Friday, December 22, 2006

Big Radio Backs Down

Chalk one up for the power of protest. The news is spreading this morning that media conglomerate Clear Channel is reversing its decision to replace the progressive talk radio format on Madison's WXXM 92.1 FM "The Mic" with sports programming.

We blogged on this back in mid-November and urged people to join the protest, which included a petition drive, a December 12 rally that drew an overflow crowd and street theater in the form of a mock funeral procession to deliver the more than 5,000 petition signatures in support of keeping progressive talk on The Mic.

It worked. Clear Channel backed down. Citizens struck a blow for holding corporate media accountable for using the public's airwaves in a way that serves the public interest and respects local community wishes and needs. What happened here will send ripples across the country.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Necessary But Insufficient

Editorial reaction to last week's announcement of a bipartisan agreement on ethics reform has ranged from "it's about time" to "good first step" to "OK fine, but don't you dare think you're done."

Our sentiments exactly.

Ethics enforcement reform is long, long overdue. And it is sorely needed. But even if the governor and legislative leaders make good on their promise to act in early January to cement in place ethics reforms as strong or stronger than those spelled out in their agreement in principle, it won't be enough to restore Wisconsin's good name. Not nearly enough.

Without lobbying reform and campaign finance reform that put an end to vending machine electioneering and lawmaking, the Capitol will remain an ethical swamp.

Ethics enforcement reform and these other essential reforms go hand in hand. Wisconsin could enact the finest campaign and lobbying reforms in the land, but they won't be worth the paper they're written on if they are not faithfully implemented and rigorously enforced. Wisconsin's existing enforcement agencies haven't effectively administered or aggressively enforced our old laws. There is nothing in their track records to inspire confidence that they would do any better with new laws. Yet even a politically independent new enforcement authority with real teeth could only do so much if left to administer and enforce campaign finance and lobbying laws that have been shot full of holes.

The promised January special session on ethics reform will be a good warm-up act, but the main event will be the fight for campaign finance reform and lobbying reform. Predictably, the big business lobby described in the criminal complaint against Scott Jensen as one of the "four horsemen" – a reference to the Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who signal the end of the world – is making it clear it likes things exactly the way they are. In a lengthy article in Monday's Wisconsin State Journal, one of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce's talking heads is quoted repeating for the gazillionth time his group's defense of legalized extortion and bribery. What WMC's argument boils down to is this: Money is speech. Secrecy is freedom.

Ethics enforcement reform alone won't drain the ethical swamp because the biggest problems don't have anything to do with activities that are against the law. The real scandal in Wisconsin politics is what's perfectly legal.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Law Doesn't Matter To 'All Children Matter'

One of the phoniest of the many phony front groups that now dot Wisconsin's political landscape, All Children Matter, is in hot water because of campaign literature it circulated in the 21st Senate District in an unsuccessful attempt to influence the outcome of that key Racine-area senate race.

The group's literature said there are "over $12 BILLION reasons to vote against (Democratic candidate) John Lehman," prompting a complaint to the state Elections Board that All Children Matter engaged in illegal electioneering by explicitly telling people how to vote without first registering as a political action committee and disclosing its fundraising and spending as required by state law.

Everything from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the Elections Board's own rules make it plain that using the words "vote against" qualify election lit or other campaign advertising as electioneering communications that are subject to all the disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits in state law. All Children Matter seemed to acknowledge it stepped over the line when it hastily registered as a PAC in Wisconsin three days after the complaint was filed.

Leave it to Elections Board legal counsel George Dunst to introduce doubt where there is none. In a memo urging board members to take no action against All Children Matter, Dunst wrote: "The statement 'There are $12 BILLION reasons to vote against John Lehman,' is the same as saying: 'Here is why I, and many others, are not voting for John Lehman,' but it is NOT the same as saying: 'You ought not to vote for John Lehman' or 'Don't vote for John Lehman!' The call to action in the first message – the advocacy in the message – may be inferred from my speech, but an inference is not enough. The advocacy must be express."

Fortunately, no one on the Elections Board took Dunst seriously. They agreed across party lines that All Children Matter's literature was indeed electioneering that should be fully disclosed and paid for in a way that is in keeping with Wisconsin's campaign finance laws. And they gave the group until January to fully explain who sponsored the anti-Lehman flier before taking enforcement action.

There is no question that All Children Matter violated state campaign finance laws. The only question is the severity of the violation. At a bare minimum, the group unlawfully engaged in electioneering without the authority to do so under Wisconsin law. The cancelled check the Elections Board has requested showing who paid for ACM's flier will show whether more serious offenses – such as filing a false report or using illegal campaign contributions – were committed that could result in criminal charges.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Honoring Comstockery

A Catholic bishop orders all the priests in his diocese to play a recording of his sermon on gay marriage, the death penalty and stem cell research at Sunday Mass. He forbids any "verbal or non-verbal expression of disagreement" with his message. Naturally the bishop is given a free speech award by a civil rights group.

If only Anthony Comstock were still alive. He'd be smiling....

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Reform Enemies Getting Creative

The search is on. For the poison pill, that is. Even as the Wisconsin State Journal today editorialized that state lawmakers have run out of excuses for inaction on ethics reform, the Assembly’s ethics reform stonewaller-in-chief, Speaker-elect Mike Huebsch, is telling reporters that he and his legislative allies plan to try attaching an amendment to the ethics bill requiring a photo ID to vote in Wisconsin.

The photo ID requirement does not have the votes to pass in the new Legislature as a stand-alone bill. Repeated attempts to enact it in the past failed. It is a divisive and highly partisan idea that could take the “bi” out of bipartisan support for ethics reform legislation in a real hurry.

Opponents of ethics reform know that if a clean ethics bill is given an up-or-down vote, it will pass in both houses and will be signed into law by the governor. They know the only way to kill reform is to lace the legislation with poison. And Huebsch just tipped the obstructionists’ hand.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Howie Rich Sets Up Shop in Wisconsin

Our friends at the national Center for Public Integrity are reporting that Howard Rich has located two of his tax-exempt political organizations in Wisconsin and appears to be operating them illegally in our state.

Sure enough, the groups – the Parents in Charge Foundation and the Legislative Education Action Drive – list their addresses as 10 East Doty Street, Suite 800, Madison, WI 53703. And as of today, neither organization has been authorized to conduct business in Wisconsin by the state Department of Financial Institutions, the agency with which all nonprofit corporations must register if they are going to operate in Wisconsin.

Both of these private school voucher advocacy groups pulled up stakes across the border in Illinois and ran from the law there before landing here.

Who is Howard Rich? He's a New York real estate magnate. Friend of Grover Norquist. Godfather of the national movement to put a "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" in state constitutions. Sugar daddy to state puppet groups, like-minded candidates and a dizzying array of shell companies – Club for Growth State Action, Fund for Democracy, U.S. Term Limits, Americans for Limited Government and America at its Best. The list goes on and on.

He clearly likes to play dress-up, creating organizations around the country that sound like grassroots citizen movements but are actually pure Astroturf. There's "Oklahomans for Good Government" and "Colorado at its Best." And "Missourians in Charge." Also "Montanans in Action" and "Oregonians in Action." And "South Carolinians for Responsible Government." Then there's my personal favorite: "Protect Our Homes Idaho." All of them are really One Multimillionaire New York Real Estate Mogul with a Right-Wing Agenda.

For more on Rich and his operations, check out Also go here, here and here.

Procedure Bites

This postscript to our recent blog, "Voters' #1 Concern," comes courtesy of All Politics Watch, a weblog on the online edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

TUESDAY, Nov. 14, 2006, 6:34 p.m.
Patrick Marley

Freese offers advice

Madison -- Before Assembly Republicans elected new leaders today, they recognized outgoing representatives, complete with plaques from the trophy shop owned by Rep. Dean Kaufert of Neenah.

As speaker pro tempore for a decade, Rep. Steve Freese (R-Dodgeville) was in charge of running Assembly debates and playing referee when the two parties disagreed over debate rules. He lost his race last week, which some have attributed in part to his vote against bringing an ethics bill to the floor for debate.

Freese had sponsored that bill, but voted against bringing it to the floor after his colleagues decided behind closed doors to kill it.

"If anybody ever says a procedural vote will never come back to bite you, don't believe them because I can point to examples all over the state," Freese told his fellow Assembly Republicans.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Turning Off The Mic

Mega media conglomerate Clear Channel and progressive talk radio always seemed like a poor fit. Still, it was disheartening – no, make that thoroughly disgusting – to hear that Clear Channel is pulling the plug on progressive talk on Madison's Air America affiliate – WXXM 92.1 FM "The Mic" – in favor of Fox Sports Radio.

I love sports as much as the next guy, especially baseball and my beloved Chicago Cubs. And I bleed Badger red, particularly during the college basketball season. But do we need more sports on the broadcast airwaves, at the expense of passionate discussion of political issues and civic affairs no less? Of course not.

