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.