Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ding Dong, The Glitch Is Dead!

The Big Glitch, otherwise known as the state of Wisconsin's ill-fated contract with the global outsourcing firm Accenture to create a computerized statewide voter registration system, is history. The state Elections Board announced today it has reached an agreement ending the state's relationship with Accenture on the voter-list project.

A lot of time has been wasted and a whole lot of taxpayer money has gone down this rathole, but this deal does recoup some of the damages and allows the state to begin picking up the pieces and putting them back together so Wisconsin can have a voter registration system that works properly.

This should have happened a long time ago, but better late than never. This is a good day-after-Christmas present.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cozy With A Capital C

First, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen decided that the Department of Justice he leads would not appeal the decision reversing Scott Jensen's felony convictions and granting the former Assembly speaker a new trial. Now he's saying that Jensen shouldn't be retried but rather the case should be settled through a plea agreement.

At the bottom of the story in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it says "Van Hollen conceded that he could indirectly influence Blanchard's decision to retry Jensen by denying the district attorney resources he had during the first trial, including the courtroom help of Assistant Attorney General Roy Korte, one of the Justice Department's most experienced prosecutors. "

Hmmm.

What makes all this more curious is the fact that the second in command at the Justice Department, Van Hollen's hand-picked deputy Ray Taffora, used to represent Jensen. Jensen hired Taffora and his law firm to negotiate with the prosecutor in hopes of ending at least part of the investigation. And Taffora's firm also was paid to negotiate a settlement with the state Ethics Board and Elections Board.

Before that, Jensen hired Taffora and his firm to help him and his fellow Assembly Republicans with legislative redistricting.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Are They Listening? Can They Hear?

State politicians are owned by the lobbyists and the special interest groups, don't give a whit about what average citizens want or need, and generally seem to rank somewhere between used car salesmen and child molesters in the public's estimation, according to the latest polling by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

A measly 2% of Wisconsin residents believe they can trust state government to do what is right almost all the time. Who determines what state government spends? Eighty-two percent say lobbying groups do and only 12% believe it's the voters. When asked whether the standard of ethics of members of the state legislature has changed over the last decade, only 6% think it has changed for the better, while 44% think it has gotten worse.

WPRI also asked state residents whose interests they think their elected officials represent the most – their interests, special interests or the politicians' own interests. A mere 10% think their elected officials represent the voters’ interests, while 43% think they're working for the special interests and 42% think state politicians are just looking out for their own self-interest.

WPRI concludes that "something extraordinary is happening in Wisconsin." Specifically, the group says: "Years of political neglect by their elected officials are beginning to have a serious toll on the confidence of Wisconsin residents in elected officials and their state government. The lack of optimism is seen in all aspects of life in Wisconsin today, whether it is the state’s economy, the ethics of state government and elected officials or the dominance of lobbying in the political process. Wisconsin residents are extremely unhappy and becoming more and more disconnected from their government and the state’s politics. . . . The issues of lobbying, state ethics and the state’s economy has never been more on the mind of Wisconsin residents. It would not be surprising if, in 2008, Wisconsin voters send a message that will be even louder than the one sent in 2006."

Are state lawmakers listening? Do they even care what the public thinks of them?

They'll answer these questions in January when they decide what to make of the special session on campaign reform.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What Tipping The Scales Has Wrought

The state Supreme Court is in big trouble. It can't win for losing.

No matter how the Menasha Corporation tax case is decided, the public will never believe money didn't play a role in the outcome because Justice Annette Ziegler chose to participate even though a group involved in the case spent more than $2 million to get her elected. Justice Louis Butler also revealed he received a campaign donation from one of the attorneys working on the case.

And now the high court can't rule at all on a key economic development and land use case due to the fact Ziegler, who would have been the deciding vote, recused herself because of campaign contributions she received from the builders and the Realtors.

No wonder all seven justices signed a letter the other day begging the Legislature and governor to support publicly financed Supreme Court races.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The End Of The Beginning

The Legislature convened in special session briefly today and passed a joint resolution of both houses adjourning the special session on campaign finance reform until January 15. This was expected and is in keeping with the way the Democracy Campaign and others in the reform community believe the session should proceed.

Between now and January 15 reform plans need to be finalized and drafted for introduction as special session bills, public hearings need to be held and committee work needs to be done to set the stage for the full Legislature to reconvene the special session.

When the governor called the special session for December 11, many mistakenly interpreted that to mean lawmakers would vote on reform legislation today. Not only would that have been impractical but also highly inappropriate because the Legislature would have been voting on measures the public had not had a chance to review and comment on.

Any kind of meaningful overhaul of Wisconsin's broken campaign finance system can't be accomplished in a day. It's been 30 years since the last major reform. Even the most impatient among us can surely wait 30 days so whatever lawmakers do can be done right and done in full view of the public with plenty of citizen input.

Today was the start of the special session. How it began is not important. How it ends is what matters.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hypocrisy, Spoken In Code

Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch responded to Governor Jim Doyle's call for a special session on campaign finance reform by saying he expects there will be a "thorough and informative debate in the Assembly" and reform ideas will "receive careful consideration in both houses of the Legislature."

Then he tipped everyone off about where he really stands when he said, "I share the concern of many Wisconsinites to the idea of changing the law to force them to pay for these campaigns."

Look for Huebsch and his allies to fiercely defend the ownership of our state government by the lobbyists and their special interest clients. Mind you, they won't come right out and say they have no problem with big donations from wealthy interests who expect lavish favors in return for their political gifts. They'll speak in code, like Huebsch did in his statement about the special session. They'll say they're bound and determined to prevent the general public from being forced to pay for elections.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Wisconsin taxpayers already are forced to pay for state election campaigns. We pay through the nose every time our elected state representatives approve a new tax break, or lace a budget bill with a few more slices of pork, or sign off on a sweetheart deal on a state contract. We pay for every favor, we pay every time our state lawmakers reward one of their big donors.

Saying that campaign finance reform should be resisted because taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay for elections is not only supremely hypocritical but also is an insult to the intelligence of the people of Wisconsin.

The general public gets it. Average folks understand that their elected representatives are owned by the lobbyists and the big special interest donors. And average folks understand they are paying dearly for this corruption.

The debate that will start in the Legislature on December 11 has absolutely nothing to do with whether the public pays for elections. We will always pay, one way or another. The real issue, whether or not the Legislature chooses to debate it, is ownership. Who will own our state government? The wealthy donors, or the voters?

Friday, November 30, 2007

If Your Car Doesn't Start, Change Your License Plates

It was inevitable. The same day a state audit was released showing Wisconsin's voter registration system has big problems, a renewed call was made to require a photo ID in order to vote.

Two things jump out about this leap of logic. First, backers of a photo ID requirement are crowing about the audit's finding that as many as 84 felons might have voted in the November 2006 election in spite of being ineligible. The auditors couldn't determine if they did vote, but they could have because of flaws in the system. Meanwhile, ID supporters are conveniently overlooking the audit's finding that the system put 1,537 people on the ineligible list who had been convicted of felonies but served their full sentences and should have had their voting rights restored. The auditors could not determine how many of these eligible voters tried to cast a ballot and were denied, but noted they should not have been on the list disqualifying them in the first place.

Second, there is no evidence in this audit or elsewhere that felons who voted illegally tried to pass themselves off as someone else. Requiring a photo ID to vote would not have stopped them from voting. Saying a photo ID requirement will stop felons from voting is like saying if your car's battery is dead, the solution is new license plates.

The thing that could stop ineligible convicted felons from voting is a voter registration system that can compare the statewide voter list to corrections records showing whether someone has a felony conviction and, if so, whether the full sentence has been served. Such cross-checking is required under federal law, and Wisconsin was supposed to be in compliance with that federal law on January 1, 2006. The state Elections Board and the private company the board hired for this project – the global outsourcing firm Accenture – haven't been able to figure out how to do it.

Wisconsin voters are not to blame here. A bumbling state agency and a private computer software developer that can't program its way out of a paper bag are to blame. So making voters jump through another hoop is not the answer. Holding state officials and one incompetent company accountable is.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Beginning Of Vending Machine Justice

State Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler is fixing to judge a tax case involving Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which spent an estimated $2.2 million to get her elected, considerably more than the record-setting amount Ziegler spent on her own campaign. Oral arguments on the case are scheduled for tomorrow.