Clear Channel clearly is putting its bottom line ahead of the best interests of the citizenry and our democracy. You don't have to take my word for it. Listen to Clear Channel magnate Lowry Mays, who has been quoted saying, "We're not in the business of providing news and information.... We're simply in the business of selling our customers' products."

What Mays stunningly but deliberately overlooks is that his company has received a free license to use the public's airwaves on the condition that its programming must serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity." More sports at the expense of democracy does not meet that condition. This move should be reconsidered.

If you feel like talking back to your radio, contact the station (WXXM, 2651 South Fish Hatchery Road, Madison, WI 53701 Phone: 608-274-5450 FAX: 608-274-5521) and also Clear Channel corporate headquarters (Clear Channel, 200 East Basse Road, San Antonio, TX 78209 Phone: 1-210-822-2828). To sign a petition to WXXM's management, go here.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Voters' #1 Concern

National exit polls showed that concern about corruption and ethics in government was the top concern of voters in Tuesday's election, outranking even the Iraq war as the biggest motivating factor for the housecleaning that significantly altered the political landscape at the national and state levels alike.

Corruption was a key issue in state legislative races in every nook and cranny of Wisconsin, and ethics became a deciding factor in several. All five Assembly incumbents who were thrown out of office – Steve Freese of Dodgeville, Rob Kreibich of Eau Claire, Judy Krawczyk of Green Bay, Gabe Loeffelholz of Platteville and Mark Pettis of Hertel – were implicated in the state caucus scandal and were among the state lawmakers identified in testimony during former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen's criminal trial as having received the illegal campaign help that Jensen was convicted of masterminding. All five also cast votes against ethics reform legislation, Senate Bill 1.

A sixth Assembly Republican incumbent may yet fall. Initial reports had Debi Towns up by six votes in the 43rd district. A canvass of the vote total now has Democratic challenger Kim Hixson ahead by nine. A recount will undoubtedly be done.

Overall, it was a rough day Tuesday for the Lobbyists' Legislature. Voters overcame formidable institutional obstacles to change – from incumbent-friendly district lines to huge cash advantages for current office holders – to significantly realign power at the Capitol.

In the Senate, three Republican incumbents were swept out and a Democrat won an open seat vacated by a Republican, giving the Democrats an 18-15 majority in the upper house. Democrats gained seats in the Assembly for the first time in 16 years, picking up a total of at least seven seats and narrowing the Republican majority to 53-46. Make that eight if Hixson ends up besting Towns in the 43rd. That would whittle the GOP majority in the lower house down to 52-47.

There were four other near misses for Democrats in Assembly races in the 47th, 80th, 87th and 96th districts. These four races were decided by a combined 1,054 votes out of more than 86,000 votes cast in those districts. Assuming Hixson holds on to his lead, then Democratic victories in three of these four districts would have given the Democrats a 50-49 majority in the Assembly. If just 624 votes in the three closest of those races had gone to challengers instead of the incumbents, Democrats would have taken over both houses of the Legislature.

Before the election, Capitol insiders were reminding everyone who would listen that all politics is local and insisting that strong anti-war sentiment and low approval ratings for President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress would not be a factor in state legislative races. But the Legislature has been rocked by political scandals mirroring those plaguing Congress, and a strong throw-the-bums-out impulse produced a much larger turnover than anyone had predicted.

Now it's time for the newly elected state Legislature and governor to get down to business and meaningfully address the electorate's top concerns. Campaign finance and ethics reform is at the top of the agenda for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Dave Zweifel, the editor of The Capital Times, is calling on Governor Jim Doyle in particular to take the lead in pushing reform.

Are they listening? Do they hear?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Trash Talk

The Associated Press was reporting with more than a week to go until Election Day that the major parties had spent nearly $160 million in ads attacking congressional candidates, compared to $17 million spent on ads with a positive message.

As AP reported, that's nearly $10 of nasty for every dollar of nice.

Anyone who has been watching the ads in state races in Wisconsin knows that the ratio might very well be worse here.

The professional political consultants who drive the strategic decisionmaking – and the ad buys – privately admit that campaigns are getting a diminishing return on each ad because viewers are increasingly tuning out the unrelentingly trashy messages. The campaigns' response to less bang for each buck? Raise even more money and buy even more ads.

The mantra of the political pros is that negative advertising is so prevalent because it is so effective. Yeah, sure they work. They make people a helluva lot more negative about politics and politicians. They make people hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils.

If airlines advertised the way politicians do, would anyone in America fly again?

The candidates and their handlers can't seem to see beyond Election Day. They see negative ads as their ticket to office, but then when they get there they must realize that the public sees them as something between used car salesmen and child molesters. The way they are attaining power cripples them, undermining the very thing their legitimacy as elected officials depends on. Voter trust.

Going negative may be getting them elected, but it's also making it next to impossible for them to govern. I think the bosses at the Capitol are smart enough to see that. Which brings me to the real reason they can't get their campaigns out of the gutter. It's not that negative ads are so effective. It's that they're easy. It's far easier to tear something down than to build it in the first place. And it's far easier to trash an opponent than to inspire people.

Today's ads are a reflection of the poverty that grips our democracy. The greatest tragedy of our times is the absence of political leaders with the capacity to inspire.

Monday, October 30, 2006

It's Not A Church Thing, After All

Just when we thought the blog posted earlier today covered all the bases Bishop Robert Morlino has been running on behalf of the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, the bishop added a peculiar new twist to this increasingly bizarre story.

The bishop today sent an open letter to "friends in the State of Wisconsin" defending his actions by seeking to distance the Catholic Church from his efforts to promote the marriage amendment. In the letter, Morlino says, "...these public positions are not 'Catholic' issues. These are not tenets of our 'faith' which we are defending. They are universal truths, based on reason alone."

When all past attempts to explain why the printing and distribution of 110,000 "Vote Yes" fliers does not amount to electioneering failed, Morlino now cites a higher law. "When we recognize the objective truth, we need to reconcile ourselves to that truth, never the other way around – this is the natural law," he wrote.

Morlino goes on to say, "This is a truth of reason; it is true for every human being. When I speak in this vein I know that some will call me arrogant for claiming to know the objective truth. This claim is actually an act of humble submission to the Creator – Whose truth this is, not mine, and Whose existence can be known by reason alone."

Which leaves us with just two questions for Bishop Morlino. The first is: Huh? The second: Now that you have that off your chest, will you respect the public's right to know and disclose how much the Madison Catholic Diocese has spent to influence the outcome of the state marriage referendum and where the money came from?

Democracy, By Order Of The Patriarch

When the Democracy Campaign recently shined light on the efforts of the Madison Catholic Diocese to influence the outcome of the statewide referendum on the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, Bishop Robert Morlino's first reaction was to brandish the First Amendment in his defense.

Calling for public disclosure of the diocese's political activities was an attack on freedom of religion, Morlino asserted, going as far as to say our defense of the public's right to know is "persecution" and an attempt to "intimidate" the church.

When it later dawned on the bishop that the Democracy Campaign had not challenged the diocese's right to take a position on the marriage amendment or publicly advocate its position or incorporate its position into church teachings, but rather simply wanted the diocese to publicly disclose clear electioneering activities, Morlino quickly took a different tack.

In an interview with a Madison TV station, he acknowledged that printing and distributing 110,000 fliers urging people to vote yes had "political implications" but insisted that it did not amount to electioneering because the materials were merely being offered but not forced on people. "If I had some way of forcing people to do it that would be electioneering," he reasoned.

Now it's becoming obvious that Morlino not only has an other-worldly conception of political campaigning, but also a rather unconventional idea of what constitutes "forcing." In a front-page commentary in today's Wisconsin State Journal, columnist Bill Wineke reports Morlino sent all the priests in the Madison Diocese a "personal and confidential" letter last week ordering them to play a 14-minute recorded sermon detailing his positions on the marriage amendment, the death penalty referendum and the issue of embryonic stem-cell research at all services next weekend.

The bishop warned the priests that "any verbal or non-verbal expression of disagreement with this teaching on the part of the priest will have to be considered by myself as an act of disobedience, which could have serious consequences."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

TV Hates Democracy

Democracy isn't newsworthy. At least not on local TV news. That's the unavoidable conclusion of a new University of Wisconsin study showing that a typical 30-minute evening newscast featured 36 seconds of election coverage in the month after the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the 2006 election campaign season.

What the five-state study further illustrates is that local TV news really isn't all that much about the news. Well over half of a typical "newscast" is actually devoted to advertising, sports and weather.

The results of this study are staggering and downright depressing. National and regional research show that most Americans get most of their news from local television news broadcasts. Yet those newscasts offer precious little news and treat the democratic process as a non-story. The UW study shows that what little election coverage is aired focuses largely on who is likely to win, not on providing information voters can use to make up their own minds.

