Thursday, December 22, 2005

A Sign Of The Times

It will be harder for local communities to remove ugly, deteriorating billboards thanks to the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, who alone has received $17,450 from the outdoor advertising industry since 2002, including $3,000 during the first six months of this year.

The measure, Assembly Bill 155, sponsored mostly by Republicans and opposed by local government and environmental groups, was introduced in March and passed 70-27 in the Assembly and on a voice vote in the Senate this fall.

The bill the governor signed into law December 21 was similar to one he vetoed in the 2003-04 legislative session. It was highlighted by WDC along with other proposals and laws that take away local control in an August 2005 report, Gagging Democracy.

In addition to billboard owners, the proposal was backed by business, manufacturing, realtor, tourism, construction, automobile dealer and agricultural equipment interests. These special interests gave $6.9 million to current legislators from 1993 through June 2005, including $5.62 million, or 81 percent, to Republican legislators.

Those special interests gave Doyle $553,312, or 40 percent, of the $1.39 million in large individual and political action committee contributions he accepted during the first six months of 2005.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

There's No Eye In Team

Reasons abound why Wisconsin has gone blind to political corruption. Among them is the pathology evident in the major political parties. Belonging to a political party used to be like joining a club. Now it's more like getting caught up in a cult.

The frightening characteristics of religious cults are on prominent display in the two major parties. Even in a state like Wisconsin with its long history of independent politics and maverick politicians, party leaders now make constant references to what their "team" thinks. They enforce an unwritten rule forbidding lawmakers and their staffs from socializing or otherwise fraternizing with members of the opposing party. They feed members "talking points" that at first seem innocuous enough but after awhile resemble indoctrination in a terrifying group-think that rationalizes corrupt and even criminal behavior. Rank and file members who do not walk lockstep are first stripped of choice committee assignments or otherwise punished. If they don't fall in line, more pliable replacements are recruited.

The leaders of the major political parties who populate Wisconsin's state Legislature and our nation's Congress are not remotely representative of the people. These bosses are obsessed with who's right and who's left. If they’d spend half as much time thinking about what's right and wrong, we wouldn't be in the midst of political corruption scandals of historic proportions. And the majority of citizens might not feel politically homeless, as they do now.

The people of Wisconsin and America are not as hopelessly divided as the political pundits like to claim. We all have much in common. But the party bosses thrive on playing up what distinguishes them from their political enemies, and this cult mentality leads them to ceaselessly drive wedges between groups of citizens.

There's much that needs doing if we are to restore some sense of honor to government. But while we endeavor to throw the bums out, we also need to think about creating a political home for common folks. We need a common party. One where common sense matters more than ideological purity. And one where talk of the common good is not so uncommon.

Maybe one of the existing parties will finally take notice of the public's wholesale retreat from public life, sense a growth opportunity, and make an offer the commoners can't refuse. Maybe.

Just as likely, we're approaching one of those historic turning points that calls for the creation of something brand new and tests our capacity for democratic renewal.

Either way, the near future promises to be exhilarating . . . or petrifying, depending on how you take to social upheaval. Because the status quo is not sustainable. Something's got to give.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Political Ghosts Past And Present

Irony sent Bill Proxmire to meet his maker and Chuck Chvala to jail on the same day. Two of Wisconsin's most notable political figures now begin to fade into memory. But Prox's name will forever be attached to the state's proud past and his memory will always evoke images of independence and integrity. He will be fondly remembered for his considerable wit, his legendary frugality, his tireless handshaking and, of course, those Golden Fleece Awards. His relatively modest list of legislative achievements will be forgiven. Bill Proxmire was the embodiment of Wisconsin's tradition of clean and open government.

Chvala's political epitaph reads simply "convicted felon." He is the ghost of our political present, a tragic symbol of the culture of corruption that has been allowed to take root at the State Capitol. His many legislative accomplishments will be forgotten, overwhelmed by memory of his arrogant disregard for ethical boundaries. He will forever be associated with one of the darkest periods in Wisconsin history. He broke the law. He got caught. He was brought to justice. He is disgraced. His legacy is one of shame. Shame that he brought on himself and that he brought on the whole state.

Now what will we take from our encounters with these ghosts of Wisconsin's past and present? Will we choose to make things right?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Atta Boy

Republican candidate for governor Mark Green finally submitted a revised campaign finance report in order to properly identify more than $387,000 in special interest campaign contributions listed in his initial January 2005 campaign finance report.

WDC called on the campaign November 2 to do the right thing by voters and tell us who these big givers are.

Shortly after we blew the whistle, the State Elections Board said it had mistakenly told the campaign it did not have to identify the occupations and employers of these special interests. The board said it was now requiring the Green camp to submit the additional information.

WDC doesn't really care who screwed this one up - Green for not divulging information to voters he already had from federal campaign reports he filed from 2002 through 2004, or Elections Board members, who chronically drop the ball and fail the public when it comes to enforcing Wisconsin's campaign finance laws.

We're just glad the information is finally there for voters to view.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Connecticut-Kenosha Connection

When the Democracy Campaign reviewed Governor Jim Doyle's latest campaign finance report, we couldn't help but notice the amount of money he was receiving from Connecticut. Over three-quarters of the Connecticut money came from the Mohegan Indian tribe. This was not the first time Mohegan money showed up on a Doyle campaign report.

The question was why.

Now we know. The Mohegan tribe is partnering with Wisconsin's Menominee Indian tribe and Kenosha businessman Dennis Troha and his Kenesah Gaming Development LLC to develop and eventually manage a casino in Kenosha.

The idea of a tribal casino in Kenosha has been dogged by controversy and is hardly a done deal. But campaign finance records show the project's backers are busy lubricating the political machinery. Aside from the Mohegan donations, Troha was the biggest single donor to Doyle's 2002 campaign for governor. And his family remained at the top of Doyle's donor list for 2003 and 2004.

The Democracy Campaign's report on Illinois donors to the three major-party candidates in the 2006 race for governor shows that Nathan Cambio and his wife, Tina, are Doyle's top Illinois contributors. Cambio is employed by ATC Leasing, one of Troha's family businesses.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

He Owes His Soul To The Company Store

While reviewing campaign finance reports filed by state candidates, the Democracy Campaign found that Republican candidate for governor Scott Walker often failed to follow state law by not disclosing the occupations and employers of contributors who made 114 donations to his campaign totaling $75,850.

One of the improperly reported contributions came from John Savage, a state Elections Board member who is supposed to enforce compliance with state campaign finance laws. Savage gave Walker's campaign for governor $500 and the Walker campaign reported Savage's occupation as "debtor."

Debtor indeed. Savage owes his Elections Board post to Republican Party bosses. He is the state GOP's appointee to the board.

Aside from his role as political crony, Savage is a Milwaukee attorney, tax scofflaw and onetime inner-city slumlord.

Another big donor whose occupation the Walker campaign drew a blank on is former Secretary of Administration and now utility executive James Klauser, who also gave Walker $500.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Populist Face Of Plutocracy

As if Wisconsin did not already have enough phony front groups with motherhood-and-apple-pie sounding names flying under the radar and carpet bombing our airwaves and mailboxes with trashy ads, now a shadowy Milwaukee-area group that has specialized in removing local officials from office through recall elections is aiming to expand its sphere of influence statewide.