Because of her ethics problems, Ziegler has taken to notifying all sides in cases before the high court of economic ties she has or any campaign support she received from any of the parties involved in a case. Ziegler also has been asking lawyers in the cases for feedback about whether she should recuse herself from the proceedings. She dropped out of one recent case after an attorney raised objections to a campaign contribution she received.

Ziegler is handling this tax case a bit differently. She informed all of the involved parties of the fact that WMC spent heavily on her behalf but did not invite feedback on whether she should remove herself from the case. Instead, she notified the attorneys she intends to participate in hearing and ruling on the dispute over whether companies should have to pay sales tax on computer software they buy.

Here's where it gets interesting. If someone were to ask Ziegler to step aside it would be Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who represents the state Department of Revenue in this case. It so happens WMC spent $2.5 million to get Van Hollen elected in 2006. If Van Hollen were to ask Ziegler to recuse herself, as he clearly should, that would beg the question of whether Van Hollen should prosecute the case for the state. That question should be asked regardless of what Van Hollen says to Ziegler.

The outcome of this case has huge implications. If the state loses, it could be forced to refund an estimated $350 million in taxes collected from businesses. But the implications for the integrity of our justice system and public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of Wisconsin's highest court are even more serious. This case is providing an initial glimpse into what happens when our courts are politicized by campaigns for Supreme Court that are allowed to degenerate into such tawdry and money-saturated affairs.

Wisconsin's court system has a big problem. This one case is showing just how big.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

They Can't Kill Her, Can They?

Of the many head-scratching things that were said at yesterday's hearing on state Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler's judicial misconduct case, the most memorable came from lead judge Ralph Adam Fine, who seemed to sympathize with Ziegler and was moved to say that even the best people sometimes make mistakes, adding that a "cup of hemlock" may not be the proper remedy.

A cup of hemlock? Who knew poisoning was even an option? I had always been under the impression the worst punishment the three-judge panel reviewing the case could recommend is removal from the bench, but maybe Judge Fine knows something the rest of us don't.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Judicial Integrity In The Balance

The three-judge Judicial Conduct Panel that is reviewing the Annette Ziegler ethics case held its planned hearing this morning in West Bend. The panel is reviewing the state Judicial Commission's complaint against the newest member of the state Supreme Court alleging judicial misconduct as well as the commission's recommendation that she be reprimanded. The judges will be forwarding their findings and recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which has the final say in the matter.

The hearing lasted about an hour and a half, and after sitting through it, the first question that springs to mind is why was it even held. Both the Judicial Commission and attorneys for Ziegler said they were content to rest on the legal briefs they already had filed and had nothing new to add. None of the three judges explored any new territory. Most notably, none asked why the Judicial Commission had chosen to focus only on 11 cases that Ziegler handled involving West Bend Savings Bank where Ziegler's husband is a paid member of the board of directors, while ignoring at least three dozen other cases involving companies in which the Zieglers own substantial amounts of stock. No explanations were offered about why these stones were left unturned, and the judges didn't ask for any explanation.

Several times during the hearing, one of the judges or attorneys took pains to stress that the judicial discipline system is not designed to punish judges but rather educate them. The glaring double standard evident in these repeated statements was apparently lost on everyone in the courtroom with a law degree. Can anyone imagine any citizen accused of breaking the law standing before any judge and being told that if the verdict is guilty it is not the court's intention to punish but rather only to educate?

Something Justice Ziegler's lawyer said highlighted what a failure this approach to enforcement has been. At one point, the attorney said the longstanding judicial ethics rule requiring judges with a financial conflict of interest to disclose the conflict and recuse themselves did not cross Ziegler's mind as she handled the West Bend Savings Bank cases. If Ziegler is to be believed when she says she wasn't thinking of the ethics code when she ruled on these cases, then isn't that a pretty damning indictment of the judicial discipline system's "educational" efforts?

Other than articulating a clear preference for education over punishment, the panel of judges also conspicuously dwelled on precedent, namely past disciplinary actions taken against Wisconsin judges. The peculiar thing about the emphasis on precedent is that the Ziegler case is an unprecedented situation. Never before has a sitting member of the state Supreme Court faced possible discipline for judicial misconduct. Question for the judges: How do you apply precedent in an unprecedented case?

Another problem with remaining bound by precedent is that past enforcement of the judicial ethics code clearly has left a great deal to be desired, as evidenced by Ziegler's own admission that she didn't give a passing thought to the rules when she handled cases in which she had a clear financial conflict of interest. Question for the judges: Why do you apply precedent when it represents failure?

What the Judicial Conduct Panel's findings end up being and what the judges recommend in the way of discipline are anybody's guess. But the signals sent at today's hearing were hardly confidence inspiring.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Holding Wisconsin Back

When asked what the biggest problem facing Wisconsin is, more people than ever before are saying it's government ethics and politics. That's according to the latest Wisconsin Survey conducted by St. Norbert College Survey Center for Wisconsin Public Radio.

In fact, on the list of the biggest concerns on the minds of state residents, government ethics ranks ahead of jobs and the economy, health care, education, gas prices, crime and drugs, the environment and immigration. Only tax and budget concerns worry a higher percentage of Wisconsinites than government ethics and politics. Amazing.

The percentage of people identifying government ethics as Wisconsin's biggest problem nearly doubled from the previous poll conducted this spring. St. Norbert's has been doing the Wisconsin Survey since 1994 and the ethics of our state's political leaders didn't register as a concern at all until the spring of 2002.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An Unfair Fight

Last Friday we released an analysis showing state senators who voted for AT&T's cable TV bill have received 12 times more campaign money from interest groups that favor the bill than senators who voted against it.

A telling statistic that's not in the report. . . . Senators who voted for AT&T's bill and received $1.2 million since 1999 from interests that support the bill have gotten less than $90,000 from opponents of the legislation over the same period.

The only remaining obstacle for AT&T and its allies is the governor's veto pen. It sure doesn't sound like the governor is planning to veto the bill, and no wonder. He's received more than $1.5 million from supporters of the cable bill since 1999 and just over $182,000 from opponents.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Greatest Gift

Of all the questions I'm asked, I get one far more than any other. With the news that Scott Jensen is being granted a new trial on a technicality, I got it again. How do you put up with all the BS?

Different people ask it different ways, but it's the same question. How do you get up in the morning and go to work day after day, knowing you'll run into more brick walls? How do you stay hopeful? Doesn't all the nonsense in politics drive you flipping batty?

My standard answer is birth defect. You see, I am a Chicago Cubs fan, so I'm used to waiting until next year.

My love of the Cubs is not a choice, it's in my DNA, inherited from my parents as sure as my eye color and skin tone were. For those who think I can't possibly be serious, let me ask you this: Would you choose the torment the Cubs have inflicted on their fans all these many years?

OK, OK, enough.

In my book, the real secret of stick-to-it-iveness is defiance.

When we respond to political corruption or some grave social injustice or other outrage by throwing up our hands and turning away from the democratic process, that creates a vacuum that lobbyists and special interests and the politicians they own thrive in. Succumbing to feelings of apathy or cynicism or hopelessness is the greatest gift you can give to those who are abusing our democracy and subverting it and twisting it to their advantage. They feed on those feelings. They need us to say what's the use.

Knowing that, why give them what they hunger for, what they live on? They can take and take and take until they've taken most everything. But don't ever let them take your hope.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Saying The F Word

Fascism is a loaded term. So loaded that it's next to impossible to talk about or even think about in a way that doesn't begin and end with Hitler and concentration camps and gas chambers. If it wasn't so pathetically xenophobic not to mention just plain silly, all the recent blather about Islamofascism would be welcome if for no other reason than it moves the discussion beyond the Nazis.

Our limited field of vision when it comes to fascism leaves us vulnerable to overlooking its emergence in subtle, more unrecognizable forms and early, less cancerous stages. Could we see it if it's not ushered in by a parade of goose-stepping soldiers?

Franklin Roosevelt saw it. Even seemingly innocuous stuff going on in our own backyard – like the game of footsy AT&T and our state government are playing – makes FDR's words of warning echo loudly.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis also tried teaching us what to look for. "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross," he wrote.