While substantive coverage of elections by television broadcasters is almost non-existent, the same TV stations are reaping millions of dollars from paid political advertising, which in turn drives up the cost of running for office. Voters are exposed to an exponentially larger number of political ads than substantive political news stories.

The airwaves over which stations broadcast their programming are owned by the American people, not by the broadcasters as is often mistakenly assumed. The results of the UW study show that most broadcasters are retreating from their obligation to serve the public interest, including their responsibility to inform citizens so they can participate in the political process.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Selective Enforcement And Selective Outrage

The state Elections Board decided yesterday to stick by its August 30 ruling ordering Republican candidate for governor Mark Green to get rid of nearly $468,000 in illegal donations, but punted the question of whether another $775,000 that the state Justice Department and a circuit court judge contend runs afoul of federal law should also be dumped by the Green campaign.

It's pretty obvious that political calculations and public relations implications were behind the Board's reluctance to wade any deeper into the legality of Green's money. The Board's chairman said as much, telling reporters after yesterday's meeting that the controversy over the Board's previous ruling on August 30 "kind of put the kibosh" on efforts to consider any further action.

It's somehow fitting that this latest chapter in the Board's long history of selective enforcement of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws was brought on by the selective outrage expressed by the state's political bosses, radio talk show hosts and letter-to-the-editor writers. Democrats pounced on the rulings that the donations were illegal to make Green out to be a corrupt lawbreaker. Republicans focused instead on the politicking in advance of the Elections Board's August 30 decision to characterize Green as an innocent victim of a rigged process.

In truth, Green is neither a criminal nor a victim. There is no evidence that he willfully set out to break the law. The Elections Board had previously wrongly permitted then-Congressman Tom Barrett to transfer large sums of money he raised in Washington to his campaign for governor in 2002. The Board's legal counsel also evidently gave the Green campaign some very dubious advice that left Green with the impression that he was on the right side of the law.

But how Green responded to later evidence that his money dump was in fact illegal cost him any claim to victimhood. The Democracy Campaign pointed out how the donation from Green's federal campaign committee to his campaign for governor violates Wisconsin's campaign finance laws, and Green didn't dispute the laws we cited, but rather said his donation was really a "conversion" of funds and the law shouldn't apply. When the Elections Board disagreed with this creatively murky interpretation of crystal clear laws and ordered him to divest himself of nearly a half million dollars, Green effectively said "order, schmorder." When state Justice Department attorneys and then a circuit court judge said the Elections Board had actually let Green off easy considering that nearly all of the $1.3 million his federal campaign donated to his state campaign for governor is illegal under federal law, he continued to say in effect "screw the law."

Of course, Green has every legal right to challenge the Elections Board's order and the circuit court judge's decision. But he is not following the customary legal path in exercising that right. Green's legal team clearly has assessed the chances of getting the circuit court ruling reversed on appeal and decided against following the normal route of asking the state appeals court to review the lower court's ruling. Instead, he is doing what lawyers call "forum shopping" – looking for a court that will give him the ruling he wants. His lawyers obviously have decided his best shot is before the state Supreme Court. So he's asking the state's highest court to take "original jurisdiction" over the case; in other words, pretend that Green never went to circuit court to challenge the Elections Board's order and the judge never ruled against Green. He's asking for a do-over, starting fresh with the Supreme Court.

It's already been reported in the media that at least five of the seven state Supreme Court justices have potential conflicts of interest in this case that could be serious enough to require them to recuse themselves. It was not reported that a sixth member of the court – Justice Patience Roggensack – received a $500 donation from Green for Congress on December 12, 2002.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Wisconsin's Kangaroo Court

When the Democracy Campaign raised questions about money Mark Green raised in Washington as a member of Congress and later transferred to his campaign for governor, we set out to expose illegal donations. We also ended up further exposing what's wrong with the state Elections Board. This whole episode has shown what a kangaroo court the Elections Board is.

We initially pointed out that Green was accumulating too much money from special interest political action committees (PACs) and then questioned whether federal PACs in Washington could legally contribute to a candidate for governor in Wisconsin. We found that a large number of PACs that had given Green close to a half million dollars could not make lawful donations to a state race. On those grounds, we challenged that portion of the nearly $1.3 million Green's congressional campaign committee donated to his state campaign for governor. The Elections Board ordered Green to get rid of nearly $468,000 in illegal donations.

Later, when it was revealed by state Justice Department attorneys in circuit court last week that federal law prohibits a federal committee like Green for Congress from donating more than $43,128 to a candidate for governor in Wisconsin, the Democracy Campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission challenging the rest of the illegal funds.

How this all will ultimately play out, only time will tell. But what already is well established is that the Elections Board has thoroughly discredited itself.

Back in 2001, the Democracy Campaign objected to then-Congressman Tom Barrett's transfer of money he raised in Washington to the state campaign committee he used to finance his 2002 run for governor. The Elections Board permitted the transfer. We objected to Green's transfer on the same grounds and the Board chose to enforce the law.

Both transfers were plainly illegal. Barrett moved $346,545 in PAC money from his congressional account to his state campaign, including $267,300 from PACs that were not registered in Wisconsin and could not legally donate to a candidate for governor here. Barrett also proceeded to raise more PAC money in Wisconsin, bringing his total haul from special interest committees to $676,796 – well over the $485,190 cumulative limit in state law on PAC donations to candidates for governor.

The law is clear. It was illegal for Barrett to try to use all that money he raised in Washington for his campaign for governor in 2002, and it is illegal for Green to use $1.3 million in Washington money now. But the Elections Board has succeeded in removing the focus from the law and clouding the issue because of its habit of making decisions based on politics and not the law.

The Elections Board has been horribly inconsistent in how it has handled federal-to-state transfers and has done a generally miserable job of enforcing Wisconsin's campaign finance laws. This latest performance has provided a very vivid illustration of why the Board needs to be reformed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Starting A Ruckus

At last Saturday's Fighting Bob Fest in Baraboo, organizers of the People's Legislature announced one of the next steps for this multi-partisan, grassroots reform movement – the formation of a "Ruckus Corps" of citizen volunteers who will create a little havoc in fighting government corruption and pressing for action on reform at the Capitol and in their own communities.

Training sessions will be organized for later this fall to prepare Ruckus Corps volunteers to engage in direct action, including acts of civil disobedience, at the Capitol and in the home districts of state lawmakers. The training also will aim to equip the corps with community organizing and reform advocacy skills.

Anyone interested in becoming part of the Ruckus Corps should call the Democracy Campaign at 608-255-4260 or toll-free at 888-455-4260, or drop us an e-mail at and provide a mailing address, phone number and e-mail address.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

All This For $28 Million

As we reported last Friday, the state Justice Department responded to concerns raised by the Democracy Campaign by ruling that the state Elections Board has to comply with a voter privacy law in Wisconsin's statutes. Registration numbers assigned to each voter need to be kept confidential as election officials compile voter lists under a new computerized registration system being developed for the state by the global outsourcing firm Accenture.

Now we're finding out how the Elections Board intends to do this. Despite sinking $28 million into the new statewide voter registration system, the Board's solution to the voter privacy issue we raised is decidedly low-tech.

Poll workers are now being instructed to cover voter registration numbers when allowing observers to view voter lists on Election Day or fulfilling open records requests for the lists. Recommended ways to protect voter privacy on the computer-generated lists include covering the numbers with a ruler, a piece of paper or remnants of file folders.

Friday, September 01, 2006

WDC Gets Answer on Voter Privacy Issue

In late July, the Democracy Campaign asked Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager to review a state Elections Board directive to local election officials to ignore a state voter privacy law and requested an opinion from the attorney general about whether the Elections Board is at liberty to instruct election officials throughout Wisconsin to disregard the law.

We got our answer. In a letter from Alan Lee, deputy administrator of the state Justice Department's Division of Legal Services, we were informed that "the law certainly is valid and the Elections Board is not at liberty to ignore it." The letter goes on to say that the Elections Board "has indicated it will comply with the law."

Specifically, the letter from the attorney general's office says the Elections Board "will direct local election officials to cover the (voter registration) number, including the bar code, when making copies of the list." The Board also will "direct poll workers to cover the number, including the bar code, when permitting observers to view the poll list on Election day" and will "suppress the number when running reports from (the Statewide Voter Registration System) in response to open record requests."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Ethics And The Jensen 20

Sixteen of 20 Republican legislators or candidates for higher office who were mentioned in testimony during former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen's misconduct trial did not answer a recent survey asking where they stand on campaign finance and government ethics reform.

Witnesses said these officials got taxpayer-funded campaign help from state workers or were involved in campaign activities on state time in the 1998 or 2000 legislative elections. Jensen was sentenced in May to 15 months in prison after being convicted of three felony misconduct in public office charges, and a misdemeanor. He has appealed.