Citizens for Responsible Government is attempting a recall campaign against liberal Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and is beginning to set its sights on recalling Governor Jim Doyle. Democrats are not the far right-wing group's only targets, however. CRG takes particular pleasure in tormenting Republicans who are not sufficiently loyal soldiers in the neocon army. A feature of the group's web site is its "RINO Alert" devoted to outing any Republican In Name Only.

CRG has been linked to Tosans for Responsible Government, which was formed in 1997 and later helped defeat a moderate Republican state senator, Wauwatosa's Peggy Rosenzweig. She was replaced by Tom Reynolds, whose loopy ideas include a proposed private Autobahn on which motorists could drive as fast as they want for a fee. Even right-wing radio talk show host Charlies Sykes calls Reynolds a "nut job."

Along with its recall campaigns in Milwaukee County, CRG took credit for defeating former Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer and replacing her with the far more right-wing Glenn Grothman, nicknamed "Spooky" by legislative colleagues.

The group has been described in the media as a "populist movement." More closely inspect the tangled web that defines the organization's shape, and its grassroots look like AstroTurf.

Early in 2002, Tosans for Responsible Government created the Wisconsin Conservative Leadership Coalition to spread its ideals to the rest of the state. It publishes the Wisconsin Conservative Digest. That publication's editor is JJ Blonien, a friend of CRG and its satellites. One such satellite group with which Blonien is associated is United Wisconsin, which is pushing the so-called Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Wisconsin.

United Wisconsin is affiliated with the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which itself was created with funding from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. The Koch family's charitable empire was built from the oil and gas fortunes of Fred Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society.

Americans for Prosperity's state director in Wisconsin is Mark Block, a top fundraiser for President George W. Bush and a notorious figure in Wisconsin politics in his own right. He masterminded a late-1990s scheme to illegally funnel money into the reelection campaign of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox. As Wilcox's campaign manager, Block illegally coordinated activities with a pro-school voucher group known as the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation. The case produced the largest fine ever handed down by the state Elections Board.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Survey Says...

An astonishing – and largely unreported – finding of the most recent statewide poll conducted by the St. Norbert College Survey Center for Wisconsin Public Radio is that political corruption is one of the most common answers people gave when asked to identify the most important problem facing the state of Wisconsin.

As many people cited corrupt politicians and the lack of political representation as the state's number one problem as mentioned gas prices. Amazingly, the sorry state of democracy in Wisconsin ranked ahead of health care, crime, poverty and the environment as the top concern of state residents. Only taxes, jobs and education outpolled political corruption.

St. Norbert's poll comes on the heels of a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute survey showing that only 6% of state residents believe elected officials are representing them.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Rent-A-Politician Industry

The rent-to-own industry has been trying for years to win an exemption from state consumer protection laws and hasn't been bashful about lubricating the political machinery with big campaign donations.

The industry has not hit paydirt yet, but has enlisted some important new allies and appears to have succeeded in resuscitating a consumer protection exemption bill that was all but dead.

When the state Senate took up the industry's exemption bill last week, it was defeated 18-15. Not one, not two but three motions to reconsider the vote were then offered. On the third attempt, the bill was revived by a one-vote margin, 17-16.

That's where one of the rent-to-own industry's new allies comes in. Sources close to the legislative negotiations tell the Democracy Campaign that an Ashley Furniture executive called Senate leaders to urge them to bring the bill back for another vote. Ashley reportedly plans to place its merchandise in 300 new rental centers if the bill passes.

A top executive with the Eau Claire-area furniture maker made $1,000 contributions right after the 2004 election to the bill's lead sponsor, Eau Claire Republican Ron Brown, and another Eau Claire-area senator, Republican David Zien, who also signed on as a sponsor of the exemption legislation.

Ashley also has taken quite an interest in another of the exemption bill's newfound supporters, Governor Jim Doyle.

Doyle's apparent willingness to sign the bill if it passes the Legislature is curious because during his long stint as state attorney general he often locked horns with the rent-to-own industry. He once sued the Texas-based Rent-A-Center for failing to disclose credit provisions and engaging in deceptive advertising. The lawsuit resulted in an $8 million settlement that was used to pay restitution to customers scammed by the company and its subsidiary Colortyme Inc.

The Democracy Campaign's database of contributors to state campaigns shows that Rent-A-Center has made a couple of large donations to Doyle this year and has been feeding campaign money regularly to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee.

Another firm, Eau Claire-based Lebakken Rent-to-Own, also has given Doyle $3,000 since March 2004.

Neither Rent-A-Center nor Lebakken Rent-to-Own ever gave Doyle any money when he was attorney general. Ashley Furniture also never donated to Doyle until he ran for governor.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Canary In A Coal Mine

In his column about the recent People's Legislature rally for reform at the Capitol, Bill Lueders, news editor of the Madison weekly Isthmus, recounts an incident that alerts the unsuspecting to the toxic environment in the people's house.

Lueders writes: "At one point, attendees . . . swarmed the Capitol to urge lawmakers to support their reforms. I went to catch the action outside the office of Assembly Speaker John Gard, arguably the Legislature's most powerful player.

"A receptionist directed me down a hallway to his room, but a moment later kept a protester with a 'Hello, my name is Nobody' tag from entering this same corridor. I asked about the double standard and was told, 'It depends on who it is.'

"The protester asked the receptionist to convey his displeasure with Gard's performance. She disappeared down the hallway and returned. Then a man emerged from within the chamber and shut the hallway door."

Hypocrisy Unlimited

To justify their stonewalling of campaign finance reform legislation that would reestablish public financing of state campaigns in Wisconsin, the mantra of the bosses at the Capitol is that it is wrong to spend taxpayer money on election campaigns when there are so many other pressing needs and so little money to meet them.

Forget for a moment that the state is invariably out of money when the powerless need help but there always seems to be plenty of cash on hand when a big campaign donor is looking for a perk or lawmakers want a pay hike. Hypocrisy at the Capitol runs much deeper than that.

As one of the Democracy Campaign's founding members and first executive director so aptly describes, legislators never raised a stink about using taxpayer money on election campaigns when they were paying state employees to run their campaigns on the taxpayer's dime in the corrupt legislative caucus offices.

One budget after another crafted by the very same legislators who ridicule public financing of elections as "welfare for politicians" contained $4 million a year for the state offices that were used as election headquarters for current office holders and were eventually abolished when they became the focal point of criminal investigations that yielded nearly four dozen felony charges against legislative leaders who oversaw their operation.

Ironically, $4 million is the annual cost of the public financing provisions of the leading campaign finance reform bill before the Legislature. When that same sum was spent year after year on illegal electioneering by state employees on state time, the bosses who run the Capitol vigorously defended it. But when it is proposed that the money be given to any qualified candidate for state office and not just those already in power, suddenly it is fundamentally wrong.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Accidental Reformer

Of course back-to-back felony convictions of former lawmakers and protesters rallying against corruption on the steps of the Capitol have something to do with the sudden momentum behind reform legislation. But if a single individual can be credited for getting things moving on reform after years of stonewalling by legislative leaders, it has to be James H. Miller.

Miller is not a prosecutor or a maverick legislator or a good-government activist. He is the head of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a self-styled "free market think tank." Miller's group is based in the decidedly upscale Milwaukee suburb of Thiensville and is funded by the right-wing Bradley Foundation.

