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.