Topping the list of those whose names came up during the trial and who did not respond to the survey are gubernatorial candidate Mark Green and Assembly Speaker John Gard, who is running for Congress to represent Wisconsin's 8th District.

The others are Senator Neal Kedzie of Elkorn and Representatives Rob Kreibich of Eau Claire, Jeff Stone of Greendale, Gary Bies of Sister Bay, Judy Krawczyk of Green Bay, Phil Montgomery of Ashwaubenon, Jerry Petrowski of Marathon, Dan Meyer of Eagle River, Steve Kestell of Elkhart Lake, Gabe Loeffelholz of Platteville, Don Friske of Merrill, Kitty Rhoades of Hudson, Mark Pettis of Hertel and Eugene Hahn of Cambria.

Those mentioned during the trial who did respond to the survey were Senator Joseph Leibham of Sheboygan and Representatives Terry Musser of Black River Falls, Stephen Freese of Dodgeville and Terri McCormick of Appleton, who is also running for Wisconsin's 8th Congressional District seat.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Money Trumps Ethics For Most Legislators

Fewer than half the legislative candidates running in the November elections responded to a six-question survey on campaign finance and government ethics reform conducted by WDC, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

And the real reason for many of them is not too hard to figure out. A review of the latest campaign finance reports they filed found that many of the legislative candidates who refused to answer the survey raised a lot of money from influential special interests.

Nineteen of 25 incumbent legislators who raised the most campaign contributions between January and June 2006 refused to answer the survey, and another incumbent definitively answered only two of the six questions.

You would think the corruption convictions of five of their former colleagues and an aide in the last nine months would move legislators toward reform out of political necessity. But most of the 81 incumbent legislators who refused to publicly stake out a position on ethics were the same ones who refused to even vote on campaign finance and ethics bills during the past legislative session.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In No Hurry For Ethics

Yesterday we released the responses we've received from candidates for state office to the ethics survey the Democracy Campaign, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and Common Cause in Wisconsin sent them three weeks ago. Two of the three candidates for governor – Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and Green Party nominee Nelson Eisman – answered the questionnaire. Republican Mark Green didn't bother.

Green's campaign manager, Mark Graul, denies the congressman is ducking the questions. He says Green is a busy man and just didn't have time.

Graul went on to tip Green's hand on the reform issues covered in our questionnaire. He said Green opposes public financing of campaigns and doubts the constitutionality of requiring sponsors of so-called "issue ads" to disclose how the messages were paid for.

Green apparently has already forgotten the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in McConnell v. FEC that left no doubt about the constitutionality of regulating issue ads and the soft money used to finance them.

In the majority opinion written by Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor with Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer concurring, little was left to the imagination. "The proliferation of sham issue ads has driven the soft-money explosion.... The evidence connects soft money to manipulations of the legislative calendar, leading to Congress' failure to enact, among other things, generic drug legislation, tort reform, and tobacco legislation...."

The court majority also ruled that "...corporate, union, and wealthy individual donors have been free to contribute substantial sums of soft money to the national parties, which the parties can spend for the specific purpose of influencing a particular candidate's federal election. It is not only plausible, but likely, that candidates would feel grateful for such donations and that donors would seek to exploit that gratitude." And then this: "The idea that large contributions to a national party can corrupt or, at the very least, create the appearance of corruption of federal candidates and officeholders is neither novel nor implausible."

And then the justices stuck a stake through the heart of the 1976 legal precedent established in Buckley v. Valeo that had previously prevented regulation of this kind of activity. "The unmistakable lesson from the record in this litigation, as all three judges on the District Court agreed, is that Buckley's magic-words requirement is functionally meaningless.... Buckley's express advocacy line, in short, has not aided the legislative effort to combat real or apparent corruption, and Congress enacted (McCain-Feingold) to correct the flaws it found in the existing system."

Mark Green better rethink his use of the Constitution to oppose reform. He doesn't have a leg to stand on.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Elections Board To Locals: Break The Law

A state law protecting voter privacy is the latest car to join the crumpled heap that is the train wreck known as SVRS, bureaucratic shorthand for Statewide Voter Registration System. SVRS is being developed under the state's contract with the global outsourcing firm Accenture LLP to develop a computerized voter registration list.

Elections Board and Accenture officials have taken great pains to justify the eye-popping $14 million price tag on the contract by saying the company is developing computer software tailor-made for registering voters in Wisconsin. The Democracy Campaign reported last October that the Accenture software didn't appear to be as customized as advertised. Accenture's off-the-shelf program contained data fields for things like party affiliation and whether a voter owns property, even though such voter information is not collected under Wisconsin law and is incompatible with voter registration practices in the state. Those data fields have been deactivated.

But now the Democracy Campaign has discovered that the Elections Board is instructing local election officers to ignore the state law spelling out what voter information is confidential. In a July 21 memo, the board says the registration identification number assigned to each voter "is not treated as confidential" and "is a public record and must be provided upon request" by individuals and organizations with an interest in having access to elector information stored in the database.

The problem with the Elections Board's position is that it is against state law. Section 6.36(1)(b) of Wisconsin's statutes says no person "other than an employee of the board, a municipal clerk, a deputy clerk, an executive director of a city board of election commissioners, or a deputy designated by the executive director" may view voter registration identification numbers.

It appears that Accenture did not take into account the specifics of Wisconsin's election laws and failed to tailor the software programming to the state's laws and needs, and it appears the Elections Board failed to supervise Accenture's development of the software in order to make certain the purchased voter registration software complied with all applicable Wisconsin laws.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Law Is The Law

Wisconsin law limits the amount of money candidates for governor can take from special interest political action committees (PACs) to $485,000 in a four-year election cycle. When Green Bay-area Republican Congressman Mark Green decided to run for governor, he wanted to transfer $1.3 million he raised as a member of Congress from his federal campaign account to a state account to help finance his bid for governor.

The Democracy Campaign has long opposed allowing federal office holders to use money raised for federal campaigns in order to run for state office. We opposed Democrat Tom Barrett's transfer of money he raised as a member of Congress to help finance his 2002 run for the state's highest office. It was wrong when Barrett did it, and it's wrong for Green to do it.

Such transfers will not be allowed after 2006 because a rule pushed by the Democracy Campaign was adopted by the state Elections Board last year outlawing the practice for future races, but the board grandfathered Green's plans to use funds from his federal campaign in this year's gubernatorial race. But while the Elections Board blessed a Green transfer, it also ruled that any federal money he uses for his state campaign must comply with state contribution limits and other state campaign finance laws.

The Legislature's Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules objected to the Elections Board rule, but the full Legislature never enacted legislation reversing it before adjourning on July 12, as it is required to do to nullify a rule. After consulting with attorneys with the Legislative Council, the state Revisor of Statutes office and the Elections Board, we believe the rule remains in effect.

The state limit on PAC contributions to a candidate for governor is $485,000. Green transferred $511,405 in PAC donations from his federal account to the state account he's using to fuel his campaign for governor. He also has raised another $156,140 from PACs since launching his state campaign, bringing his total PAC contributions to $667,545. That's $182,545 over the legal limit in state law.

The limit on PAC donations in state law is there for a good reason – to protect the public. The public has a compelling interest in preventing special interests from having too much influence over elections and elected officials. The Green campaign is operating under the assumption that the $511,000 in PAC money transferred in from the congressman's federal account does not count toward the state limit. Green believes he still can raise $485,000 from PACs over and above what he moved from his federal campaign fund. If the law is not enforced and Mark Green is allowed to operate as he sees fit, he will be allowed to take just shy of $1 million in PAC money from special interest groups.

The first casualty of Green's maneuver was Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who for a time was a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor. Green's federal money gave him such a fundraising advantage that Walker pulled out, saying he could not raise enough money to compete.

Think about it. This race was too rich for Scott Walker's blood. If someone as well-known, well-connected and well-heeled as Walker can't afford to compete, then who can?

Scott Walker is the proverbial canary in a coal mine. His withdrawal was a warning of how toxic to our democracy the campaign money chase has become.

Walker was the first casualty of Green's money shifting. If the law is not enforced and the state limit on PAC contributions is not respected, the next casualty will be what little remains of longstanding protections guarding against special interest ownership of our state government.

Monday, July 10, 2006

AG Candidates On Open Government

For those who feel strongly about our state's open records and open meetings laws check out the responses by some of the Democratic and Republican attorney general candidates to questions posed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Unfortunately, Republican candidate Paul Bucher did not bother to respond even after numerous requests. Maybe people should start asking Bucher if he thinks open government is a big deal, seeing as how he could be Wisconsin's next top cop.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Doyle Donor Helped Abramoff

Michael Chapman, the former chairman of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and a contributor to Governor Jim Doyle's re-election campaign, helped disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff line up a key tribal client and received more than a quarter of a million dollars for his trouble.