Miller recently conducted a poll to take the public's temperature on a variety of topics. He clearly was surprised by what people told him when his questions turned to state government ethics and the public's impression of state elected officials. Miller found that only 6% of state residents believe elected officials are representing them.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of this poll finding. Before the poll was released, nearly all state lawmakers were resting easy, convinced that they are not implicated in the corruption scandals at the Capitol. Miller's poll made it painfully clear that while they may not have been implicated – yet – by law enforcement officials, every last one of them has been tied to the scandals by the public.

Nothing kindles interest in cleaning up your act like the knowledge that the people are on to you. We have Jim Miller of all people to thank for that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Another Day, Another Convicted Felon

Former state Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was found guilty of two felonies today and is headed to jail. Under the plea agreement presented to Dane County Judge David Flanagan this morning, Chvala pleaded guilty to misconduct in office and arranging illegal campaign contributions.

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors and Chvala's defense team agreed to recommend a six-month jail sentence, two years probation and a fine of up to $5,500. Judge Flanagan is not bound by that recommendation when he sentences Chvala in early December, and could sentence him to as much as five years in prison for the two felonies. In sentencing Chvala, the judge needs to think of the message he will be sending to the Capitol and the people of Wisconsin. The harsher the punishment, the stronger the message.

Chvala was charged in October 2002 with 20 felonies, including extortion. More than a year earlier, the Democracy Campaign obtained a confidential memo from a prominent lobbyist to his special interest clients detailing how Chvala would "not look favorably upon groups" that did not meet his demands for campaign contributions. We made the memo public and then followed up with research showing that the special interest donors changed their giving patterns in response to Chvala's demands.

News coverage of the revelations soon turned into calls for an investigation. The criminal probe of Chvala, already implicated in the caucus scandal involving the misuse of state offices and staffers for electioneering purposes, expanded to include the allegations of pay to play.

The criminal complaint against Chvala also detailed a Tom DeLay-style money laundering scheme that routed corporate contributions that are illegal in Wisconsin through out-of-state committees and back to a front group Chvala directed to benefit Senate candidates he favored. The Democracy Campaign and the national Center for Responsive Politics first blew the whistle on the shadowy operation back in 1999 and later provided state investigators information about the activities as they conducted a probe that ultimately led to the criminal charges against Chvala.

Based on what we know about Chvala's dealings, he deserves more than six months in jail with work release privileges. Having said that, here's hoping the fact that one of the most powerful politicians in Wisconsin is now a convicted felon will serve as a wake-up call to the new bosses at the Capitol and citizens who have retreated from public life. If there ever has been a time when citizens need to reengage in public affairs, this is it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Poll Says Today's Politicians Really Suck

Politicians love polls. Most of them won't move a muscle unless a trusted pollster tells them it's safe. But here's a poll the State Capitol crowd won't know what to do with. A citizen survey released today by the self-described "free market think tank" Wisconsin Policy Research Institute found that only 6% of Wisconsin residents believe their elected officials represent the interests of their constituents on important issues.

Most believe public officials are just looking out for themselves or doing the bidding of special interests, the poll found. WPRI said the "most stunning number" was that the survey found no African Americans believe their elected officials put constituents' interests first.

State residents also believe their elected representatives have lowered their ethical standards and that ethics in government is getting worse, the survey shows. WPRI's report says the "widespread feeling that the institutions in Madison were deteriorating ethically produced the highest negative numbers we have seen in our polling going back to 1991."

The report goes on to say there are "no demographic groups in Wisconsin who believe the ethics in Madison have improved over the last decade. One of the major problems, looking at the total results, is that our elected officials and citizens are moving further apart. Wisconsin residents seem to have much less confidence in their elected officials and are questioning the ethics of their government institutions. These downward trends are not good for Wisconsin government. Unfortunately, Wisconsin citizens are clearly saying that they think lobbyists have much more influence than they do, and that is negatively affecting the ethics in state government."

Thursday, October 13, 2005

SBC Just Loves Stem Cell Research

We issued a report yesterday on Governor Jim Doyle's fundraising during the first half of 2005 that showed he received more than $200,000 in campaign donations from out-of-state donors from January to June. Among the contributions was nearly $6,000 from SBC Communications executives in Texas. The donations were made shortly before the telecommunications giant got a $116 million state contract to design a new video and data network for the state and University of Wisconsin System.

Doyle campaign manager Rich Judge told the Associated Press there's no connection between the campaign contributions and the contract. He told the AP reporter that Doyle "has developed a national reputation on a number of issues, including stem cell research, that have moved people to give him money."

Friday, October 07, 2005

Special Interest Protection Act

Republican Senator Dave Zien and Representative Scott Suder want Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager to stop picking on the special interests who give them a lot of money.

Zien and Suder say a law is needed to prevent attorney generals from suing mostly white collar types for polluting, damaging natural resources, endangering public health and other crimes. Zien is best known for his annual efforts to legalize concealed weapons and Suder is best known for getting a legislative aide job in 1998 but not being able to remember what kind of work he did.

“She has abused the power that voters placed in her through vigilante tactics aimed at private citizens and businesses,’’ said Zien.

The pair says the proposal was prompted by complaints from groups representing farmers, businesses, cranberry growers, realtors, developers, utilities and others. Zien says the attorney general should stick to “real criminals” rather than going after “…the very people they are elected to protect…”

Hmmmm. But a look at the numbers shows why these two cowboys are so upset.

Zien, who has raised $384,120 in large individual and political action committee contributions since 1993, has accepted $141,976 or 37 percent of his contributions from manufacturers, business, construction, real estate, agriculture and utility interests. Zien ranks No. 3 in contributions at $2,675 from cranberry growers who are exempt from many state environmental regulations.

Suder, who was elected in 1998, has raised $137,426 in large individual and PAC contributions, including $45,797 or 33 percent from the special interests his bill would protect.

Georgia-Pacific On His Mind

Papermaking giant Georgia-Pacific announced plans October 4 to lay off hundreds of its Green Bay plant employees almost a year to the day after it was handed a forgivable $500,000 state loan by Governor Jim Doyle to help retrain the plant’s employees.

The October 5, 2004 giveaway was sandwiched in between $5,000 worth of campaign contributions the company’s political action committee gave to Doyle between October 2003 and March 2005. He received $1,000 worth of those contributions a week after the company received the loan. Doyle had not received any contributions from company executives before becoming governor.

On top of the loan, Doyle wrote budgets or signed bills to create a $45 million a year corporate tax cut and a $26 million a year sales tax exemption on electricity used in manufacturing, both of which benefit Georgia-Pacific. More directly, he approved a $1 million a year break on garbage disposal fees paid by paper companies to pay for disposing PCBs they dumped in the Fox River, and $2.1 million in state spending to rebuild a dock wall for the company.

All of this for a company that had profits of $359 million in 2003 and $771 million in 2004. Georgia-Pacific executive Pete Correll gushed about the company’s 2004 performance in a February 1, 2005 press release: “This has been an outstanding year for Georgia-Pacific.”

But those big profits and a heaping helping of corporate welfare from the state apparently don’t satisfy the company’s appetite. The company said its recent round of layoffs and plant downsizing are designed to save $100 million a year in hopes of boosting profits to $1.2 billion by the end of 2006.

This episode echoes the findings in a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report that shows millions in state assistance going to large multi-national corporations that do not need it or create few if any good jobs but which make large campaign contributions.