More recently, Laurence Britt offered his 14 characteristics of fascism. Not all fascist regimes have been genocidal, Britt reminds us, but they all have to one degree or another exhibited these common traits:

1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism.

2. Disdain for the importance of human rights.

3. Identification of enemies or scapegoats as a unifying cause.

4. The supremacy of the military and avid militarism.

5. Rampant sexism.

6. A controlled mass media.

7. Obsession with national security.

8. Religion and ruling elite tied together.

9. Power of corporations protected.

10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated.

11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts.

12. Obsession with crime and punishment.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption.

14. Fraudulent elections.

If we are to safeguard democracy, these are the things we need to watch for. Do you see any signs of trouble?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mother's Milk Indeed

Sometimes others say it so well you just have to step aside and let them do the talking. The following is a letter to the editor that appeared in the small-town Cumberland Advocate on October 17.

Money not the “mother’s milk” in politics

To the Editor:

Last week’s editorial noted money to be the “mother’s milk” of politics. Money is not the “mother’s milk,” but the heroin of politics. As heroin twists all addicts into morally ravaged, brain addled, fully compromised whores to the drug, money corrupts the entire political process. Apart from independently wealthy and self-financed candidates, no one seeking office can ever effectively represent voters’ interests which conflict with corporate profits from the same issue. This is true of military policy controlled by and for Halliburton, AIPAC and General Dynamics, of health care policy determined by and for Aetna and United Healthcare, of agricultural policy determined by and for ConAgra...right on down the line. Campaign finance reform – the removal of all heroin, er, private source bribery from politics – is the essential issue without which none other will be resolved in the best interests of the citizens of the USA. Online, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the Center for Responsive Politics offer ample documentation of this issue.

Steve Hart
Cumberland

Monday, October 22, 2007

Casualty Of The Backlash

Bill Kraus is a Republican, the kind who used to run the GOP. He's also the kind who's been figuratively if not literally excommunicated from the party. Part of his problem is that he believes politics should be about more than bumper sticker slogans. An even bigger part of Bill's problem is that he actually believes government should work. There was a time – pre-Iraq and pre-Hurricane Katrina, mind you – when Republicans were known for being able to run things.

Some of the insurrectionists – I call 'em rewinders (and explain why here) – who overthrew the likes of Bill Kraus and took over the Republican Party want gays to stay in the closet. Some want women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Others want blacks at the back of the bus. Still others are, in Michael Kinsley's words, "loners . . . convinced that they don't need society." Quite a few are probably all of the above.

Even the health care issue has fallen victim to backlash politics and the money that fuels it. The health insurance crisis is undeniably a top concern of working stiffs. The cry for reform is coming increasingly from corporate boardrooms. Yet any movement on the issue is being stymied. Wonder why? Follow the money. And then follow it some more.

The Healthy Wisconsin reform plan costs about $15 billion. But it would replace a patchwork quilt of a system with a thousand middle men that is costing us more than $17 billion. So let's get this straight . . . we could spend $15 billion and cover everyone instead of paying $17 billion for a system that leaves a half-million people uninsured? And this is a bad idea? No, it's an idea that is being sloganed to death.

Often by the same people responsible for throwing Bill Kraus out of the club.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What A Long Strange Trip It's Been

It's day 109 in the state budget stalemate. A day after the Assembly rejected a revised budget plan in a special session called by Governor Doyle, the Assembly speaker called for an extraordinary session of the Legislature to deal with the budget crisis. Sorry, but it's just impossible at the moment to imagine any session of this Legislature qualifying as special, much less extraordinary.

Over the noon hour today, a corporate-sponsored group called Americans for Prosperity staged an anti-tax rally, presumably to try to put a scare into any legislative Republicans who might be toying with the idea of straying from the no-budget-is-a-good-thing camp. AFP is hardly homegrown. . . . It is on the front lines of a national crusade against health care reform and pretty much any other initiative that might require a tax dollar to support it. Wisconsin just happened to be AFP's battleground of choice for today.

AFP paid to bus in a crowd estimated at between 350 and 500 for the rally, and they were met by about 800 counter-demonstrators. Cameras and microphones and reporters with notebooks were everywhere. Evidently, political paralysis is news.

On the other end of State Street from the Capitol, there was another rally. On the University of Wisconsin's library mall, a dozen students and passersby, maybe two, listened while representatives of the ACLU and Progressive Magazine and student activists tried to raise awareness of the Military Commissions Act and what it's done to the right to habeas corpus. There wasn't a camera crew or tape recorder to be seen. News, suspending civil liberties is not.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Judgeship Follows Gifts To Governor

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Michael Gableman contributed $1,250 to former Republican Governor Scott McCallum two months before McCallum picked him to fill a vacant Burnett County Circuit Court judgeship in 2002.

Gableman's contribution was among $4,073 in campaign contributions he made to candidates for statewide office and the legislature from 1998 through 2002.

Those contributions included $2,500 to McCallum, $600 to former Republican Attorney General candidate Vince Biskupic, $500 to former Democratic Representative Greg Huber, $173 to Republican Assembly candidate Connie Loden, $100 to Republican Assembly candidate Ted Nickel and $100 each to Supreme Court candidates Ed Brunner and Pat Roggensack.

Gableman made two contributions of $1,250 each to McCallum on December 13, 2001 and June 18, 2002. McCallum appointed Gableman August 20, 2002 to serve the remainder of retiring Judge James Taylor's term. Gableman was elected to a full six-year term in 2003.

Charles Schutze, a Sun Prairie attorney who is also vying for incumbent Louis Butler's Supreme Court seat this April has contributed $550 to two candidates. He gave Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks two $100 contributions in 1995 and a total of $350 to Republican legislative candidate Hariah Hutkowski in 2002 and 2004.

WDC could find no large individual contributions by Butler to candidates for statewide and legislative offices since 1993 other than the $7,099 he gave his own unsuccessful campaign for the high court in Spring 2000. Butler's wife, Irene, contributed $100 in 2006 to Democratic legislative candidate Cory Mason's campaign.

Butler was appointed to the Supreme Court by the governor in August 2004 to fill a vacancy when Justice Diane Sykes was appointed to the federal bench.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Snarling At Online Court Access

CCAP. It's a foul four-letter word to Wisconsin Rapids Democrat Marlin Schneider. To me and many, many others it spells open government.

CCAP is an an acronym for "Consolidated Court Automation Programs." It's a system that allows the public to gain access to court records via a Wisconsin circuit court Web site.

This invaluable service is now under attack. The threat comes in the form of legislation proposed by Schneider to allow only police, judges, prosecutors and reporters to log on to CCAP. Members of the general public would have to get permission from a district attorney or court clerk, who would have to determine there's a "reasonable need" for disclosure before granting access to the site.

The man known as Snarlin' Marlin says allowing unsupervised public access to criminal records is ruining people's lives. Perhaps a paragraph near the end of an August 2005 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sheds light on why CCAP really rankles Schneider so. It says, "CCAP shows that the lawmaker had a $65,000 judgment against him as the result of an auto accident. 'The jury chose to believe the woman who looked frail,' he said about the jury trial."

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is no fan of Schneider's bill and calls CCAP “a model for the distribution of public information.” In a letter to the chairman of the committee reviewing the legislation, Van Hollen wrote that he believes "the exclusion of the general public...is not appropriate and frustrates the state’s compelling interest in accessible government."

To which Schneider responded, "Big deal. I should care?"

Yes, you should care.

The Democracy Campaign used CCAP to research cases Annette Ziegler handled as a circuit court judge that led to our formal request to the state Judicial Commission for an ethics investigation of Ziegler's financial conflicts of interest. With CCAP, we were able to identify the problem cases in a single day. Without access to CCAP, we would have had to travel to the Washington County courthouse in West Bend and comb through volumes of case files. It would have involved weeks of tedious inspection of court documents, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. And there's no guarantee we ever would have found all of what we were looking for.

The public deserved to know that Judge Ziegler was engaging in judicial misconduct. CCAP was instrumental in making that happen.

The public deserves – and the interest of open government demands – continued unfettered access to CCAP.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Your Union. Delivered.