Chapman played a role in getting Abramoff together with members of the Agua Caliente tribe of Palm Springs, California, including arranging an introductory meeting. The tribe eventually hired Abramoff as a lobbyist and paid him and associate Michael Scanlon $10 million in fees.

Chapman reportedly received $271,000 in payments – $171,000 from Abramoff's firm, Greenberg Traurig, and $100,000 from Scanlon's Capitol Campaign Strategies.

Governor Doyle received $325 in campaign contributions from Chapman in 2005. There is no record of Chapman making donations to any other candidate for state office in Wisconsin.

The Democracy Campaign reported in January that Doyle received campaign money from another Abramoff associate, Greenberg Traurig attorney Alan Slomowitz. Doyle decided to return the donation from Slomowitz hours after the Democracy Campaign called attention to it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Peasants Are Restless

The political scandals in Wisconsin continue to grow and the criminal convictions mount. The political bosses keep holding their country club fundraisers and pretend not to notice. But voters are getting ready to deliver a wake-up call to the Capitol.

Some prominent veterans of Wisconsin politics are stirring too. Namely three of the state's most senior Democratic leaders – longtime Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, former Governor Tony Earl and former gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate Ed Garvey – are saying the state's leaders and the governor in particular need to take dramatic steps at once to clean up the corruption at the Capitol or they'll look for someone who will.

Amid hints of a draft movement to fill Wisconsin's leadership vacuum, citizens are being asked to gather this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Madison Labor Temple to help decide how to respond to the state's growing crisis of leadership. The Labor Temple is located on Madison's south side at 1602 South Park Street.

Friday, June 16, 2006

When Voting Becomes Undemocratic

Representative Dean Kaufert, one of the co-chairmen of the Legislature's powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, wrote in a guest commentary published by the Appleton Post-Crescent yesterday that the recent effort to overcome the actions of legislative leaders to keep the ethics reform measure Senate Bill 1 bottled up in committee was a threat to the democratic process.

Playing by the rules of a democracy, where the will of the majority is supposed to prevail, reform advocates won. Senate Bill 1 passed 28-5 in the state Senate. The governor pledged to sign the legislation. Assembly leaders promised a vote on SB 1 before going back on their word.

Days before the final showdown on SB 1 in the Assembly on May 2, the bill's lead sponsor in the Assembly, Appleton Republican Terri McCormick, announced that conversations she had with colleagues made it clear a majority of state Assembly members would vote for SB 1 if it was brought to a vote.

Knowing the bill would pass if given an up-or-down vote, Assembly GOP leaders twisted arms behind closed doors until they had bullied enough of their fellow legislators into submission. Even Republican sponsors and backers of SB 1 including Kaufert and Representatives Steve Freese of Dodgeville, Eugene Hahn of Cambria and Terry Musser of Black River Falls were persuaded to oppose the effort to pull the reform bill from committee and take it up in the full Assembly.

Now Kaufert is saying such efforts to overcome stonewalling tactics and force votes are "violations of the democratic process meant to embarrass the leadership."

Amazing. Simply amazing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Another Corruption Bombshell

A jury in Milwaukee convicted state purchasing officer Georgia Thompson of bid rigging late yesterday.

The jury concluded that due to political considerations Thompson illegally used her influence to steer a state travel contract to a Wisconsin-based firm, Adelman Travel, whose top executives made large campaign donations to Governor Jim Doyle.

The verdict is vindication for prosecutors in the case. Allies of the governor had charged that the ongoing investigation – led by a Republican appointee and two elected Democrats – is politically motivated and baseless. The federal, state and local law enforcement authorities involved in the investigation have asked the Democracy Campaign for assistance and are using our database of contributors to state campaigns in their probe.

Evidence came to light during the Thompson trial that raises new questions about the role of political appointees within the Doyle administration in the travel contract case. In particular, former Administration Secretary Marc Marotta, who now is Doyle's campaign chairman, told the media in October that he had no contact with Adelman officials while bids were being evaluated. Phone records introduced as evidence in the trial appear to contradict that claim. Those records show phone calls were exchanged between Marotta's office and Adelman travel during the process.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Where There's Smoke....

The case against Georgia Thompson is hardly open and shut. But even if the mid-level state purchasing officer isn't convicted of bid rigging, the circumstances surrounding the state travel contract that is at the heart of the federal charges against Thompson look more and more suspicious as the trial wears on.

Even before the first witness testified or the first document was offered as evidence, it was known that the contract was given to the Wisconsin-based Adelman Travel even though an out-of-state competitor, Omega Travel, actually received the higher score from the committee evaluating the bids. And it was known that Adelman executives contributed $20,000 to Governor Jim Doyle's campaign.

Now consider the smoke Marc Marotta is blowing. The former Administration Secretary who now is Governor Doyle's campaign chairman told the media in October that he had not had any contact with anyone at Adelman Travel after the bid process officially started in December 2004. But records introduced as evidence in the trial show phone calls were exchanged between Marotta's office and Adelman Travel while the bid evaluation process was ongoing.

It is possible Marotta himself did not participate in the phone conversations. The phone records do not prove otherwise. But when asked about it now, he does not offer that defense. He just refuses to comment.

At best, it now appears Marotta misled the public about his and his office's role in the travel contract saga. At worst, he outright lied.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

'Travelgate' Trial Starts

The Georgia Thompson trial got started yesterday. Federal prosecutors accuse Thompson, a mid-level state purchasing officer, with bid rigging. She was indicted by a federal grand jury on two felony charges of fraud and misapplication of funds. The indictment alleges Thompson steered a state travel contract to Adelman Travel, a company whose top officials contributed heavily to Governor Jim Doyle's campaign.

Thompson is widely considered a small fish caught in a net designed to ensnare much larger targets higher on the political chain of command. But in opening remarks yesterday, federal prosecutor Steven Biskupic made it clear the trial would focus on Thompson, saying his case "is not about the politicians you're going to hear about" during testimony.

The Georgia Thompson-Adelman Travel case is not by any means the only recent example of state government decisions made amidst suspicious circumstances involving large campaign donations. Nor is it the biggest or arguably the best example. We know the scope of ongoing investigations by federal, state and local law enforcement authorities is much broader than just the state travel contract. What remains to be seen is if these investigations will lead to further criminal charges.

Friday, June 02, 2006

'Good Lord'

Wisconsin Public Television's Frederica Freyburg asked Congressman Mark Green if he would pardon his old friend Scott Jensen if he were to be elected governor this fall. Green's answers – yep, he took more than one stab at the question – were as telling as they were awkward.

At first, Green simply muttered, "Good Lord." It went downhill from there.

When he served in the Legislature, Green was part of Jensen's leadership team in the Assembly and he was implicated in the caucus scandal during the former speaker's recent trial. Former caucus graphic artist Eric Grant testified that Mark Graul asked him to do campaign work for Green while Green was in the Legislature. Graul was a Green aide in the Legislature and now is his campaign manager. Among the tasks Grant said he performed for Green on state time was producing Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers football schedules for campaign use.

Grant also testified that Chris Tuttle signed off on state workers' campaign assignments and approved production of campaign materials. Tuttle was the caucus media director in 1998. Green was caucus chairman from 1994 to 1998. Yet Green lamely contended that Tuttle "didn't work for me in those days and he wasn't mentioned in any of the stories" about the caucus scandal. Tuttle went on to become Green's congressional chief of staff. It was announced yesterday that Tuttle is resigning his post in Green's office to take a job with the U.S. State Department.

Also unearthed during the Jensen trial were two memos distributed in the fall of 1998 to legislative offices seeking campaign help for legislative races and Green's first run for Congress. The memos were prepared by a group called Staff Working for an Assembly Republican Majority, or SWARM.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Want A Third Party? Would You Settle For Two?

Anyone who has ever paid Senator Mike Ellis a visit in his Capitol office knows the chalkboard. And has heard the lecture.

Scribbled on the chalkboard is a Da Vinci Code of numbers and acronyms that tell of the state's financial condition. Ask and you shall receive the sermon about fund balances and GPR and SEG and structural deficits.

Ellis is a dying breed, a true fiscal conservative. He's also a former math teacher. And he knows the state budget. He knows it's built on a foundation of flim-flam. He'll say as much. More is spent than is paid for. The bottom line is made to look balanced by accounting trickery and more than a little borrowed from the future.

During a recent visit, Ellis went off on the fiscal dishonesty of both sides. The Neenah Republican had choice words for his side's habit of claiming to be champions of fiscal restraint and friends of the taxpayer. He pointed to two numbers on his chalkboard. The first was the amount of spending authorized under the budget signed into law by Governor Jim Doyle. The second was the amount of spending in the budget approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and deposited on Doyle's desk. The second number was considerably higher.