The practice even prompted former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, a longtime darling of big business and other powerful special interests, to say last March that “I’m afraid we’re turning into rubes here in state government” because the state gives away money and breaks every time a business claims to have better offers in other states.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Brian Burke: Convicted Felon And Lobbyist In Good Standing

Brian Burke, once the powerful co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee and odds-on favorite to be elected state attorney general, is now a convicted felon and is headed to jail. He is about to lose his freedom and probably his law license, but not his lobbying credentials. According to the state Ethics Board, which seemingly has never seen ethical corner-cutting it could not tolerate, Burke can remain a licensed lobbyist. Apparently, the Ethics Board is OK with him calling clients and lawmakers from a prison cell.

As we reported in a previous blog, after Burke quit the attorney general race and left the Senate to turn his attention to his legal defense, he was hired by Appleton paper company Arjo Wiggins to lobby for the company.

Not to be outdone by the Ethics Board when it comes to adding insult to injury already done to Wisconsin's battered reputation for clean government, the Elections Board says it has no problem with Burke paying restitution to the state's taxpayers for money he stole from the public treasury with campaign funds he collected by shaking down special interest donors. Fortunately, Burke's prosecutor, Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, says he'll ask the judge in the case to prohibit the use of campaign contributions to pay restitution. Stay tuned.

Paving New Ground

The Operating Engineers Local 139 political action committee is paving new ground. The once-staunch contributor to Democratic candidates for the Legislature and statewide office gave $4,000 of its $18,276 in campaign contributions to two GOP leadership committees – the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate – during the first six months of 2005.

The latest contributions coincide with the exit of the union’s political coordinator, Joe Wineke, a former Democratic state senator and now head of the state Democratic Party. Before this year, the Operating Engineers had given only $1,000 worth of its $140,328 in contributions to Republicans from 1993 through 2004.

The union appears to be hedging its bets and contributing to Republicans, who control the Senate and Assembly, like other wealthy special interests WDC has identified before.

The 9,000-member union frequently sides with the influential road building industry to come down on critics who want to cut new road projects or the taxes people pay to build them.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Another One Cops A Plea

Former Senator Brian Burke, once the odds-on favorite to be elected state attorney general, will be convicted tomorrow of crimes related to the Capitol corruption scandal under a plea agreement he has reached with prosecutors.

Burke is expected to plead guilty to at least one felony and one misdemeanor. He was facing 13 felony charges.

The Democracy Campaign first blew the whistle on Burke's political activities in February 2002, noting irregularities on his campaign finance report suggesting he was running his attorney general campaign out of his state office. Burke came under investigation shortly thereafter, and quit the attorney general race in May of that same year. He was criminally charged about a month later.

Burke will be the second leading lawmaker convicted on corruption charges. Former Senator Gary George, like Burke a Milwaukee Democrat, pleaded guilty to fraud related to a kickback scheme and is serving a four-year prison term.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

It Pays To Protest

Public outrage over Wisconsin's disastrous agreement with Accenture LLP to develop the state's voter registration system already had forced changes to the contract protecting voter privacy and enabling state officials to inspect the computer source code the company writes to program the computers used for voter registration. Now it looks like public scrutiny is saving state taxpayers millions.

At this week's Elections Board meeting, Accenture spokeswoman Meg McLaughlin claimed that the company already has spent more than $20 million on the project. Under the voter-list contract, Accenture is due to receive $13.9 million for its work. In May, Elections Board director Kevin Kennedy publicly stated that he was open to giving Accenture more money. But now that possibility has been effectively closed off, thanks to public pressure. Board members now all insist that Accenture will not get a penny more than the contract calls for.

Kennedy once described the Elections Board and Accenture as "partners." The marriage appears to be on the rocks. Two weeks ago, Kennedy shot off a letter to McLaughlin pinning the blame squarely on Accenture for Wisconsin's certain failure to meet the looming January 1 federal deadline to have a working computerized voter registration system. This week, McLaughlin fired back, pointing fingers at the state and devoting eight pages to a point-by-point description of all the ways Kennedy has parted company with the truth.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Little House Of Horrors

If anyone is still wondering why the state Assembly is called the "lower house" of the Legislature, look no further than what one reporter called the "bizarre turn of events" when the GOP-led body apparently voted to override Governor Jim Doyle's veto of higher payments to nursing homes serving patients in the state's Medicaid program.

The Assembly's presiding officer, Republican Steve Freese, refused to allow Milwaukee Democrat Pedro Colon to cast his vote, which would have sustained the governor's veto. When the vote was being tallied, Colon was talking to Republican representatives in the Assembly parlor. When Colon returned from the parlor he was not allowed to register his vote, although it is the longstanding custom of the Assembly to record the votes of temporarily absent members. Meanwhile, the Republicans Colon was speaking to at the time he missed his vote had their votes recorded, meaning their seat mates pushed their voting buttons for them although they weren't physically present – a common practice that technically isn't allowed under Assembly rules.

When asked by reporters to explain his actions in the wake of all this childishness, Freese said it is not his responsibility to make sure people are in their seats and voting, and went on to say that at times in the past he hasn't called missing people in for votes because they had been mean to him.

The whole hullabaloo most likely will end up being academic, since overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature. It is considered highly improbable that the Senate will be able to muster a two-thirds majority to reverse the nursing home veto.

Just in case you're laboring under the mistaken impression that truth is stranger than fiction only in the Assembly, check out this and this about Senator Tom Reynolds, a Wauwatosa Republican who even right-wing radio talk show host Charlie Sykes calls a "nut job." Reynolds once proposed creating a private Autobahn next to I-94 where drivers could drive as fast as they want for a fee. Now he's one of three legislators working to end election-day voter registration, a longstanding tradition in Wisconsin that is widely credited for higher than average voter turnout in the state.

Then there's the revelation that an aide to another state senator made more than 200 calls during work hours on a state phone to a campaign worker for Menomonee Falls municipal candidates the aide supported. Phone records show that the aide to River Hills Republican Alberta Darling, Chris Slinker, also put in a call to an Appleton print shop that produced campaign materials for Menomonee Falls trustee candidates.

You'd think the fact that five of the most powerful politicians in Wisconsin face criminal trials for misusing state offices and taxpayer money in this same way would serve as a cautionary tale for staffers like Slinker, who now plans to challenge fellow Republican Sue Jeskewitz for the Assembly seat she currently holds in a 2006 GOP primary. Indeed, Slinker says "I would have to be a complete idiot to (do campaign work) from the office."

Like Forrest Gump's mama used to tell him, "stupid is as stupid does."

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Wisconsin Equivalent Of FEMA

Wisconsin's decision to outsource work on the development of a federally mandated voter registration system is backfiring big time. The project already was plagued by cost overruns, but now we find out through an open records request that there are so many bugs in the computer system being developed for the state by Accenture that Wisconsin will not meet the federal government's final January 1, 2006 deadline for state compliance with voter registration requirements in the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

The Elections Board's response to this revelation has been positively FEMA-like. First, the board looked for someone else to blame. The most convenient culprit was the "unrealistic deadline set by Congress." Pointing fingers at the feds is always a sound damage-control strategy, so long as no one notices that Wisconsin was granted a two-year extension from the law's original implementation deadline of January 1, 2004 or that states like Minnesota already have completed the work and complied with the federal law, at a fraction of the cost of Wisconsin's contract with Accenture.

Then, just as President Bush was nonchalant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation and federal homeland security officials were caught unaware of desperate conditions in the Superdome and convention center, Elections Board director Kevin Kennedy claimed in a press release issued yesterday that voter list problems are "not unique" to Wisconsin and, besides, the board is just now learning of Accenture's failings.