Back in May, we posted an item about state Democratic Party chairman Joe Wineke signing on as a lobbyist for AT&T to push for a cable TV franchising bill the company desires. The firestorm that Wineke's dual roles created eventually forced him to put an end to his lobbying work for the telecommunications giant.

Now we learn that AT&T's stable of lobbyists includes none other than Communications Workers of America Local 4611 President Michael Goebel.

Questions abound. . . . Would Goebel know a conflict of interest if it bit him on the backside? Would he care? How many rank and file members of CWA Local 4611 know that their union president is paid to shill for AT&T? How many will stand for Goebel's divided loyalties when all this becomes widely known?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

NEWSFLASH: Governor Returns Tainted Donations

Pennsylvania's governor, that is.

A few days ago, Governor Ed Rendell announced he is returning $7,000 in campaign contributions from two associates of Norman Hsu, the former fugitive now in custody and facing federal fraud charges. That move came some three weeks after Rendell decided to get rid of a larger sum that he got from Hsu himself.

National politicians from one coast to the other have been busy the last month dumping campaign money that has anything resembling Hsu's fingerprints on it.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, on the other hand, took $2000 from Hsu back in July 2005. And he continues to hold on to it. Tight.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Ziegler Plot Thickens

State Judicial Commission chief Jim Alexander was understandably defensive when the three-judge panel that is reviewing the commission's work on the Annette Ziegler ethics case issued an order Wednesday that expands the scope of the Ziegler probe and questions why the Judicial Commission apparently left stones unturned.

"You can rest assured the matter was thoroughly investigated," Alexander told reporters. Reading the order, it doesn't sound like the three judges on the special Judicial Conduct Panel are convinced.

The panel of judges is reviewing the case before making a recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which will have the final say on what, if any, punishment Ziegler receives. The panel has scheduled a public hearing on the case for November 19, and in preparation for that hearing the judges have given the Judicial Commission and attorneys for Ziegler three weeks to provide answers to their many questions about Ziegler's finances, her handling of cases as a circuit court judge, what facts the commission knew about and which facts it relied upon to recommend Ziegler be reprimanded, and the timing of Ziegler's admission that she engaged in judicial misconduct.

While all the questions being raised by the three-judge panel are important ones, it's the question about the timing of her admission that is most critical. While the others largely aim at establishing the facts and determining what Ziegler did or did not do and what the commission did or did not do, the timing question cuts to the issue of Ziegler's forthrightness and whether she deceived voters by being less than forthcoming before the election about the seriousness of her ethical missteps.

Before the April election, Ziegler repeatedly danced around the question of whether she had violated the state judicial ethics code and only insisted there was "no scandal." After the election, she admitted she broke the rules.

It remains to be seen what Ziegler's fate will be. But one thing already is clear. This whole episode does not reflect favorably on the Judicial Commission. The commission operates in obscurity, like a scout teamer on a football squad who never gets on the field during games. The Ziegler ethics probe was the commission's rare chance to perform with the lights on and a big crowd watching.

The commission finally was put in the game and got to carry the ball. It fumbled.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Budget Delay Wastes $17 Million

The Wisconsin Legislature has blown $17.2 million in taxpayer dollars working on the proposed 2007-09 state budget during the past three months - a job they were supposed to complete by July 1.

The figure represents salaries, fringe benefits and other costs to operate the Legislature for a quarter of the year. Its current annual budget is $68.8 million.

Both houses passed differing versions of the budget in late July and then formed a committee of legislative leaders to hammer out a compromise budget the Assembly and Senate could agree on and send to Governor Jim Doyle.

But the committee has yet to agree on a budget at the expense of dozens of other legislative proposals that have been idling. One legislative veteran says the Assembly has only been in session 14 days this year. "It's an absolute outrage that while we fiddle around nothing is getting done," Democratic Representative Marlin Schneider said in a press release.

At the same time, plenty of fundraising has been getting done. Legislative leaders on the conference committee as well as rank and file lawmakers have been holding fundraisers in bulk during the months-long budget delay to milk special interests with a stake in the two-year policy and spending proposal.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Legislators Foul Up WMC's Script

The state's largest business organization recently began airing radio ads commending five Assembly Republicans - four of whom won their 2006 races by the skin of their teeth - for opposing increases in business and other taxes contained in the Senate Democrats' version of the proposed 2007-09 state budget.

The ads are being run on behalf of Representatives Lee Nerison, Terry Moulton, John Murtha, Karl Van Roy and Brett Davis. But it seems these guys fouled up the script that Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce had for them.

The ad scripts are identical for each lawmaker and use two women conversing who say, in part, "none of us can afford higher taxes. But you know what? We're lucky. Why? Our state representative (name) is fighting to keep the Senate tax hikes from becoming law. He says taxes in Wisconsin are already too high. In fact, he's already voted against the tax hikes."

But within days of these radio ads, the five voted on September 18 in favor of a $12.3 billion education spending bill that translates into an $80 increase in property taxes on the average home. The education package they approved contained most of the school aid levels sought by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle and Senate Democrats.

Click here and scroll to September 14 to hear the ads.

What Will Prosser Do?

Annette Ziegler's punishment for judicial misconduct is ultimately up to the state Supreme Court. Before the matter reaches the high court, a three-judge panel will review the state Judicial Commission's findings and recommendation that Ziegler receive a reprimand. The formation of that panel hit a snag late last week when it was discovered one of the judges donated to Ziegler's campaign.

Appeals Court Judge Michael Hoover gave Ziegler $100 last November, and he was hastily removed from the review panel when news of the donation spread last week.

Will the standard that was applied to Hoover apply when Ziegler's case finally makes it to the Supreme Court? Justice David Prosser donated $250 to Ziegler's campaign last November. Will Prosser stand in judgment of Ziegler? How can he if Hoover couldn't?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Board Excuses Wealthy Contribution Violators - Again

In one of the last acts of a do-nothing agency, the State Elections Board has again failed the public.

At its September 12th meeting the board took up the cases of 27 wealthy contributors identified by the Democracy Campaign as having violated the $10,000 annual limit on campaign contributions to state and local candidates. These folks each contributed between $10,100 and $17,250 to candidates for statewide office and the Legislature in 2006.

But as has been the board's track record, many of them got off scot-free and the remainder virtually scot-free.

One batch of the violators was allowed to declare - after the fact - that half of their contributions actually came from their spouses because the contributions were drawn from a joint bank account. That means someone who signed contribution checks totaling $11,000 but didn't specifically say at the time that these are joint contributions can now split that total with their spouse and fall under the $10,000 legal limit.

Can you imagine how much drunken driving violations would fall if police let this happen when someone exceeded the .08 blood alcohol limit? "Hey officer, I know I blew a .14 blood alcohol, but I want to split that with my spouse, so I really only have a .07."

The other batch of violators falls into a category described in the legal counsel's memo to the board as "persons who were not aware of the $10,000 limit; (not having exceeded it before), would not have exceeded it had they known; and will not exceed it again." They were fined $100 plus 10 percent of the amount that exceeded the $10,000 limit.

One of those who used the "I-know-nothing" defense caught our eye - Michael W. Grebe, who contributed $10,100 in 2006.

Grebe has been a powerful player in both state and national Republican Party politics and a steady contributor to Wisconsin political candidates for a long time. Retired chairman and CEO of Foley & Lardner, the state's largest law firm, Grebe served on the Republican National Committee for 18 years and was one of its managers for two GOP presidential conventions. He was a close adviser to former four-term Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and has contributed $45,300 to Republican candidates in Wisconsin since 1993.

What's really going on - again - is this board of appointed political hacks is bending over backwards to avoid offending wealthy contributors and powerful special interests that make contributions to the politicians who appointed them. Thankfully, this board is on its way out.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

At Which Altar Will They Worship?

The state Judicial Commission got it right when it found that Annette Ziegler engaged in judicial misconduct. But the commission got it wrong when it recommended a mere reprimand as punishment. Members of the legal community who agree are exceedingly reluctant to say so publicly. So it's left to people like me and Bruce Murphy to say it for them.

Now a three-judge "Judicial Conduct Panel" will review the commission's decision before handing the case over to the state Supreme Court for final judgment. We're in uncharted territory here because never before has the state Supreme Court been in a position of having to discipline one of its own members for judicial misconduct.

