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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Special Interests Gave Generously To Shadow Groups

Wisconsin residents, businesses and unions contributed $2.49 million in 2005-06 to unregulated electioneering groups, most of whom use negative broadcast advertising and mailings to influence state and national elections, a WDC analysis shows.

The total is about $81,000 shy of the record $2.57 million Wisconsin contributors gave to so-called 527 groups in the 2001-02 election cycle.

These 527 organizations, which are tax-exempt political nonprofit groups named after the U.S. Internal Revenue Service code that governs them, include the well-known Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, GOPAC, America Coming Together and The groups can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money, including corporate contributions that are illegal to make directly to candidates in Wisconsin, to pay for negative ads, mailings, auto calls and other outside electioneering activities.

The leading recipient of special interest cash from Wisconsin was the Democratic Governors Association, which received nearly $528,000. That money was among nearly $1.1 million the group gave to the Greater Wisconsin Committee, an unregulated issue ad group that spent more than $4 million on mostly negative broadcast ads in the November 2006 elections to benefit Democratic candidates, particularly Governor Jim Doyle.

The Republican Governors Association, which directly spent more than $2 million on negative ads and mailings attacking Doyle, accepted $341,825 from Wisconsin contributors in 2005-06.

Six other 527 groups each received more than $100,000 in Wisconsin contributions, including the Progressive Majority, $274,300; Club for Growth, $169,390; Democratic Attorneys General Association, $167,000; GOPAC, $157,541; Emily's List, $147,380; and the Laborers Political League Education Fund, $107,937.

Democratic-leaning 527s received substantially more than Republican-leaning groups from Wisconsin contributors in 2005-06. Democratic 527s got $1.68 million and Republican 527s got $785,968.

Leading the list of Wisconsin contributors to 527s was Milwaukee philanthropist Lynde Uihlein, an heir to the Schlitz Brewing and Allen-Bradley family fortunes and a longtime supporter of Democratic and women's causes. She contributed $563,000 to 527 groups in 2005-06, followed by Johnson Controls which gave $145,500 and the Wisconsin Laborers District Council which gave $107,937.

Following those contributors were three who each gave $100,000 to 527s including the Wisconsin Builders Association; Daniel Bader with the Helen Bader Foundation in Milwaukee; and Kenosha millionaire Dennis Troha. Troha, Doyle's biggest contributor and a long time backer of an $808 million tribal casino in Kenosha, was charged in federal court earlier this year with illegally funneling campaign contributions through family members to Doyle and other political committees, and then lying to the FBI about it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Most Successful 'Abject Failure' Ever

At Tuesday's public hearing on campaign finance reform, only one speaker testified in opposition to reform – James Buchen of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. In his testimony, Buchen told more than a few tall tales, none taller than his claim that public financing of election campaigns has proven to be an "abject failure."

Abject failure?

Elected officials from both parties and citizens alike sing the praises of public financing programs that have been put in place in states like Arizona and Maine. A judge from North Carolina, where there is now full public financing of judicial races, feels so strongly about the benefits of her state's campaign financing system that she went to the trouble of sending a guest column to a Seattle newspaper when she learned the state of Washington is thinking of reforming the way it finances judicial elections.

A report entitled "Keeping It Clean" by the California-based Center for Governmental Studies spends 154 pages detailing the finer points of public financing of elections in states across the country and chronicling the successes of these programs.

Go here, here, here and here for even more evidence of how well public financing is working in states from one end of America to the other.

Of course, it's obvious why Buchen and WMC choose to ignore all this evidence and conclude that publicly financed elections represent a failed policy. Under the current system of privately funded elections in Wisconsin, WMC gets to do far more than its fair share of the talking during campaigns. The big business lobby spent $2.5 million in last fall's race for state attorney general and just dropped at least another $2 million on the April 3 state Supreme Court election.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson made it clear in her testimony at Tuesday's hearing what she thinks of such special interest influence in races for a seat on the state's highest court, and was unequivocal in her support for publicly financed elections.

Reform creating voter-owned, clean elections would level the playing field and force WMC and Buchen to do something they want no part of – participate in a debate without monopolizing the floor. It also would stop them from buying elections and thereby purchasing one tax break after another that have shifted the tax burden in Wisconsin from corporations to working families.

As this story makes clear, WMC doesn't speak for a united business community on the subject of taxes. And not everyone in the business world is towing the WMC party line on campaign finance reform, either, as this recent guest column by a retired medical industry executive illustrates. Moreover, the Small Business Times was so taken by the Democracy Campaign's pro-reform testimony that the trade journal featured it on its Milwaukee Biz Blog.