Mimicking ousted FEMA director Michael Brown, Kennedy says the board "learned last week of similar situations" in other states that have contracts with Accenture. "Brownie" made the mistake of not watching TV, where images of the human suffering were being beamed to an international audience. Kennedy evidently neglected to read the newspaper, where word of Accenture's screw-ups in other states has been reported since at least early March.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bopping The Donkey

It looks like indicted former Senate Democratic leader Chuck Chvala has enlisted a most unlikely legal ally as he tries to beat a rap that includes felony charges of extortion, illegal campaign contributions and criminal misconduct in public office. Word is Chvala has added nationally prominent right-wing attorney James Bopp to his legal defense team.

This is the same James Bopp who serves as general counsel for the anti-abortion group National Right to Life. It is the same James Bopp who has led the legal fight against campaign finance reform and who unsuccessfully tried to get the national McCain-Feingold campaign reform law overturned in court. In fact, if you Google Bopp, the top result of the search is "Find a Republican Lawyer."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tee Up Those Checkbooks

There’s nothing like having a key committee vote on a controversial legislative proposal shortly before a fundraising event in order to maximize a special interest’s gratitude – in cash.

On Friday, September 2 the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Insurance recommended 6-1 that the full Senate reject an Assembly proposal to require insurance companies to pay for much of the cost of removing polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs – that were dumped in the Fox River by paper companies from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Both the committee and the Senate are controlled by Republicans.

First, the vote was scheduled on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend to give it as little attention as possible.

But second, the favorable vote for insurance companies also came less than a week before the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate’s $1,000 per person golf fundraiser scheduled September 8 at Sentry Insurance’s golf course in Stevens Point.

Hmmmmm. . . committee action, fundraiser, any connection?

Kegglers Fess Up

Most special interest groups routinely claim they contribute to political candidates out of civic duty and for other altruistic reasons and staunchly deny that they target their contributions to go to legislative leaders and others in key positions to move their agenda.

But every so often one of them, like the Bowling Proprietors of America, tells it like it really is. Check this out.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bowling For Gard

Bowling interests want to throw a strike with Assembly Bill 414, a proposed statewide smoking ban that would not cover them and prevent communities from enacting local laws that would.

Like many other special interests, they’ve figured the best way to do that it to give the Assembly’s head pin, Speaker John Gard, some cash for his 8th District Congressional campaign.

Gard’s campaign received a $1,000 contribution on June 14 from the Bowling Proprietors of America. It was one of only three contributions the group gave to federal candidates nationwide from April through June. This group has never made political action committee contributions to any Wisconsin candidate for statewide office or the Legislature.

On June 21, the Assembly Rules Committee, which determines the schedule of proposals the Assembly will debate, altered the Assembly’s June 23 calendar by making AB414 “a special order of business.” That’s legislative jargon “for urgent matters and for proposals of particular interest to the party leadership,” according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.

The proposal narrowly passed 48-45 with Gard voting ‘aye.’ It awaits Senate action.

WI Contributions To Shadow Groups Nearly $291,000 In First Half Of '05

Wisconsin corporations and individuals contributed $290,876 to groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to pay for negative political advertising and other electioneering activities during the first six months of 2005.

So-called 527 groups like the well-known America Coming Together and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are named for the Internal Revenue Service code that regulates them.

Ten of Wisconsin’s 107 contributors doled out $10,000 or more in contributions during the six-month period. Topping the list was Daniel Bader, of Milwaukee, a long-time generous giver to Democratic candidates and organizations, at $50,000; and Mary and Terry Kohler, of Sheboygan, who have been big contributors to Republican candidates and conservative causes, at $45,000.

The top five 527 recipients of Wisconsin contributions are the Democratic Governors Association at $90,000; three pro-Republican groups – the Club for Growth at $51,950, College Republican National Committee at $37,235 and GOPAC at $36,950; and the pro-Democratic Laborers Political League Education Fund at $33,320.

The Wisconsin contributions are nearly evenly split, as they were in the 2003-04 election cycle, between Republican- and Democratic-leaning 527s. Republican 527 groups received $147,404 and Democratic 527s accepted $143,272 from Wisconsin contributors. The remaining $200 went to a 527 group that has supported Republicans and Democrats.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Schoolhouse Rock, It Ain't

For an "evil, adult version" of How a Bill Becomes a Law, check out this article in Rolling Stone magazine. This first-person account of a month on the Hill speaks volumes about the rot at the top in our nation's capital. But it also sounds themes that are hauntingly familiar to anyone who is familiar with the goings-on in our State Capitol right here in Wisconsin.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Dick Armey Declares War On Wisconsin's High Court

As the Democracy Campaign reported in an e-mail update earlier this month, a national Republican front group run by former House GOP leader Dick Armey of Texas is about to launch an offensive aimed at influencing the makeup of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Armey's group plans to spend $2 million to unseat conservative Justice Patrick Crooks, who angered right-wing interests with rulings on medical malpractice and product liability cases.

The source of the millions Armey plans to raise to defeat Crooks will be carefully concealed. His group flies below the radar, engaging in campaign practices allowing it to sidestep both federal and state reporting requirements.

Armey's army won't be alone in this battle. Big business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce also plans to weigh in heavily in the campaign to throw out Crooks. WMC is soliciting corporate contributions from member companies for a "Job Defense Fund" it will use to engage in anti-Crooks electioneering.

WMC also will have to take pains to dodge state and federal campaign disclosure laws because reporting the source of funds would reveal the corporate contributions, which are illegal under both federal law and state law in Wisconsin.

This effort to buy justice is part of a rapidly growing national trend. The Institute on Money in State Politics has released a new report showing that special interests raised more than $19 million to air ads in state Supreme Court races in six other states, with about three-fourths of the money coming from contributors interested in the issue of limiting liability in lawsuits.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Here's Smoke In Your Eye

A recent Democracy Campaign report, “Gagging Democracy,” shows wealthy special interests that want to trash local land use, salary and public health laws that cost them money have contributed seven times more to legislative campaigns than groups that oppose preemption laws. Majority Republicans have accepted about 13 times more from special interests that oppose local control than those that favor it.

An aside the report doesn’t identify are legislators who have supported seizing local control even though they represent communities that want their own standards.

Topping the list was Assembly Majority Leader Michael Huebsch of Onalaska. He represents five of the 21 local governments that have passed laws to regulate smoking in bars and eateries, including Onalaska, the city and county of La Crosse, Holmen and West Salem. Yet Huebsch voted in favor of a bill to strike down local smoking ordinances.

It’s probably just a coincidence that Huebsch accepted 75 percent, or $49,544, of his large individual campaign contributions in 2003-04 from special interests outside his district.

Others who voted for the proposed state smoking standard but represent communities with tougher laws include Republican Representatives Leah Vukmir, Dean Kaufert, Mary Williams, Kitty Rhoades, Terri McCormick and Greg Underheim, and Democratic Representative Dave Travis. The proposal awaits action in the Senate.

Six representatives voted in favor of a proposal signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle that prevents communities from setting minimum wages higher than those dictated by the state, even though they represent some of the communities that set higher wages before the new state law. They are Republican Representatives Mark Honadel, Curt Gielow and Vukmir and Republican Senators Dan Kapanke, Alberta Darling and Tom Reynolds.