If the recent remarks of two former Supreme Court justices are at all reflective of current members' thinking, the six who now serve with Ziegler on the high court can't be looking forward to this. Former Supreme Bill Bablitch said the other day that "sitting in judgment of one of their own is awkward to the extreme." Former Justice Janine Geske said it's "certainly nothing that any of them are happy to do."

Their discomfort is understandable. The other six members of the court have to decide cases with Ziegler, and surely hope to persuade Ziegler to sign on to opinions they write.

The big question is which impulse will prevail in the end. . . . The need to at least appear serious about enforcing judicial ethics standards? Or the personal and professional longing for collegiality?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Supreme Rule

Defending the reprimand recommended by the state Judicial Commission, Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler's lawyer says Ziegler deserves to be treated like any other judge guilty of judicial misconduct. Attorney Jon Axelrod notes that a municipal court judge was publicly reprimanded for ruling on cases involving relatives.

"I think the citizens of this state would be concerned if Judge Ziegler was treated better . . . or worse, " Axelrod said.

Actually, the public reaction to the news that Ziegler might get nothing more than a slap on the wrist for admitted violations of Wisconsin's conflict-of-interest rules for judges is so far running more along the lines of this.

In making his case for lenience for his client, Attorney Axelrod overlooked an enduring rule of accountability that has been articulated by everyone from comic strip characters to some of the world's greatest statesmen. It even is conspicuous in Scripture.

Winston Churchill said the "price of greatness is responsibility." Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a similar remark in his 1945 state of the union address: "In a democratic world, as in a democratic nation, power must be linked with responsibility. . . ." Thirty seven years earlier, Theodore Roosevelt struck an almost identical note: ". . . I believe in power; but I believe that responsibility should go with power. . . ."

John F. Kennedy famously said "to whom much is given, much is required." Even in Spider-Man, Peter Parker's uncle Ben memorably uttered these last words: "With great power comes great responsibility." Kennedy's and uncle Ben's thoughts weren't original. They were just a contemporary retelling of what Jesus Christ says in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verse 48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask more."

Should this particular Supreme Court justice really be treated exactly the same as a municipal judge? Of course not. Ziegler not only is a member of the state's highest court but also is like no other judge in that she is the first state Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin's long history to face disciplinary action for judicial misconduct. If punished, she will stand alone in wearing that badge of dishonor.

Because her case is unique, so should her punishment be. And because she is one to whom so much more has been given, much more should be required.

A reprimand won't do. At least a suspension is in order.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Light Tap On The Wrist

It was not surprising in the least that the state Judicial Commission found that Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler engaged in judicial misconduct for ruling on cases involving West Bend Savings Bank, where her husband sits on the board of directors. The rules are black and white, and her violations of those rules were clear cut. Ziegler accepted the commission's finding and admits she broke the rules. The commission has filed a formal complaint with the state Supreme Court, which is ultimately responsible for enforcing the state judicial ethics code.

When it comes to the rest of the story, I don't know whether to be surprised, but it is deeply disappointing that the commission is recommending only a public reprimand, the least severe punishment the commission could have suggested.

Also disappointing is the fact that on other cases Ziegler handled involving companies in which she owned stock worth $50,000 or more, the commission found "credible evidence" that Ziegler violated the ethics code, but did not file a complaint with the high court but rather let her off with a warning letter.

Ziegler's attorney told reporters a reprimand is consistent with precedent, citing the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year to reprimand a former municipal judge for presiding over cases in which relatives of his were defendants.

The problem with following precedent is that up to now enforcement of the state judicial ethics code has been ineffective. Ziegler either was ignorant of the rules or lacked respect for them. And recent reports in the Green Bay Press-Gazette and Milwaukee Magazine indicate the problem extends well beyond Ziegler. It is a bad idea to follow precedent if that precedent represents failure.

The question of Ziegler's punishment is about more than holding her accountable. Whatever discipline the state Supreme Court ultimately settles on will send a message to judges throughout the state. Following the Judicial Commission's recommendation would send a very weak signal . . . one that would effectively tell judges that they are at liberty to disregard the ethics code because not much of anything will happen to them if they break the rules. If the court is at all concerned about public confidence in the integrity of our state court system, this is the worst possible message it could send.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

WI Contributors Giving Big To Shadow Groups

Unregulated electioneering groups that often sponsor negative ads, mailings and auto calls against political candidates received $619,820 from Wisconsin businesses, labor unions and individuals in the first half of 2007, a Democracy Campaign review shows.

These so-called 527 groups are tax-exempt, political nonprofit organizations named for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code that regulates them. The groups may raise and spend as much as they want on electioneerings activities. Some of the better known 527s are America Coming Together, GOPAC, Club for Growth and the Democratic Governors Association.

WDC's review of fundraising reports filed by the groups shows Wisconsin special interests are dolingout sharply more than in past, comparable periods and much of it is going to Democratic-leaning 527s.

The $619,820 in Wisconsin contributions in the first half of 2007 compares to $291,410 in the first six months of 2005, $282,544 in the first half of 2003 and $345,791 in the first six months of 2001.

Roughly $412,000 in contributions went to Democratic 527s and about $203,000 went to Republican groups.

Six groups got $50,000 or more from Wisconsin contributors. They include the Progressive Majority which accepted $182,425; the Republican Governors Association, $91,000; the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, $83,000; GOPAC, $71,936; the Laborers Political League Education Fund, $57,458; and the Democratic Governors Association, $50,375.

The top Wisconsin contributor to these groups in the first six months of 2007 was Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein, heiress to the Schlitz Brewing and Allen-Bradley fortunes and a long time backer of Democratic and women's causes, who gave $218,000. Uihlein was followed by the Wisconsin Laborers District Council at $50,816 and Johnson Controls at $50,375.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Clean Slate. Fresh Start.

Tomorrow is the first meeting of the new Government Accountability Board. The new board will meet at 10 a.m. in the Legislative Council conference room (Suite 401) at 1 East Main Street in Madison.

And not a moment too soon.

Created by 2007 Wisconsin Act 1 – the Democracy Campaign-backed ethics reform legislation enacted into law during a January special session of the Legislature called by Governor Jim Doyle – the new nonpartisan board replaces the state Elections Board and Ethics Board and will be responsible for overseeing elections, ethics, lobbying and campaign finance in Wisconsin.

The first order of business will be to select a chairperson and attend to staffing and other administrative matters to establish the new politically independent agency. Specifically, the new board has to hire a director and two division administrators. Then, in addition to all of its other duties, the ethics reform law requires the board to review all of the existing internal operating procedures, guidelines, rules, orders and formal opinions issued by the Elections Board and Ethics Board. Within its first 12 months, the Government Accountability Board must review and reaffirm each of these items or they will terminate by law automatically.

That may sound like bureaucratic busywork, but the two boards that are being replaced left some real messes to clean up. None bigger than the Elections Board's disastrous contract with the global outsourcing firm Accenture to create a federally mandated statewide computerized voter registration system. New problems with the project became public this past weekend, which led to renewed calls for forceful action. The Elections Board and its director Kevin Kennedy appear paralyzed, as they have been for months, as if waiting for the Government Accountability Board to take this debacle off their hands.