And these people call themselves fiscal conservatives, Ellis ranted. And worse yet, he marvels, their supporters actually believe the hocum they peddle.

Then he aims his ire in Doyle's direction. The governor claims he's cleaned up the state's fiscal mess and balanced the budget . . . without raising taxes. Ellis has two problems with that song and dance. First, he reminds anyone who will listen that the budget is not really balanced. Smoke and mirrors and credit cards make it appear balanced, but it is structurally out of whack. Hundreds of millions more are spent than are paid for. The bill will eventually come due. Second, under the headline that taxes have not been raised is paragraphs of fine print. Taxes haven't been raised if you only count general purpose revenue tax rates and ignore all the increases in user fees and college tuition. More hocum, as Ellis sees it.

What rankles Ellis the most, however, is how the two parties have melted into one on matters budgetary. In the past, he insists, if the state faced a budget crunch, Democrats stood up and said taxes needed to be raised to pay for needed programs. Republicans said all those programs weren't so necessary and insisted spending could be cut. Sometimes, Wisconsin voters felt important investments needed to be made and sided with the Democrats. Other times, taxpayers felt state officials were playing a little too fast and loose with their money and went for the Republicans.

Now, Ellis says, you can't tell the difference between the two parties. The Republicans' dirty little secret is that they love to spend, he says, especially to build roads and prisons. But they're allergic to raising taxes. Democrats like Doyle likewise keep feeding their pet programs but refuse to raise taxes to honestly pay the bills.

All this must leave voters horribly disoriented, Ellis concludes. Citizens don't know who to believe on the budget, because both sides are for spending without taxing.

That chalkboard in the senator's office don't lie. But it also reveals only the tip of the iceberg that menaces the ship of state. The disorientation voters are feeling is very real, but it goes way beyond the issues of taxing and spending.

Doyle Does Damage Control

Within hours of the Democracy Campaign calling attention to $10,000 in donations from 10 New York City attorneys with a top class-action law firm recently indicted on federal racketeering, money laundering, mail fraud, obstruction of justice and other charges, Governor Jim Doyle's campaign announced it is returning the money.

It's remarkable how it always takes the media or some watchdog group going public with embarrassing facts to prod the people running political campaigns to do the right thing. They're almost never proactive about this kind of thing. Don't they read the newspapers? You'd think they'd see campaign donors indicted by a federal grand jury and maybe come to the conclusion that keeping those contributions is not such a bright idea.

Considering how much time, energy and money campaigns spend digging up dirt on their opponents, it never ceases to amaze that they won't spend a dime to prevent self-inflicted wounds.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Ebert's Review: Thumbs Down!

Before sentencing former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen to 15 months in prison and banning him from the Capitol for five years, Judge Steven Ebert lectured Jensen for close to 20 minutes about his crimes. In doing so, Ebert spoke volumes about government ethics in Wisconsin and the condition of our democracy.

Ebert said as he listened to testimony day after day, he would "wonder whether or not this trial illustrated the ethical standards of the Legislature and the corrupting influence of money and power. And I have to conclude that yes, it did. Painfully so. It reflected that." He went on to say "Wisconsin's government is indeed in a deplorable state."

The judge told Jensen "you have placed personal ambition and greed above your oath of office," undermining democracy for a "private and venal" purpose. Ebert said Jensen was the ringleader of an "elite cabal" that engaged in "chicanery and deception," and told the Waukesha-area Republican "your acts reflect the truth of the statement, 'power corrupts.'"

Ebert was just getting warmed up. "What occurred was little more than common thievery elevated to a higher plane for one purpose, and that was to push forward your agenda." He added, "I think that represented the degradation of the Wisconsin ideal of democracy."

The judge continued: "You knew what you were doing. You knew it was illegal."

And then this: "Your idea of representative government is if you've got the money, you're represented."

Ebert said the end result of Jensen's actions was the "perversion of the legislative process." He lamented that "there was a time when many of us can remember taking pride in Wisconsin's reputation for good government. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case."

In the end, the judge told Jensen, "to ensure your political party prevailed, you have guaranteed that you're going to be known and remembered for these felony convictions and for the harm you've created...."


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Fox And The Donkey

Fox Broadcasting’s news content and presentation is viewed by many as rabidly pro-Republican.

When Fox talk show host Tony Snow was recently picked by President Bush as his new press secretary, Democrats chortled that every Fox broadcaster is already a mouthpiece for the Republican White House.

So it may come as no surprise that Fox executives and employees are interested in politics and make campaign contributions to candidates throughout the country, including Wisconsin.

But what may surprise you is the Wisconsin officeholder who can claim a Fox Broadcasting executive as her biggest individual contributor between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2005 – Democratic Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton.

Lawton has received two contributions – on November 5, 2003 and December 22, 2005 – totaling $6,000 from John Nesvig of Riverside, Connecticut, who campaign reports describe as president of sales for Fox Broadcasting, which is part of Rupert Murdoch’s global communications empire.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

With Friends Like These....

The Assembly voted late yesterday to block an effort to bring Senate Bill 1 to the floor for a vote.

The roll call vote on the motion to pull the ethics reform legislation from the Rules Committee and take it up provided plenty of evidence of the considerable arm twisting that was done by Assembly leaders to ensure the bill would remain bottled up. Several Republican sponsors and self-proclaimed supporters of SB 1 — including Representatives Steve Freese of Dodgeville, Eugene Hahn of Cambria, Dean Kaufert of Neenah and Terry Musser of Black River Falls — voted to kill their own bill.

A Ruckus For Reform

More than 150 People's Legislature members picketed in front of the Assembly chamber yesterday morning demanding a vote on ethics reform legislation. Assembly members had to run a gauntlet of picketers as they entered the chamber, with protesters chanting "vote!" and "SB 1" and holding signs with messages such as "Give Clean Government a Chance" or "Stop the Corruption" and calling for "Ethics Reform Now." When the Assembly convened, People's Legislature members shouted "up or down vote" and unfurled a large banner saying "Clean Up Your Act . . . Vote on Senate Bill 1."

One of the onlookers was none other than convicted ex-lawmaker-turned lobbyist Steve Foti. When spotted by rally participants, Foti was greeted with chants of "work release, work release" and "Foti go home!"

A representative of the state technical colleges told one People's Legislature organizer that the pro-reform crowd was so loud that a Senate committee working on a proposed constitutional amendment limiting government taxing and spending adjourned its meeting because members could not hear each other.

The Assembly recessed and members escaped to closed-door caucuses guarded by Capitol police.

To see photos of the People's Legislature protest, go here.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ass-Backwards Labels

I can't be the only one who thinks today's political labels have outlived their usefulness. The tags "liberal" and "conservative" or "left" and "right" are supposed to serve as a kind of ideological shorthand that helps us make sense of the political world. The code is all garbled.

Many liberals hate the "L" word, or at least fear it, although when you look it up in the dictionary it's hard to see why. The word comes from the Latin liber, which means "free." One dictionary defines liberal as "generous" and "tolerant; broad-minded" and "one who favors reform or progress."

Among the definitions of conservative is "tending to preserve established institutions; opposed to change" and "moderate; cautious."

If Webster's is to be believed, liberals play offense and conservatives play defense. Yet in modern politics, it's the self-described "conservatives" who are on the attack, seeking to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society reforms of yesteryear. And it's the "liberals" who always seem to be on their heels, seemingly incapable of an original thought, gamely defending decades-old programs.

We are sorely in need of some new labels. How about commoners and royalists? Under this new lexicon, we would stop thinking from left to right and start thinking up and down. If the defining standard became whether you are for those on top or for those on the bottom, many "liberals" and "conservatives" fall in the same category as they slavishly service their wealthy campaign donors. The bankruptcy of the old labels is apparent.

If you really want labels that speak truthfully about the condition of our democracy and faithfully describe our current batch of elected officials, how about distinguishing between the naturally born and the test-tube babies? That is, those politicians who are genuine products of their communities as opposed to those who are essentially clones of the political bosses and were groomed in the Capitol farm system. You could call 'em "amateurs" and "professionals" if you prefer. Again, if measured by this standard, most "liberal" politicians and their "conservative" counterparts are cut from the same cloth. The old code fails us again.

There's significance in the increasing uselessness of our old political vocabulary. It means the ground has moved beneath us, but our language has not yet caught up to this shift in the tectonic plates of our democracy. Something historic is happening, but we haven't figured out how to talk about it yet. Once we do, politics will begin to make more sense to more people again. That can only result in something good.

To Cover Your Behind, You Need A Good Front

Back in 2004, the Democracy Campaign issued a report showing how special interest money was increasingly moving under the radar, leaving voters in the dark about who's really paying for election campaigns. This trend away from the fully disclosed, out-in-the-open electioneering of years past to today's clandestine campaigning is enough to bring anyone who remembers clean and open government in Wisconsin to tears.