Monday, August 08, 2005

What Bush And Doyle Have In Common

Everyone knows President Bush has. . . how shall we say. . . a way with words. And everyone has a personal favorite among his countless misstatements and malapropisms. Here's one that's sure to stand the test of time, uttered on August 5, 2004: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Whatever afflicts Bush, it seems Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle's got it too. Explaining how he foiled a plot by Republican lawmakers to politically embarrass him by cleverly exercising his veto powers, Doyle said: "They thought they had set a clever little trick box here by which you either had to choose between ruining schools or raising property taxes. In fact, I found a way to make sure we could do both."

Perhaps such verbal gaffes are just the inevitable fate of the oft-quoted. Or maybe they're guilt-inspired Freudian slips of the tongue. After all, before he was elected governor, Doyle spoke plainly about the excessive veto authority possessed by Wisconsin chief executives. "I don't think you should be able to go in and take a word out there and a word out here and create a whole new sentence," he said at the time. Now that he has the power to single-handedly ruin schools and raise property taxes, he sings a different tune. "Let's just say I see the world differently from the position I'm in right now," the governor offers in his defense.

It's hardly the first time Doyle's vantage point has changed his thinking. Before his election as governor, he promised to make campaign finance reform and a thorough clean-up of Capitol ethics his first order of business. After taking office, he ran screaming from the issue.

Friday, August 05, 2005

If You Add Up All The Special Interests, Do They Equal The Public Interest?

More than a half-million people in Wisconsin have no health insurance and hundreds of thousands more are a pink slip away from being unable to take their kids to the doctor. State school funding policies are such a disaster that one school district recently declared bankruptcy and voted to shut down. Every lake in Wisconsin is contaminated with mercury and there have been repeated air quality alerts this summer.

You'd think that maybe the Legislature and the more than 650 advocacy groups supposedly trying to influence lawmakers on behalf of the people of our state would be focused on issues like health care reform, school finance, and air and water pollution.

Guess again.

Reports filed with the state Ethics Board show lobbying groups spent a record $16.2 million in the first half of the year trying to influence public officials. Lobbyists spent 145,000 hours twisting arms and scratching backs, the equivalent of more than 137 eight-hour days for every state legislator. But they didn't spend it pushing for universal health care coverage or a revamped school funding system or more rigorous environmental protection.

Aside from the state budget, which lobbyists spent 42,900 hours trying to shape, the number one issue was . . . drumroll, please . . . a decades-old dispute between insurance companies and the paper industry. Nearly 3,400 hours were devoted to lobbying on Assembly Bill 222, legislation requiring insurers to give the paper mills money from policies up front and then fight among themselves in court over the exact amount each owes to clean up PCBs dumped in the Fox River.

Another of the 10 most heavily lobbied bills was one of the state preemption bills we highlighted in our "Gagging Democracy" report detailing how state legislators are overruling actions by locally elected officials to benefit big campaign contributors. Lobbyists spent 835 hours bending legislators' ears about Assembly Bill 414, which preempts local ordinances banning smoking in restaurants and bars.

Overall, the biggest spender on lobbying was the big business group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which threw $545,408 at influence peddling during the six-month period. WMC was followed by Wisconsin Hospital Association, Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, Wisconsin Education Association Council and paper company Georgia-Pacific Corporation.

Georgia-Pacific spent $337,547 lobbying during the first half of this year, most of it on the insurance bill (AB 222). This compares to the $6,995 the company spent on lobbying during the first six months of 2003. Similarly, the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance poured $400,697 into its lobbying effort during the past six months, compared to the $55,842 it spent during the first half of 2003.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Breaking The Code

If anyone wonders why the Democracy Campaign and other critics of Wisconsin's contract with Accenture to develop a computerized statewide voter registration list made such a big deal about the underlying computer source code remaining the private property of the company under the original agreement, take a look at this. (You need RealPlayer to view it. If you don't have it, go here.) The video clip features sworn testimony computer programmer Clinton Curtis gave at a congressional hearing. Curtis describes how easy it is to alter vote totals and fix election results, and says it can be done without a trace . . . unless you can inspect the source code.

Our citizen lawsuit challenging the Accenture deal ultimately fell short of the goal of getting the contract cancelled, but it did succeed in forcing changes to the contract to permit inspection of the source code.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Doyle Budget Super Sizes Big Business

Governor Doyle's 2005-07 state budget increases the amount of multi-million dollar grants, cheap loans and tax breaks the state can give to big business and wealthy contributors, the Democracy Campaign has found.

Doyle used his veto pen to increase the number of geographic areas - from 81 to 98 - that the state's Enterprise Development Zones program can create to hand out its $243 million in tax credits to business. This and other Commerce Department programs were created to help small- and medium-sized businesses locate in areas of high poverty or unemployment. The problem is millions of dollars in tax breaks, grants and cheap loans have gone to Fortune 500 companies like Wal-Mart, Home DePot, General Motors and others to build or expand headquarters in affluent burbs, like Brookfield, Menomonee Falls and Mequon. For more details see the Democracy Campaign's "Serving the Have-Mores" report.

Doyle also vetoed a provision added by the Legislature to require the Enterprise Development Zones program and the Wisconsin Development Fund to make at least 50 percent of their awards to small businesses. "In order to continue to grow Wisconsin's economy, the department must retain its flexibility to fund deserving businesses that will have a significant impact on local economies throughout the state," he said.


Increasing the number of zones dilutes the benefits available to businesses that really deserve the help and vetoing the small business requirement lets his administration continue to award as much corporate welfare to big business and wealthy contributors as it wants.

By the way, Doyle has received $4.26 million in campaign contributions since 1993 from business, manufacturers, insurance and other wealthy special interests that benefit from these programs, including $3.31 million, or 78 percent, since 2002 when he successfully ran for governor through 2004.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Progressive Or Porkressive?

A life-long Republican businessman from Sturgeon Bay says he thinks Democratic Governor Jim Doyle's administration is good for Wisconsin. What he didn't say is that his company will probably be the beneficiary of $8 million worth of state business grants courtesy of Doyle's 2005-07 state budget.

"I've been a Republican all my life. I won't hesitate to say, this administration is good for Wisconsin. This is an administration that is progressive," Mike Kelsey, president of Palmer Johnson Yachts, told the Appleton Post-Crescent in a July 15 published report.

Last February, Doyle sent the Legislature a budget asking to spend $6 million to build a boat slip to be used by Palmer Johnson and Bay Shipbuilding Company. In addition, the governor wants to give Palmer Johnson $2 million to help it build a yacht construction facility. Both proposals sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature and are waiting for final approval by Doyle with the rest of the budget.

There is no record Kelsey has made campaign contributions to a legislative or statewide candidate since 1993 but fellow executive William Parsons has contributed $1,555 - all to GOP candidates - since 1997.

Let's see what Doyle's 'porkressiveness' gets him down the line.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Disappearing Act

Wisconsin Right to Life is the latest special interest group to go below the radar with its efforts to influence state elections. In 2002, the anti-abortion lobbying group ranked 13th among interest groups in so-called "independent expenditures," disclosing campaign spending in 69 Assembly races and 12 Senate races. In 2000, WRL was the 7th highest spender in legislative races, reporting campaign spending for or against candidates in 64 Assembly districts and eight Senate districts.

In 2004, WRL reported no independent expenditures to influence state races. That's right, zero. Yet the group issued a press release trumpeting a "one net pro-life seat gain in the Assembly and a one net pro-life seat gain in the State Senate" and boasting that it was the "only organization on either side of the abortion issue who can claim responsibility" for electoral gains.