The new board has its work cut out for it. Here are a few of the things that most need doing:
  • Take the bull by the horns on the voter registration project. The Elections Board and Kennedy have been in denial, and this project has become the state government's equivalent of the Iraq War. It's time to face facts, acknowledge mistakes, develop a sensible exit strategy and then execute a plan for cleaning up the mess and getting the work finished.
  • Be proactive. Don't just react lamely like your predecessors. Just today we got yet another glimpse of how things have been done in recent years and what the new board should avoid doing. There's a story in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which Kevin Kennedy is quoted saying he believes campaign finance laws may have been violated. But near the end of the story is this: "The Elections Board is not looking into the matter because it typically acts only if it receives a complaint, Kennedy said." That is so Elections Board. The old board had all the authority it needed to investigate and take enforcement action on its own initiative, but routinely would not lift a finger unless some citizen gathered all the evidence and filed a formal complaint. That's like a police officer witnessing a crime but refusing to do anything unless a bystander investigates the crime scene and swears out an arrest warrant. This is one internal operating procedure the new Government Accountability Board simply must change. If you have reason to believe laws may have been broken, do your job, gather the facts and take appropriate enforcement action if there's fire where you saw smoke.
  • Get some fresh blood on the staff of the new agency. In replacing the state Elections Board and Ethics Board, the Government Accountability Board will be merging the staff and functions of the two agencies into one. The new board will only be able to initially hire three people – a legal counsel who will effectively act as director and two division administrators – so for the time being these three positions represent the board's opportunity to change the staff culture.
  • Remember that consistent and rigorous law enforcement is the best educational tool. Speaking of changing the culture, the time-honored practice in both the Elections Board and Ethics Board of focusing on "educating" rather than punishing those who cross ethical lines or break election or campaign finance laws should be high on the Government Accountability Board's list of cultural practices that need changing. When wealthy donors were caught exceeding the legal limit for campaign contributions, the Elections Board would go to extreme lengths to avoid punishing the wrongdoing and instead would suggest ways the donor could be made to appear in compliance with the law – such as offering to assign excess donations to a spouse. In so doing, an unmistakable message was sent to big donors: Feel free to ignore these laws, because nothing will happen to you if you do. The result was more donors breaking the law, more flagrantly. If the new board truly wants to educate election participants about the law, swift and sure enforcement with stiff penalties is the only way.

Here's hoping that tomorrow's meeting produces tangible evidence that a new sheriff has truly come to town.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Tommy In A Coal Mine

Tommy Thompson R.I.P. Lived by the sword and died by the sword.

The weapon to which I refer, of course, is the money that permeates and has taken over modern politics. And no one in this state has ever played the money game better than Tommy. Over a 34-year career in state politics, Tommy raised more campaign money than anyone in Wisconsin history, although Jim Doyle will almost certainly eclipse him eventually.

Yet despite his legendary fundraising prowess, Thompson – like ├╝ber-insider Scott Walker, who ended his 2006 bid for the Republican nomination for governor before a single vote was cast – is now just another victim of the wealth primary. He didn't have the money to get his message out. Voters never got the chance to decide whether Tommy had a message worth getting out. The money decided for them.

Like Walker, Tommy is the proverbial canary in a coal mine. The fact that the race for president was too rich for Tommy's blood – just as last year's race for governor was too rich for Walker's – warns how toxic all the money in politics has become. If Tommy Thompson and Scott Walker don't have the wherewithal to be financially viable candidates for higher office, now that's saying something.

Which brings me to the final cruel irony that sealed Tommy's fate. He was forsaken by the elite Wisconsin donors who made him a four-term governor here. And he seemed genuinely surprised by that. He shouldn't be. Money flows to power, and now that Tommy is no longer in a position to do big donors in this state any favors, they have no use for him. If ever there were living proof that the incessant claims of the political class that campaign donations are benign is a load of crap, Tommy Thompson is it. His aspirations just died at the hands of this raging malignancy.

What is presumably the final chapter in Tommy's political career is a story of infidelity. He had a solid marriage with Wisconsin voters. But in the end, the mistress he jumped in bed with dumped him for a sexier, more accommodating and more generous lover.

It could be worse for Tommy. Such dalliances led one-time rival Chuck Chvala – who Tommy vanquished with ease in 1994 – to jail. Tommy was just left in the private sector.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Does AT&T Have A Direct Line To God?

A Chicago-based group called the Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide (MAADD) held a press conference yesterday at the Capitol to voice support for the Wisconsin legislation creating statewide cable TV franchising that AT&T is pushing here.

A front group called TV4Us that AT&T finances already has been caught making fraudulent claims of public support for the company's cable legislation (for more on that, read this and this). Now men of the cloth are being enlisted in the battle over cable's future in our state. Clergymen who Capitol-watchers down in Illinois openly suggest are being paid to shill for AT&T (see this and this).

One thing is sure. MAADD claimed yesterday that AT&T's bill would save Wisconsin families over $400,000 a day and cited a study by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies as proof. The Phoenix Center's director has admitted receiving financial support from AT&T.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Not So Invisible Hand

As the phenomenon of businesses writing legislation – like AT&T's cable bill this year or the "Job Creation Act" written by industry lobbyists a few years back – grows more commonplace in the State Capitol, it's worth reflecting on what the father of free-market economics had to say about the practice. His words are right here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

487 Days And Counting

Why have 487 days passed since Scott Jensen was convicted of three felonies and he's still not serving his sentence?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Catering To Delusion

Looks like radio shouter and neocon blogger Charlie Sykes is on to the ultimate Internet hoax – take a well-documented fact you just can't bear and indignantly claim it's nothing but an Internet hoax. Then get some soulmates on the airwaves and in the blogosphere to give your claim the appearance of credence by repeating it over and over again, and you're well on your way to erasing history.

The Democracy Campaign recently quoted Abraham Lincoln in our statement on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Wisconsin Right to Life's legal challenge to the federal McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. Sykes accused us of using a bogus quote, citing snopes.com.

Our source for the Lincoln quote was The Lincoln Encyclopedia by Archer H. Shaw, published by Macmillan in 1950. Page 40. To get the book, go here. Another source is page 954 of Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait (volume 2) by Emanuel Hertz, published in 1931. Hertz published another pertinent book, The Hidden Lincoln; from the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon, in 1938.

After hearing that some doubted the authenticity of the quote, University of California-Davis researcher Rick Crawford went digging and was willing to stake his academic reputation on his finding that the quote is authentic. In the course of his research on the subject, Crawford also found this on page 24 of Lincoln's Complete Works (volume 1), published in 1905: "These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people, and now that they have got into a quarrel with themselves, we are called upon to appropriate the people's money to settle the quarrel." Lincoln uttered those words in a speech to the Illinois legislature in January 1837.

The likes of Charlie Sykes do not want to believe that the party of Lincoln's namesake may have had such concerns about corporate power. Even if it says so in exhaustively researched, well-documented and peer-reviewed books that have been in publication for more than a half century and have yet to be challenged by serious historians, it can't be true. So Sykes takes snopes.com's word for it. Even if some of the content on that online rumor mill is, well, less than confidence inspiring. Or downright weird.

Sykes has something in common with much of his audience. Those who hang on his every word want to be lied to. They don't want to believe in evolution. They want to believe the earth is really 6,000 years old, despite the preponderance of scientific evidence showing they are a few billion years off. They want to believe global warming is not happening or, if the earth's climate is indeed changing, human behavior has nothing to do with it. They need someone like Charlie Sykes to assure them they're right.

They support U.S. policy in Iraq even though it's easily one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in American history and they think the Geneva Conventions are an intolerable nuisance. They need a Bill O'Reilly to confirm that warped belief, even if twisting history and slandering dead American World War II soldiers is the only way he can think to do it. O'Reilly and Sykes and their ilk cater to an audience that wants reality to disappear when that reality offends them or makes them uncomfortable or just doesn't fit their world view. They need to be told that fantasy is reality.

Charlie Sykes and Bill O'Reilly and dozens of others just like them happily oblige because they make a handsome living indulging their audience's delusions.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Potted Plants? Well...

The chairman of the outgoing State Elections Board has been grousing about the $467 per diem each of the six retired judges on the new Government Accountability Board will get for meetings. The new board, expected to start work this fall, will replace the existing Elections and Ethics boards.

Each of the Elections Board's eight partisan, political appointees is paid $25 per meeting.

John Savage, a Milwaukee attorney and GOP appointee to the board, recently told the Shepherd Express the GAB members don't deserve to be paid that much just because they are judges, and they alread get a state pension.

Referring to the present board, Savage asks, "Are we potted plants?"

Well, if you don't want to know the answer maybe you shouldn't ask the question.

The Elections Board's legacy will be one of helping foster the decrepit political and policymaking environment we have now because it refused to enforce Wisconsin's campaign finance laws and penalties. It helped create an atmosphere in which six former legislative leaders were charged and convicted on a variety of misdemeanor or felony misconduct and other ethics charges. The investigations, charges and convictions were courtesy of outside law enforcement and not the board.

The board's inaction also has emboldened wealthy special interest contributors to make more and bigger campaign contributions, sometimes exceeding the legal limit, and run vicious media campaigns to elect officials who will oblige them and not the public.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Last Welfare Queens

A two-story series by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the state's welfare programs for business echoed findings in a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report released in March 2005 and an August 2006 state audit.