One of the features of today's election campaigns that is most most degrading to democracy is the rise of money-laundering, law-dodging, character-assassinating front groups. They first started making a significant impact on state elections in Wisconsin in 2000. That year, they operated under names like the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin, People for Wisconsin's Future, Project Vote Informed and Wisconsin Voter Education Fund.

In 2002, they sprouted like weeds. Citizens for Clean and Responsible Government, the Coalition for America's Families, Coalition to Keep America Working and Working Families of Wisconsin joined the fray. Of these four, two were tied to the Democrats and two were for the Republicans. Any idea which is which?

The most notorious of the groups that played a major role in influencing 2000 and 2002 legislative races was Independent Citizens for Democracy. That was Chuck Chvala's group, which specialized in laundering corporate donations that are illegal in Wisconsin through out-of-state receptacles like the Kansas Democratic Party and the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

In 2004, All Children Matter, Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future and the Greater Wisconsin Committee weighed in heavily on behalf of their special interest patrons.

Considering how much these groups' names sound alike, we figured the people who run these stealth operations must be running low on imagination by now. So we started a "Name a Front Group" contest and asked our statewide e-mail network to let the creative juices flow and send us their suggestions.

In a matter of days, we were flooded with entries. Some were cryptic, a few were profane, but most were just laugh-out-loud funny. They included Noxious Lobbyists for Motherhood and Apple Pie, Americans for Free Parking, Citizens Laboring Against Promiscuity (CLAP), Citizens Revering Everything Excellent and Pure (CREEP), the Association of 8-Year-Old Hunters and Other Idiots, Ultra-Patriotic Americans for a More American America and the Wisconsin Faith-based Repeal Of New Taxes Group (Wisconsin FRONT Group).

Our panel of judges narrowed the field down to three finalists, including Citizens for Grass Roots Engagement and Economic Development (Citizens for GREED), Families Allied for Keen Elections (FAKE) and the People's Front for the Corporate Behind.

Then we asked our e-mail network to make the final decision. The winner, with 47% of the votes cast, was the People's Front for the Corporate Behind. Citizens for GREED got 35% of the votes and FAKE received 11%, with the remaining 7% spread among a number of other entries. One of those votes went to a late entry deserving of special mention, People for the Unethical Treatment of Voters (PUTV). If that one had been suggested earlier, it would have been a strong vote-getter.

Thanks to all who submitted entries and all who voted in our contest. It was good fun. What's going on in our elections these days is enough to make you cry. Laughing is a better option. But we also hope this contest served as a good-natured reminder of a most disturbing trend in our election campaigns.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Swift Boat Contributions Floated To Foundations, Disney Resort

More than $342,000 in contributions made by Wisconsin residents and others to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have been donated to conservative foundations or used to pay for a meeting at Walt Disney World.

Swift Boat Veterans is a 527 group named after the IRS code that governs these unregulated electioneering groups that can collect and spend unlimited amounts of money.  They use most of their money on negative television and radio ads like the ones Swift Boat ran criticizing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s war record during the 2004 elections.

In 2005 and the first quarter of 2006, the group raised only $2,300 but spent $782,541.

Swift Boat, which was co-founded by retired Admiral Roy F. Hoffman, raised $68,700 from Wisconsin residents in 2004.

Finance reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service show Swift Boat contributed $100,000 on February 8, 2006 to an outfit called the Admiral Roy F. Hoffman Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.  In 2005, the group donated $10,000 to Hoffman’s foundation, $100,000 to the Vietnam Veterans Legacy Foundation and spent $132,087 on “meeting expenses” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

What Hoffman’s foundation is up to is a well-guarded secret.  The foundation has the same address as a business called Political Compliance Services, which Swift Boat and other conservative Republican groups use for consulting and complying with Federal Election Commission reporting requirements.  

Media reports and the telephone directory list Michael and Susan Arceneaux as company contacts, and an August 24, 2004 New York Times story revealed that Susan Arceneaux helped establish and run Swift Boat.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Stepp One: Help Out The Influence Peddlers

WDC has frequently shown how wealthy, influential campaign contributors get special treatment from elected officials, but we recently found a favorable break of a different kind.

Republican State Senator Cathy Stepp has given back $23,700 in campaign contributions because she decided not to run for reelection this year.

The curious thing is who got their money back.  Many of the returns went to wealthy, influential special interests.

Stepp, a home builder, returned contributions from builders and school choice advocates.  They were mostly contributions between $100 and $1,000 that were made in 2005 before she announced October 3 that she would not seek reelection.  One contributor, Racine manufacturer Willard Walker, got back $1,000 for contributions he made to Stepp in 2003, 2004 and 2005.  

Wealthy out-of-state school voucher interests got back $3,700 in contributions, including Amway founders Dick and Betsy Devos of Michigan and Jim and Lynn Walton of Arkansas whose family founded Wal-Mart.

Missing from the list of returns are the numerous small contributors most of whom probably contributed to her because she is their state senator.
Retiring politicians can give back contributions until their campaign coffers are empty, donate the money to charity or contribute to other candidates down the road.  They cannot use the money to buy personal items.

It is unknown whether these donors asked for their contributions back or she decided to return them.  But Stepp raised $66,533 in 2005 and had an ending cash balance December 31 of $36,890 with no outstanding debt.

Why not float some cash back to your real constituents, Cathy?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Not Enough!

Not upfront enough. Not open enough.

That’s our take on a nearly year-old group called Enough! that was formed to oppose additional off-reservation casinos in Wisconsin. The group’s executive director, Brian Nemoir, has refused to identify the group’s members and funding sources. The State Ethics Board feels they are not legally required to do so.

Here’s what we do know about the group and its chief. Nemoir said in January the group has about 300 member organizations and individuals. Our guess is a lot of them are restaurants, taverns and others in the tourism industry which has had a longstanding beef over how Indian gambling hurts their pocketbooks.

Last year the group spent $165,366 on three lobbyists – an ex-Republican state senator and two aides to former GOP Governor Tommy Thompson – to push a bill that would require legislative approval of Indian gaming compacts. The governor now has the lone authority to do so.

Curious thing – the group spent 161 hours lobbying in the first half of 2005 and 243 hours in the last six months of the year, but their costs dropped from $87,500 to $77,866.

The proposal, Assembly Bill 461, has been stuck in the Senate for five months with two weeks to go before it dies, but Doyle, whose 2002 election campaign benefited from $700,000 worth of contributions by three tribes, has said he opposes it.

Nemoir is an Oconomowoc resident and former state GOP party official who runs a business called Full Impact Communications. Nemoir is also a campaign consultant whose latest client, Republican Representative Ann Nischke, should have been a slam-dunk winner in the mayoral race in heavily Republican Waukesha. She outspent her Democratic opponent 3-to-1, with more than a third of it going to Nemoir who charged the campaign $12,450 for printing, postage, design and automated telephone messages.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

California Cheese Wheys In On Green Campaign

Mark Green has been tied to convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the state Capitol caucus scandal, indicted former GOP House leader Tom DeLay and some shady Illinois donors.

But what could really get him in trouble around here is taking campaign cash from a California cheese maker.

Yep, Green’s year-end 2005 campaign finance report shows he collected $845 from a salesman for the Hayward, California-based Pacific Cheese Company.  The company is among several featured on the Real California Cheese web site, and boasts being the “leading supplier of high-quality natural cheese in the western United States.”

Wisconsin lost its decades-long title as the nation’s #1 dairy state in the 1990s to California, and to rub it in Sunshine State cheese makers frequently run talking-cow television ads to push their product here.

In a state that once banned the sale of margarine, should this guy really be taking money from California cheese makers if he wants to become Wisconsin’s next governor?

Drug Execs Travel On UW's Dime

Check out the latest report from our friends at the Center for Public Integrity.

Food & Drug Administration employees have taken hundreds of trips since 1999 paid for by groups and universities that have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, which the FDA regulates.

Number 10 on the overall list, and #3 among universities, was the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The report says the UW spent $47,000 on 50 trips for FDA employees.

UW-Madison is a heavyweight among research institutes, and has conducted clinical trials for Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and other drug companies.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Thanks, Dee

Wisconsin State Journal investigative reporter Dee Hall was named Newspaper Journalist of the Year this week by the Milwaukee Press Club.

It is hard to imagine an award recipient who is more deserving. Dee is the reporter who blew the lid off the Capitol by uncovering illegal campaigning in the Legislature by state workers operating out of the caucus offices. Dee's reporting led to criminal investigations that ultimately resulted in the convictions of five of the state's most powerful lawmakers as well as several Capitol staffers. Three of them already have been sentenced to jail and a fourth, former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, awaits sentencing but appears headed behind bars. The corrupt legislative caucus offices also have been abolished and new workplace rules were put in place in the Legislature to prevent future abuses of the same nature.

To see the stories that earned Dee Hall this distinction, go here.