WRL says it reached over 100,000 households with phone calls and mailings for state legislative candidates and says radio ads "on behalf of state legislative candidates" reached hundreds of thousands. The group claims it also distributed literature door to door and in churches.

But not a penny of the expense of this statewide effort was publicly disclosed. Like so many of the major special interest groups in Wisconsin, WRL is exploiting a loophole in Wisconsin's campaign finance laws to escape disclosure requirements. An April 2004 Democracy Campaign report called attention to the growing trend toward hidden campaign spending.

The loophole WRL and other groups are using to sidestep disclosure and evade campaign contribution limits is one the U.S. Supreme Court ruled can and should be closed. After this high court ruling, the Democracy Campaign asked the state Elections Board to adopt a truth-in-campaigning rule closing the loophole and wrote a draft rule for the Board's consideration. On three procedural motions, the Board voted to move forward with the rulemaking. But when the time came for a vote on final approval, the state Democratic Party's appointee – who had voted three times in favor of the disclosure rule – switched sides and cast the deciding vote to kill the rule.

The flip-flopping Democratic designee, Martha Love, was not reappointed to the Elections Board. New Democratic Party chairman Joe Wineke replaced her recently with Robert Kasieta of Verona.

Spinning Incompetence

In response to the splitting headache that the Accenture voter-list deal has become, the state Elections Board recently did what any embattled government agency would do: It hired a spin doctor.

The Elections Board's new "public information officer," Kyle Richmond, certainly will earn his keep. Sweating over missed deadlines, the Board has been busy renegotiating its contract with Accenture. Now the Board is revising its agreement with another private contractor working on the project, Deloitte Consulting. Under the new arrangement, Deloitte stands to earn an additional $1.5 million for project management services.

State taxpayers already were on the hook for at least $26.8 million in costs to develop the federally mandated voter registration system, including the $13.9 million the state has agreed to pay Accenture, the original $2.7 million earmarked for Deloitte Consulting for project management, and $10.2 million for state Elections Board staff oversight, hardware and data entry. In contrast, Minnesota relied on state employees to do its statewide voter list and completed the work at a cost of $5.3 million.

Richmond is between a rock and a hard place in his role as public apologist for the voter-list debacle. Justifiable sympathy does not excuse his recent stumbles, however. Earlier this month, he was telling citizens contacting the Elections Board to express their outrage with the Accenture contract that "the contract has not been 'reopened' as some have claimed."

We reminded him that his boss, Elections Board executive director Kevin Kennedy, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in May that he "wants to reopen the contract." When asked about whether the Elections Board might agree to pay Accenture more, he said "I wouldn't rule that out." The Elections Board subsequently agreed to a number of amendments to the contract in June. We know because we have the documents.

In a display of semantic gymnastics that would make Bill Clinton proud, Richmond insisted to us that Kennedy's quotes do not contradict what he later told angry citizens. And he held firm that the contract had not been reopened and instead characterized the numerous amendments to the Accenture agreement merely as "selective changes to the components and delivery dates stipulated in the contract."

So glad you cleared that up, Kyle. I guess it all depends on what the meaning of "reopen" is.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

And Here We Thought Every Day Is Paul La Schiazza Day

The Appleton Post-Crescent recently sifted through more than 1,000 proclamations issued by Governor Jim Doyle since he took office in 2003. Most are silly but perfectly harmless and a few are downright hilarious, but one in particular caught our attention. Doyle proclaimed June 4, 2004 Paul La Schiazza Day. On May 10, 2004 La Schiazza made a $1,000 contribution to Doyle's re-election campaign. La Schiazza is president of telecommunications giant SBC Wisconsin.

During the 2002 election campaign for governor, La Schiazza supported Scott McCallum. But La Schiazza and other top brass at SBC took a sudden interest in Doyle once he became governor. The company certainly has been rewarded for its attention to political detail. Among the wishes granted are corporate tax breaks, business deregulation legislation, a lucrative state contract to provide high-speed Internet access to state public and private schools, libraries and the technical college system, and now an obscure budget item allowing the Public Service Commission to increase the penalties SBC can impose for some late payments by customers that will pad the company's bottom line to the tune of $1.7 million.

An official Paul La Schiazza Day pales in comparison to those goodies. And besides, Doyle seems...well, let's say...undiscriminating whens it comes to handing out proclamations. A couple of weeks after La Schiazza was recognized, Doyle named June 17, 2004 Heat Awareness Day. This year, the week of May 7 was proclaimed Emu Week. May 11 was Root Canal Awareness Day. The week of May 21 was Tinnitus Awareness Week.

You have to wonder who thought it would be a good idea to make October 2004 the Month of the Young Adolescent and Pornography Awareness Month. But then again, last October was a month to remember for a dizzying array of causes. Doyle also proclaimed it Childhood Emergency Care Injury Prevention Month, Brain Injury Awareness Month, Respite and Crisis Care Awareness Month, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Awareness Month, Medical Ultrasound Awareness Month, Nieman-Pick Disease Awareness Month, Physical Therapy Month, United Way Month and Cranberry Month.

Since proclamation fever is running high in the Capitol's east wing and the governor and his people obviously are scraping the bottom of the barrel for stuff to recognize, a little help from the citizenry appears to be in order. Nominations anyone?

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

No Trespassing! Property of Special Interests

Republican Representative Frank Lasee of Bellevue recently railed about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows local governments to take someone’s property and give it to developers or corporations that will use it to generate more taxes. “Government can take it for no better reason than somebody with deeper pockets wants it,” Lasee said.

Interesting….the same Frank Lasee recently voted in favor of a bill approved by the Assembly that would require communities to give up their land if a utility came along and said it needed it for a power line or plant project. The proposal grew out of outrage by some legislators over the Douglas County Board’s refusal to acquiesce to the demands of American Transmission Company to run a power line across county property.

So Lasee’s got a problem with government taking property for no other reason than someone with deep pockets wants it, but he doesn’t have a problem with private companies with deep pockets taking property?

Well, the utility industry and their friends have some pretty deep pockets. Utilities have contributed $324,695 to legislators’ campaigns and its projects have the blessing of other wealthy special interests like manufacturing, business, construction, agriculture and transportation that have contributed millions more. By the way, the utilities and those other special interests have contributed $49,213 to Lasee’s campaigns, about one-third of his total special interest contributions since 1993.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Justice Delayed

It took 418 days for Michael Jackson to be indicted, tried and acquitted of child molestation charges, 275 days passed between Martha Stewart's indictment and her conviction for obstruction of justice and insider trading, and it took 473 days for murder charges filed against O.J. Simpson to be dismissed.

The wheels of justice are turning considerably more slowly in the cases of top Wisconsin politicians facing felony corruption charges, thanks to the creativity of high-priced lawyers and a state court system that has granted them the rare privilege of hearing their repeated pre-trial appeals. By our count, it's been 1,098 days since criminal charges were filed against former Senator Brian Burke, 985 days have passed since former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was charged with 20 felonies including extortion, and 984 days since the felony indictments of former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti.

No trials are yet in sight.

Chvala left the Legislature after the charges against him were filed. Jensen stepped down as Assembly Speaker but has been re-elected – twice – and was given the plum assignment of serving on the Legislature's powerful Joint Finance Committee. Burke and Foti now are Capitol lobbyists.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Pulp Protection

Wisconsin's paper industry is buying up some good insider influence in the Legislature and providing a safety net for four former legislative leaders turned contract lobbyists.