Big Brother Bullies PEG

An April 5 blog posting dealt with the advertising blitz by an outfit called TV4US pushing what one communications industry expert calls cable "un-regulation" legislation introduced in Wisconsin's Legislature as Assembly Bill 207 and Senate Bill 107. The advertising focuses on spiraling cable bills and the need for relief for consumers.

Wisconsin State Journal columnist Susan Lampert Smith pointed out yesterday one of the dark sides of the proposed legislation. She wrote that the "cable bill, which is streaking a greased track through the Legislature, will, in its current form, kill city government and cable access channels across Wisconsin."

At stake is the future of community Public, Educational and Government (PEG) channels. They are to local government and community affairs what C-SPAN is on the national scene and WisconsinEye is supposed to become at the state level.

PEG channels from Oshkosh to Madison are raising red flags and trying to mobilize citizens to fight to preserve this vitally important outlet for local democracy. The Wisconsin Association of PEG Access Channels is trying to raise awareness statewide of the threat AB 207 and SB 107 pose to public access television. A central clearinghouse of information about the threat to PEG is

For still more information, go here.

Friday, April 06, 2007

More On AT&T....

WDC recently posted two blogs about AT&T contributions to legislators and a controversial bill it is strongly pushing to let the state license cable providers instead of letting local communities continue to pick their provider. One of the blogs talked about the sudden surge in AT&T campaign contributions to Republican Representative Phil Montgomery, the bill's Assembly sponsor, and Republican Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch.

We've since learned the bill's primary Senate sponsor, Democrat Jeff Plale, accepted a $1,000 contribution from the phone giant on March 15, a week before he introduced the proposal.

A campaign finance report filed March 26 by one of AT&T's political action committees also showed AT&T contributed $4,800 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee about a month before the bill was introduced. This committee is controlled by Huebsch. It is one of four committees that Democratic and Republican legislative leaders in the Senate and Assembly use to shake down large special interest contributions.

In Plale's case, it's curious timing for a hefty campaign contribution. Last year when Plale was up for election, he received only $150 from AT&T, and he won't face reelection until 2010.

Between 2000 and 2005, Plale received a total of $2,150 from AT&T PACs.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

TV 4 Them

In a blog posting last week, we pointed out AT&T's sudden interest in making campaign contributions to certain state lawmakers who will play key roles in deciding the fate of cable TV deregulation legislation the company sorely wants passed. The March 29 blog also highlighted the involvement of a Washington, D.C.-based bill mill in the development of the cable franchising proposal.

Campaign contributions are only one way AT&T is seeking to influence the outcome of the debate over this controversial legislation seeking to take decisions about community cable TV service out of the hands of local elected officials. The telecommunications giant also has 15 lobbyists working the halls of the State Capitol, and is leading a coalition called TV4US that is doing heavy television advertising across Wisconsin to build public support for the bill.

Our friends at the Center for Media and Democracy recently posted an item on their excellent SourceWatch site about TV4US.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Chipping In

For anyone who still doesn't believe special interest money flows to power, check out the difference in contributions the Senate Democrats are commanding for a round of golf with them this May now that they hold the majority, versus last year when they were in the minority.

In May 2006, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee's golf fundraiser at the House on the Rock Resort in Spring Green cost $250 per golfer, or $975 per foursome.

Enter the November 2006 general election. The Senate Dems went from being down 19-14 to winning an 18-15 majority until at least 2008. Lots of important stuff going on until then, particularly passage of the proposed 2007-09 state budget which legislators will be doing most of their work on in May and June.

The committee's May 18, 2007 fundraiser at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva costs $700 per golfer, or $2,500 per foursome. But that's not all. The Senate Dems have a whole list of options - at a cost - for those who can't golf worth a crap but want the Senate Dems to know they are with them.

You can be a "hole sponsor" for $750 per person or $3,000 per foursome. Hole sponsors are for people who are playing or unable to attend. The sponsors will be thanked in the event's program and on signs at the hole they sponsor. Nice, eh?

Now if you want to golf and eat breakfast with Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson and Senator Russ Decker, co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, that's $900 per person, or $3,250 per foursome.

In addition to getting to chit-chat about your favorite policy, perk, program or pork with the party in control, you get free stuff - an embroidered State Senate Democrats golf towel, a sleeve of logo balls, tees, range balls and a 5-by-7 group photo. Whoaa.

If you don't want anything to do with golf and you're on a tight budget, just eating breakfast with Robson and Decker is the best option at $250. Must be quite an omelet.