Congratulations on the much-deserved award, Dee! And thank you. All who value clean and open government in Wisconsin are in your debt.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Unconventional Wisdom

According to conventional political wisdom, people hate Congress and their state Legislature, but love their own representatives. Recent polling done by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press does serious harm to this popular theory. The Center's findings show that 35% of Republicans and 34% of Democrats believe their own member of Congress is guilty of taking bribes. A whopping 55% of independents hold that dim view of their own elected representatives in Congress.

Cash For Contracts

We reported earlier this week that executives from two out-of-state companies gave heavily to Governor Jim Doyle's re-election campaign after getting state contracts. No one from either of the companies, Chicago-based Equis Corporation or Indianapolis-based Crowe Chizek, had ever donated to Doyle previously. Or to any candidate for state office in Wisconsin, for that matter.

Our findings prompted a flurry of media coverage. To see a sampling, go here.

Spokespeople for the Doyle campaign and the two companies all said, presumably with straight faces but with their fingers crossed, that there was no connection between the donations and the contracts.

One Crowe Chizek bigwig who works out of offices in Indianapolis and Chicago told The Associated Press his $4,500 in donations to Doyle were a reflection of his interest in community involvement. "As we get involved and do business in communities, we encourage all of our people to get involved in those communities in various ways," Crowe Chizek executive Robert Lazard was quoted as saying.

A spokeswoman for the governor's campaign told reporters she believed the company employees arranged the fundraising events at which the donations were made. But several of the donors contradicted this claim, saying they received invitations to fundraisers from the Doyle campaign after their companies won contracts.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Governor To Rent Or Own?

Democratic Governor Jim Doyle is poised to act on a bill that would exempt the rent-to-own industry from elements of a state law designed to prevent Wisconsin consumers from getting ripped off.

The bill resembles proposals Doyle consistently opposed before 2002 when he was attorney general.  He even used consumer protection laws to sue the industry to the tune of $8.4 million in refunds for customers and penalties.  

But that was before $22,500 in campaign contributions.  

Doyle received no campaign contributions prior to 2002 from backers of the bill which include the rent-to-own industry and one of their suppliers, Ashley Furniture, and General Electric.  Since then he has accepted contributions totaling $2,500 in 2002, $7,000 in 2003, $8,500 in 2004 and $4,500 in 2005 from these special interests.

Now there are rumblings Doyle may sign the proposal, Senate Bill 268.

How it got to his desk is also an interesting story.  The measure was introduced in July 2005 and defeated 18-15 in the Senate in November.  It was suddenly reconsidered and approved 18-14 without any changes in early March 2006.

Word on the street is Senator Ron Brown told fellow Republicans, who control the Senate 19-14, that he needed this bill to pass to help his reelection this November.  Among Brown’s constituents are a rent-to-own store owner and Ashley Furniture.  Controversy over a planned expansion by Ashley helped Brown unexpectedly defeat former Democratic Senator Rod Moen for his job in 2002.    

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Stripping For Family Values

Recent campaign finance reports show Republican Majority Leader Michael Huebsch of West Salem is the latest of five legislators since 2003 to accept campaign contributions from a western Wisconsin strip club owner.

Huebsch, a graduate of fundamentalist Oral Roberts University, accepted $250 on August 9, 2005 from Ambrose Schwartz who is identified as owner of the 4 Mile Gentlemen’s Club (Warning: link may be offensive to some viewers) in Fountain City.

Others who have accepted money from Schwartz and who have voted for so-called family values proposals like anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and anti-contraception legislation include Republican Senator Dan Kapanke of La Crosse, $523 in October 2004; Democratic Senator Roger Breske of Eland, $352 in October 2004; Republican Senator Ron Brown of Eau Claire, $100 in December 2003; and Republican Assembly Speaker John Gard of Peshtigo, $475 in October 2003.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Same, Only Different

In its quest to distinguish itself from ruling state Republicans, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has cooked up a new slogan: "The Democratic Difference."

What's the Democratic Difference, you ask? Freedom, family and fairness.

Uh, sorry, but these "core values" are platitudes with which no one can disagree. And which no one could meaningfully distinguish from Republican platitudes.

Good lord, we need a second party movement.

Redefining Independence

The Doyle Administration is a broken record when it comes to the Public Service Commission's autonomy. Whenever the Democracy Campaign has raised questions about whether political considerations are influencing PSC decisions, the administration and the utility regulatory agency say over and over and over again that the PSC is an "independent agency." The more they say it, the more hollow it rings.

For starters, an agency that is truly independent of the governor would not be run by appointees of the governor. And there would not be a revolving door separating the agency and the governor's re-election campaign.

The revolving door at the PSC continued to spin as Governor Doyle announced that top PSC aide Dan Schoof will become his new campaign manager. The shakeup in Doyle's campaign team was made necessary when old campaign manager Rich Judge was linked to the Capitol corruption scandal in court documents made public just before the start of the Scott Jensen trial.

Before Schoof became the PSC's executive assistant, that staff post at the agency was held by former Doyle campaign operative Dan Ebert, who Doyle later appointed chairman of the commission. Ebert's wife, Katie Boyce, is Doyle's chief campaign fundraiser.

Friday, March 10, 2006

With Or Without Jensen

While waiting for the jury's verdict in the Scott Jensen corruption trial, my thoughts keep straying. I find myself thinking less about Jensen and more about his compatriots who will remain on the ship of state whether or not he is convicted. And I keep thinking about how they don't get it.

All but a handful of them don't get that the people are on to them. Most of them can't move a muscle without a pollster's blessing, so you'd think a poll showing only 6% of Wisconsin residents believe elected officials are representing voters' interests would get their attention. Hasn't seemed to. They keep playing the same crooked game.

They don't seem to get that the law is on to them. Prosecutors are parading state lawmakers into courtrooms and the common thread through all the criminal charges is the campaign money chase. The response of those not yet indicted? Raise money from wealthy special interests with even more reckless abandon. Wisconsin legislators collected more money in 2005 than they've ever raised in a non-election year.

As their appetite for cash intensifies, state politicians are getting less and less choosy about the company they keep. Check the list of Illinois donors to Wisconsin candidates for governor and you find a creepy cast of characters including convicted criminals, indicted lobbyists and political wheeler-dealers, and even a shadowy figure with publicly chronicled mob ties.

Most of all, the bosses at the Capitol don't get what every gambler is said to know: That the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

What the politicians are throwing away is priceless. What they insist on keeping are things no one should have too much of or hold for too long.

In exchange for money and the power it buys, they are giving away truly precious possessions - their dignity, self-respect, integrity and their own good names, even their freedom, not to mention our state's reputation for clean and open government.

The more they do to make their big campaign donors love them, the more ordinary voting citizens hate them. They've gotten elected and re-elected, but at what price? On a good day, the public thinks of them as something between used car salesmen and child molesters.

Maybe in their minds, fleeting power is worth such a tawdry legacy. But have they given even a moment's thought to the violence they are doing to the memories of the revolutionaries who created this great nation? Are they so consumed by ambition and overcome by arrogance that they forget our country's founders rebelled against a king's power, at the risk of certain death if their revolution failed?

The way today's Capitol bosses are conducting the people's business is not only an ongoing act of political vandalism, it is profoundly un-American. The American system of government was poured from a crucible heated by hatred of a despot's grip. Sadly, those who've seized power today have more in common behaviorally with that king than with the George Washingtons and Thomas Jeffersons and Ben Franklins and Tom Paines who risked life for liberty and overthrew him.

The America I know and love is based on the idea that no one should hold too much power or hold even limited authority for too long a time. That America is under assault right here in our own state.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Rule Giving Dentists A Toothache

WDC recently found a surprise winner among political action committees that made contributions in 2005 - the Wisconsin Dental Association.

Wisconsin Dental PAC contributed $33,695 in 2005. That is the most they have ever contributed in a year, and their first time at the top of the PAC heap. They've rarely ever made the top 10.

A little digging found the dentists are spitting over a proposed rule that would let the state certify dental hygienists to clean the teeth of Medicaid patients without a dentist's supervision.

The Department of Health and Family Services offered up the rule because Medicaid patients have a tough time getting dental care in some areas. Dentists have long claimed they do not receive a high enough reimbursement rate from the program, so some people go without dental care.

Rather than give the dentists more money, the department decided to spread the wealth around and effectively expand dental service for the poor. The rule is still being considered by legislators.

The dentists are employing a common special interest strategy with their contributions: Play both sides. Most of the dentists' contributions have gone to the legislative campaign committees run by the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate. The Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, the State Senate Democratic Committee and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee each received $6,000 in contributions and the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee snagged $4,300 - all in the first seven months of 2005.

Curious to see who wins this one. The dentists, or poor people who can't afford to contribute and dental hygienists, whose PAC contributed nothing last year and only $300 in 2004.