed, it was no longer an issue.
But as Brian Fraley of the MacIver Institute wrote in an email:
“If we lose Prosser, the Walker agenda is toast.”
The core question in the John Doe investigation was whether political campaigns were illegally coordinating with outside groups. If you look at the documents The Guardian posted online, it is crystal clear that Scott Walker solicited contributions that would have been illegal had they been given directly to his campaign. So instead Walker asked donors to give their money to Wisconsin Club for Growth.
Walker’s chief fundraiser, Kate Doner, put it this way in a leaked memo:
“Corporations. Go heavy after them to give.” “Take Koch’s money. Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.”
Walker did just that. And the checks came in — not to the Walker campaign, but to Wisconsin Club for Growth. One big donor scrawled on the memo line of his check to Club for Growth:
“Because Scott Walker asked.”
Last week on Wisconsin Public Radio, I debated the Doe story with right-wing blogger Owen Robinson. He argued passionately, as many Republicans have, that the Club for Growth is composed of citizens who have a right to privately lobby for the policies they support. But the Doe documents show that Walker used that group as a fig leaf to fundraise directly for his campaign.
And Republican legislative aide Mike Mikalsen, who I debated on the Mitch Henck show, also defended ordinary citizens’ right to private political speech in the form of anonymous campaign contributions. He even offered to give me a lesson in the U.S. Constitution.
But the John Doe story is not about people who believe in small government or oppose abortion having the right to be heard. This is about how politicians evade laws that were set up to protect against bribery and corruption. Conservatives and progressives alike should be against that.
Take the case of billionaire lead paint manufacturer Harold Simmons. Simmons gave $750,000 to Club for Growth after Walker signed legislation making it harder for Milwaukee kids to sue for damages from lead poisoning. After Simmons’ initial contribution of $500,000, the John Doe documents show Walker and his campaign staff discussed hitting up the billionaire for more money during the recall.
Simmons kept sending checks as Walker doubled down, pushing legislation to make lead poisoning immunity retroactive.
As Bernie Sanders put it, “There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. And in my view, it is undermining American democracy.”
And as Walker donor Donald Trump said, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
Ruth Conniff is Editor -in-Chief of The Progressive. A version of this column first appeared in Isthmus, Madison's weekly alternative newspaper.