All three reviews found the state's business welfare programs hand out millions of dollars a year in cheap loans, grants and tax breaks, but don't know if many of the companies are meeting job creation and other economic development goals. In other cases, the state waives some of the goals and requirements when it hands out the money.

The WDC report explored the level of state welfare to businesses that made campaign contributions. Those who made contributions got substantially higher state aid than those who did not.

Three investigations by three different organizations in three different years all find these programs give away millions in state tax dollars to wealthy corporations that kept the cash, but not their promises.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Consistently Inconsistent

On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling putting new limits on enforcement of the federal McCain-Feingold campaign reform law, the court ruled that schools may censor the speech of students, even when the speech occurs off school property.

Writing for the narrow majority of a split U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts leaned heavily on free speech arguments to carve out an exception to disclosure requirements and restrictions on campaign money. While not striking down McCain-Feingold as unconstitutional, the majority opinion invites special interests to play word games in their advertisements to get around the law.

The court ruled that advertisements targeting candidates for federal office and run in the days before an election may be funded with unlimited corporate or union funds unless the ads are the "functional equivalent of express advocacy" and only if the ads are "susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate."

By shielding ad sponsors from disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limitations if an ad has "content . . . consistent with that of a genuine issue ad" and "lacks indicia of express advocacy," the Court essentially revived the so-called magic words test that it found "functionally meaningless" less than four years ago in McConnell v. FEC. And made the nation's campaign finance laws prone to easy manipulation.

Roberts justified this result by saying the First Amendment "requires us to err on the side of protecting . . . speech rather than suppressing it." His majority opinion goes on to say: "We give the benefit to speech, not censorship."

Roberts saw things differently on the student speech case. Again writing for the majority, Roberts ruled that schools may prohibit student expression that can be interpreted as advocating drug use, even though Roberts acknowledged that the message at issue in the case – a banner saying "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" unfurled by a student outside of school – was "cryptic."

Cryptic? Hell, it was inane . . . even by the student's estimation. But no more inane than most of the campaign ads we are doomed to watch.

The irony is that, contrary to popular mischaracterization, the McCain-Feingold law does not prevent any group from airing a political ad at any time, all the way up to Election Day. It merely prevents groups from using corporate or labor union treasury funds to pay for ads run within 60 days of an election. And groups have to disclose their funding sources to the public. But there is no censorship. Yet disclosure and campaign money restrictions ran afoul of the First Amendment's free speech protections in the collective mind of the Roberts court, while outright censorship of student speech did not.

This may seem wildly inconsistent. But if you look closely at the trends in recent Supreme Court rulings, the powerful are served time and again. Weaker elements of our society are not. When you look at who's winning and who's losing in recent cases, this court is scrupulously consistent.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Couldn't They Just Join Softball Leagues?

James Buchen, vice president of government relations at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, was quoted recently defending state lawmakers' habit of campaign fundraising during the state budget process. He said fundraisers help break the tension that builds during a legislative session. Sort of like a spa.

"More than anything it's a social outlet that this process sorely needs," Buchen said.

He went on to say fundraisers are a "setting where you can get to know people." And buy a tax break or two.

Monday, June 11, 2007

No Cable Subscriber Left Behind

If Wisconsin's experience is anything like what is happening in other states, the so-called Video Competition Act being pushed by AT&T and put on a fast track to passage by eager-to-please state lawmakers will end up deserving a place right next to No Child Left Behind and the federal Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives in the Doublespeak Hall of Fame.

Legislative sponsors, AT&T's lobbyists and its PR machine all are chirping about how the legislation will lower cable TV rates in Wisconsin. Sounds a lot like the hype for No Child Left Behind before it became evident how many children are being left behind. For starters, only one in five students eligible for the tutoring the law promised are getting it.

As sure as Clear Skies allowed more air pollution and Healthy Forests gave timber companies the green light to more aggressively harvest trees on public lands, it's a safe bet that cable bills will go up under the Video Competition Act. Just look at Texas, where legislation virtually identical to AT&T's bill in Wisconsin has done the opposite of what was promised.

George Orwell's got to be doing double axels and triple toe loops in his grave.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Lincoln's Warning

On the surface, the commentary of mine that was posted today on our Web site deals with the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Wisconsin Right to Life's legal challenge to the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Just beneath the surface is anxiety about corporate immortality and plutocracy.

The piece quotes Thomas Jefferson warning of the growing threat to the infant republic posed by the "aristocracy of our monied corporations." The better part of a century later, President Abraham Lincoln echoed Jefferson's fear.

In a November 21, 1864 letter to Colonel William F. Elkins, Lincoln wrote: "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

The warnings of both Jefferson and Lincoln ring truer than ever today.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Queen Bee In A Dying Hive

Most mainstream news coverage of election campaigns is based on the widely accepted assumption that business and labor are political equals. They are not in the same league. Not even close.

A recently released Democracy Campaign study shows that over the last 12 years business interests have made $12 in campaign contributions for every $1 labor unions have given to candidates for state office in Wisconsin.

The old political orthodoxy that business bankrolls Republicans while unions fund the Democrats is a myth. Corporate interests are indeed the GOP’s major benefactors, but the Democrats have changed teams. They get five times more campaign money from business than labor is giving them.

If you wonder why Jim Doyle agreed to a business tax break – so-called single factor taxation – that even Tommy Thompson wouldn’t support, or if you wonder why Joe Wineke works as a lobbyist for AT&T when he’s not tending to his duties as chair of the state Democratic Party, all you have to do is follow the money.

And it’s not just campaign donations to candidates where the rise of corporate influence within the Democratic Party is plainly visible. The Democrats’ leading “issue advocacy” group in Wisconsin is being sustained by a feeding tube through which major corporate donations flow.

The bottom line is that the labor unions are getting their heads handed to them. Corporate interests have a firm financial grip on both major parties. Labor is losing political clout by the day.

So why is organized labor reticent at best and at times even openly hostile toward campaign finance reform? Since unions have people and corporations have capital, why does organized labor seem content competing on a money playing field . . . even when they are so hopelessly outgunned? Why do they actively and sometimes even openly work to thwart efforts to change that playing field?

The head of the biggest of the big labor players – Wisconsin Education Association Council – recently told the lobbying trade publication Capitol Report Wisconsin that “WEAC has never lobbied to kill campaign finance reform.”

It’s true that WEAC usually takes great care to disclose nothing about its position on campaign reform legislation, registering neither in favor of nor in opposition to reform bills, so as to maintain plausible deniability about their efforts to undermine reform efforts.

But I personally saw a WEAC lawyer appear numerous times before the state Elections Board in opposition to full disclosure and regulation of so-called “issue ads” – campaign advertisements masquerading as issue advocacy that plainly support the election or defeat of a candidate. In other words, WEAC was lobbying to keep a loophole open that is allowing millions of dollars in corporate donations to flow into Wisconsin election campaigns.

If you won’t take my word for it, clear evidence of WEAC’s lobbying against this campaign reform can be found on page one of the official minutes of the state Elections Board’s September 1, 2004 meeting and also on page three of the minutes of the board’s March 10, 2004 meeting. This is rare documentation of WEAC’s activities in opposition to campaign finance reform. Like I said, most times the teachers union has carefully maintained plausible deniability.

Why is WEAC working to keep open a loophole that its presumed nemesis, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, is exploiting to buy elections? An especially good question considering that WEAC has rarely if ever taken advantage of this loophole, preferring instead to fund its campaign ads with regulated PAC funds.

One is tempted to conclude that unions like WEAC and organized labor generally are dumb as shovels. At the risk of giving an undeserved benefit of the doubt, I don’t think stupidity is the answer, or even lack of imagination. I suspect it’s that most of the unions would rather be a queen bee in a dying hive than a drone in a thriving one.

When unions were in their heyday, Democrats controlled government and organized labor controlled the Democrats. Today, if not for the Iraq War, Republicans would be the clear majority party in America. Before public opinion about the war started turning sour, the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, not to mention most statehouses. Not only has labor’s party been largely out of power, it’s not even labor’s party anymore. Even in a comparatively strong union state like Wisconsin, Democrats are getting five times more campaign money from business than from labor.

So the unions’ money is only enough for them to retain a controlling stake in an ever-shrinking contingent of a minority political coalition. And they lose on issue after issue.