Former Democratic State Senator Brian Burke has been hired by Arjo Wiggins Appleton Ltd. Burke, a former Joint Finance Committee co-chair, decided not to seek reelection in 2002 because he faces felony charges for hawking campaign contributions on state time and on state property. The company also hired former Republican Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer who lost her job in a September 2004 primary contest to now Republican Senator Glenn Grothman.

Georgia-Pacific has hired former Republican Senator Bob Welch who left his state Senate seat in a failed bid last September for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. The company also hired former Republican Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti who decided not to run for reelection because he faces trial for putting a campaign fundraiser on the state payroll.

In the last few years the industry has scored millions of dollars in tax breaks and exemptions for its production and waste disposal costs. Now they're pushing a bill, which was approved 49-44 Thursday in the Assembly, to accelerate insurance settlements they claim they need to clean up PCB pollution they caused in the Fox River. The four ex-legislators accepted $6,100 in campaign contributions from the industry while they were in office.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

State Representative Spencer Black says he's considering an independent run for governor next year. Which has Governor Doyle asking if Black and dissatisfied progressives who are urging him on "really want to have a Republican governor or not?"

Doyle's problem is that when a large and growing number of people ponder his question, their answer is that someone like Spencer Black needs to run.

Dissatisfaction with the current political landscape knows no partisan boundaries. Isthmus editor Marc Eisen's column this week is devoted to talking up the idea of Mike Ellis running for the Republican nomination for governor. Homeless Republican moderates who are tired – not to mention privately terrified – of the "guns, gays, God and feeding tubes" crowd that has hijacked the GOP would love to see an Ellis candidacy.

Eisen figures Ellis could pull a Lee Dreyfus in a three-way race with right-wing poster boys Scott Walker and Mark Green, and wonders out loud if state employees disgusted with Doyle might even cross over and vote for Ellis.

What's most intriguing about Eisen's analysis is his contention that Ellis could benefit from what he calls the "All Hell Breaks Loose scenario." He notes that the Capitol corruption cases against Brian Burke, Chuck Chvala, Scott Jensen, Steve Foti and a Foti aide will likely come to trial before the 2006 election. But Eisen says the "real time bomb tick-tick-ticking away could be the Nick Hurtgen indictment" that is "giving night sweats to Wisconsin GOP leaders, according to several Republican activists."

Hurtgen is the former Thompson administration insider who became a Bear Stearns bond executive and now faces up to 80 years in prison on extortion and fraud charges in Illinois stemming from a massive federal corruption sweep. Eisen cites published reports saying the feds are looking into Hurtgen's Wisconsin dealings and asks "(w)hat if, in a deal to avoid prison, he rolls over on somebody big in Wisconsin politics."

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Will He Give It Back?

It will be interesting to see if Democratic Governor Jim Doyle's upcoming campaign finance report shows he gave back an illegal $5,000 corporate contribution his campaign accepted last year.

Doyle's July to December 2004 report showed the campaign received $5,000 on December 22 from Arden Realty Limited in Los Angeles. So far, there has been no evidence the Doyle campaign is admitting to the violation and no evidence of enforcement activity by the State Elections Board, which usually mollycoddles campaign finance law violators.

We Didn't Do It, We Didn't Do It . . . OK, We Did It

After spending the past four years denying that taxpayer money, state workers and public offices were used to run election campaigns, former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, former Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti and one-time Foti aide Sherry Schultz are doing an about-face. They now admit what they strenuously denied for so long but contend it was all perfectly legal.

The argument made by their lawyers in the latest pre-trial legal brief stands in stark contrast to what the indicted lawmakers had been saying since 2001. For example, on May 27 of that year, Jensen told the Wisconsin State Journal the "Assembly Republican team has gone to extraordinary lengths to separate government work from campaign work. We insist that employees who wish to campaign do so on their own time and not on the taxpayer's dime."

When it became clear prosecutors had them dead to rights and could prove such statements were lies, a change in legal strategy was in order. Performing this 180-degree turn in legal posture required some creative logic. The lawyers started by blurring the distinction between the activities of private donor-supported legislative campaign committees and taxpayer-supported state offices. They acknowledged the legislators and state staffers were running the legislative campaign committees out of public offices using state resources, but argued that since the legislative campaign committees are legal entities engaged in lawful campaign activity, then it must have been legal for the state officials and their staff to participate in those activities – never mind that the work was done on state time and with taxpayer money in clear violation of state law.

That's like arguing that someone who cannot legally own a gun can use a gun to hunt because hunting is a legal activity.

Nice try.

Monday, June 20, 2005

How Can He Charge That?

Prominent among the list of budget-time fundraisers today are some pricey events by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and Republican Assembly Majority Leader Mike Huebsch.

Doyle's having a $1,000 per person golf outing at University Ridge in Madison. Huebsch is having a cocktails-and-dinner affair at the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells tonight.

Huebsch wants a $500 contribution from anyone who wants to drink with him and $1,000 from anyone who wants to drink and dine.

Curious though....state law limits individual contributions to Assembly incumbents and candidates to $500 per contributor every two years.

What's That Smell?

The state's $3 per ton garbage fee used to help pay for local recycling programs and discourage the dumping of out-of-state trash in Wisconsin was slashed to $2.25 per ton in budget deliberations by the Joint Finance Committee.

Business, manufacturing, paper and waste hauling interests are in line to save $6.1 million a year thanks to the GOP-sponsored proposal passed by the committee a few weeks back. Those powerful special interests have contributed $2.9 million to current legislators since 1993, including $2.4 million, or 83 percent, of their contributions to Republican legislators who control the Legislature.

Leeching Off State Health Care

A while back it was reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that 10 corporations led by Wal-Mart and, ironically, Aurora Health Care are clipping state taxpayers for about $6.4 million a year because they do not offer health care benefits to 2,900 of their employees and families. This forces those workers to enroll in BadgerCare, the state's tax-supported health care program for the poor.

Here's something you did not know: Wal-Mart, which turned a $10.3 billion profit in 2004, and the other nine companies have contributed $330,267 in campaign contributions to candidates for statewide office and the Legislature since 1993.

Two state lawmakers have introduced a proposal to require employers to reimburse the state for providing insurance to uninsured or under-insured employees, but we'll see how far it gets. Business interests led by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which is ever-vigilant at defending breaks and giveaways to business, says state-subsidized health care for workers of Fortune 500 and multi-national companies means the state program is working correctly.

Overall these powerful special interests have contributed $14.34 million to current legislators including $11.47 million, or 80 percent of their contributions, to Republicans who control the Legislature. A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report earlier this year showed how millions of dollars a year in state aid meant to help low and middle income people and start-up businesses are being given to affluent communities and big companies like Wal-Mart.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Welcome to the Big Money Blog

We've started this new weblog to create yet another channel of news, information and opinion about the money in Wisconsin politics, corruption at the Capitol and the condition of our democracy. We'll shine light in dark places and bring you the latest on the Democracy Campaign's efforts to win campaign finance reform, media reform and other pro-democracy reforms.

One of the reasons we've started the Big Money Blog is to provide a place where stories can be told and issues can be highlighted that you won't find elsewhere on our web site as press releases or special reports. Another reason is to create an interactive forum allowing reactions and other comments to be posted by visitors.

We hope you'll find our periodic postings valuable, and most of all we hope you'll participate in this democratic dialogue. Oh, one last thing.... If you have tips, suggestions or other feedback, we're all ears.