Despite declining membership and waning influence, labor’s aging leadership clings to old practices that put the working class at a profound disadvantage in the modern public arena. Whether it’s done out of stupidity, or lack of imagination, or out of a misguided belief that it’s better to wholly own a few powerless politicians than be one of many stakeholders in a thriving political enterprise, it can’t get much worse for working people.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Listen To Your Elders

Two of Wisconsin's elder statesmen – former Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus and former legislator and state school superintendent Bert Grover – sounded off recently about the nature of modern politics and the state of our democracy. One a Republican, the other a Democrat. Both worth listening to. To read Grover's piece, go here. The Dreyfus commentary is here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Shadowy Is As Shadowy Does

Democratic campaign operative Bill Christofferson took exception recently to a commentary of mine that referred to his Greater Wisconsin Committee as a "shadowy outfit."

In his letter to the editor, Christofferson claims the Greater Wisconsin Committee "operates exactly the same way" as the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. GWC is an electioneering group. It is a receptacle for special interest donations that cannot be legally given directly to candidates, and it uses that extralegal money to pay for campaign ads that plainly aim to influence the outcome of elections. The Democracy Campaign is a watchdog group and does no election campaign advertising whatsoever. Equating these two nonprofit groups is like saying night and day operate exactly the same way.

Christofferson goes on to say I imply Greater Wisconsin Committee is spending corporate money but have no way of knowing. He says "given the progressive, pro-consumer positions Greater Wisconsin takes, corporate dollars are not likely to flow its way."

Internal Revenue Service records show that one of GWC's biggest sources of funds is the Democratic Governors Association, a nonprofit corporation. In 2005 and 2006, the DGA gave Christofferson's group nearly $1.1 million. Where did DGA get the money it then funneled to outfits like Greater Wisconsin Committee? Wisconsin donors included Johnson Bank, Johnson Controls, Madison Gas & Electric, Miller Brewing, Northwestern Mutual Life, S.C Johnson and Son, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Wisconsin Public Service Corporation and three Indian tribes. And, oh yes, indicted casino developer Dennis Troha, who appears to have figured out a little too late that he could make use of groups like DGA and GWC to get around legal limits on campaign donations.

The list of out-of-state donors to Greater Wisconsin Committee's sugar daddy reads like a who's who of corporate America – AT&T, Coca Cola, Goodrich Tires, Lockheed Martin, Motorola, Toyota, Union Pacific and Verizon Communications, just to name a few.

Documents filed with the IRS also show that another national nonprofit corporation, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, supplied Greater Wisconsin Committee with over $800,000 in 2006. Among the Wisconsin donors who filled the DAGA's coffers were Miller Brewing and Wisconsin Energy Corporation. National contributors included Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris), AT&T, Dow Chemical, GlaxoSmithKline and Hewlett Packard.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Squeezing Georgia Thompson

If you've been following the state travel contract saga, or if you're just interested in peering through a window into our criminal justice system, this is must reading. And damn good journalism.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sweet Deal Turns Sour

News that a top executive with a Chicago-based real estate company was charged yesterday in federal court with soliciting a kickback on the sale of a state building had a ring of familiarity to it.

Just over a year ago, the Democracy Campaign pointed out large contributions from Equis Corporation executives to Governor Jim Doyle's reelection campaign right around the time the company landed an eyebrow-raising contract to sell state property. That prompted media scrutiny of the terms of the deal.

It looked like a sweetheart deal then, and it certainly doesn't look any better now.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Senate Passes 3 Reform Bills

The state Senate this afternoon passed three reform proposals supported by the Democracy Campaign including Senate Bill 77, truth-in-campaigning legislation requiring full disclosure of special interest electioneering. SB 77 was approved on a 26-7 vote.

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 23, which addresses the revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying by requiring a one-year cooling off period before state lawmakers who leave the Legislature may start working as lobbyists at the Capitol. SB 23 passed on a 30-3 vote.

A third WDC-backed bill, Senate Bill 170, known as the Judicial Right to Know bill, was passed this afternoon on a 19-14 vote.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Your Party. Delivered.

So the head of the state Democratic Party is a lobbyist for AT&T. Talk about your metaphors.

The news that Joe Wineke has joined the telecommunication giant's stable of hired guns evokes memories of the reaction to a shameful and scandalous episode in another time and place. As they said then, "say it ain't so, Joe."

Friday, April 27, 2007

Disorder In The Court

"I have exercised my right under the law. I'm entitled to do that, and it doesn't disqualify me from sitting as a judge."

That's what Supreme Court Justice David Prosser had to say when asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about whether he thinks he could rule on cases involving ethics complaints leveled against Annette Ziegler after contributing to Ziegler's campaign to replace retiring Justice Jon Wilcox.

Earth to Prosser! Maybe the money you gave doesn't disqualify you from sitting as a judge. But it sure as hell disqualifies you from sitting in judgment of Annette Ziegler.

By the way, this is the same Justice Prosser who had no misgivings about being a character witness for Scott Jensen at the former Assembly speaker's criminal trial and was even prepared to testify that Jensen had not done anything that Prosser didn't do when he was speaker, even though the state Supreme Court has final say over Jensen's case.

"Circuit judges are not above the law and may be investigated by the Judicial Commission, prosecuted and disciplined by this Court when appropriate. However, under the doctrine of separation of powers and this Court's superintending authority, circuit judges cannot be regulated and disciplined by an Executive Branch agency."

That's how Ziegler's legal team expressed her belief that no one but Supreme Court justices should be able to sit in judgment of her. She has asked the high court to block a conflict-of-interest complaint filed against her by the state Ethics Board. Ziegler is arguing the separation of powers between the branches of government should prevent an executive branch agency, namely the Ethics Board, from seeking to hold an official in the judicial branch, namely her, accountable for obeying state ethics laws. State law bars public officials from acting on matters in which their immediate family has a substantial financial interest. Each violation is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.

Um, Judge Ziegler, your honor, just one question. . . . If the separation of powers doctrine means what you say it means – that the executive or legislative branches of government have no authority whatsoever over you and your colleagues in the judicial branch – does that mean you will not pass judgment on the actions of officials in the other two branches of government or hold them accountable for legal trespasses if you ever make it to the Supreme Court?

Can't wait to hear your answer.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Wearing The 1st Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week in Wisconsin Right to Life's challenge of the federal McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. The nation's high court decided back in January to review the case. At issue is whether the law's disclosure requirements and restrictions on campaign money apply to special interest groups when they sponsor so-called "issue ads" identifying a candidate for federal office within 60 days of an election.

Interest group-sponsored issue ads are a sham, a thinly veiled attempt to evade legal and constitutional limits on campaign contributions. They pretend to discuss issues but unmistakably aim to elect or defeat candidates. Before the McCain-Feingold law put an end to this phony game on the national level, most of the money for issue ads in federal races came from corporate and labor union treasuries, as is still the case at the state level. Yet corporations and unions have been banned by law from contributing money in connection with federal elections since 1907 and 1947, respectively, and past Supreme Court rulings upheld these bans.

Expect to hear lots of high-minded rhetoric about free speech Wednesday as opponents of McCain-Feingold wrap themselves in the First Amendment to defend their practice of keeping the public in the dark about who is paying for their electioneering in order to sidestep the federal ban on corporate and union donations.

For all the talk of free speech, this legal debate is really about the boundaries of paid speech – namely whether monied interest groups should be able to use their vast treasuries to monopolize political debate and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. Another critical question before the court is whether interest groups should be free to do their talking under a cloak of secrecy.

Finally, underneath the arcane legal arguments looms the core philosophical question of ownership. The U.S. Supreme Court at one time embraced the repugnant notion that people can be property, setting the stage for the Civil War that commenced less than four years later. An infamous footnote to a high court ruling in a late-19th Century case advanced the similarly ridiculous proposition that property can be a person. That set the stage for citizen revolts like those led by Fighting Bob La Follette in Wisconsin around the turn of the century that ultimately resulted in the banning of corporate and union treasury donations nationally and here in our state.

Wisconsin Right to Life's challenge to McCain-Feingold raises anew the question of corporate ownership of democracy. Whether the Supreme Court will answer this question – or even think about it – is another matter.