Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why We Left Out Frankenstein

Some have asked why the Democracy Campaign did not include the votes in the Senate and Assembly on the constitutional amendment purporting to ban the so-called "Frankenstein veto" in the analysis of roll call votes on democracy reform issues that we issued yesterday.

There are three reasons.

1. It wasn't much of a reform. Even with the constitutional amendment, Wisconsin's governor still possesses the most extensive – and abusive – veto power in the country. And there are still ways the state's current governor or any future governor will be able to stitch together pieces of laws to create whole new laws that the Legislature never approved. It is this capability that the governor retains that inspired the nickname "Frankenstein veto" in the first place. In short, this "reform" doesn't do much. It certainly doesn't kill Frankenstein. At best, it wounds him slightly. Very slightly.

2. It was an easy vote. There is a reason why the vote was 33-0 in the Senate and 94-1 in the Assembly. The vote on the constitutional amendment was a chance for legislators to appear to favor reform without doing anything of real consequence and, most notably, without doing a thing to clean up their own act. It is telling that the lone "no" vote was cast by a member of the Assembly who is not running for re-election and thus has no need to posture as a reformer. That member, retiring 22-year legislative veteran Frank Boyle, said he voted against the constitutional amendment because it was confusing and pointless. Boyle was the only one in the Legislature willing to call it what it was, but there were plenty of voices outside the Capitol who agreed with him.

3. Including it in our analysis wouldn't have changed the rankings. Because only one member of the Legislature voted against the Frankenstein veto amendment, including the Senate and Assembly roll call votes would not have narrowed the gap in scores between legislators and thus would not have altered the rankings. The same legislators still would have been in the same categories.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Does The Bill Of Rights Really Guarantee The Right To Secretly Buy Elections?

The Democracy Campaign recently estimated that special interest groups spent $4.8 million to influence the state Supreme Court race. A spokesman for the top spender, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, insisted our estimate was inaccurate but wouldn’t say why and refused to offer up any numbers to prove it wrong. He repeated for the umpteenth time the company line that groups like WMC have a First Amendment right to keep the public in the dark about how much is spent to sway voters and where that money comes from.

In effect, those who are taking ownership of our courts and our state legislature and our governor are saying that they have a constitutional right not only to wield daggers in the political arena but also to hide under cloaks while they do it.

What they also are effectively saying – over and over and over again until even people who ought to know better accept it as a universal truth – is that we have to choose between judicial independence and free speech. Or choose between open, honest government and the right to speak.

Those are false choices.

No constitutional right is absolute or unconditional. Among other things, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. But ask any of the countless journalists who have been jailed or the judges who put them behind bars if there are limits to that freedom.

Or take the Second Amendment. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Put aside for a moment that some believe the “well regulated militia” clause means the Second Amendment bestows a collective right to bear arms, not an individual right. Most people, and most courts, believe it protects an individual’s right to possess weapons. But that doesn’t mean that individuals have an unconditional right to keep and bear any and all arms. For instance, no one in their right mind would say the Second Amendment establishes an individual’s right to possess nuclear arms.

Just as an individual’s possession of a weapon of mass destruction would pose an intolerable threat to other community members’ rights to life, liberty and security, the First Amendment right of free speech likewise can be exercised in a way that does violence to citizen rights and the common good.

We have reached that point in Wisconsin politics.

In the Supreme Court election, two lobbying groups and three very shadowy front groups did 90 percent of the television advertising. With five interest groups doing almost all of the talking, the candidates in the race largely became bystanders in their own election. They had the right to speak, but virtually no way to be heard. A lot of good the First Amendment did them.

Voters got even more of a raw deal. Elections are supposed to be dialogues between candidates and voters. This one was a special interest monologue. The First Amendment wasn’t worth the paper it’s written on to ordinary citizens in this election. On top of that, in the name of the First Amendment voters were denied essential information about who paid for the more than 12,000 TV ads that were aired in the Supreme Court race, or even how much they cost.

It’s time we start distinguishing between the exercise of free speech and the abuse of it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Brogan 'Smear' And The Rest Of The Story

Green Bay business executive John Brogan says the Democracy Campaign is "smearing" him by pointing out that campaign finance reports filed by candidates for state office show that he made more than the legal limit of $10,000 in campaign contributions in 2007.

And Brogan says the Democracy Campaign also "falsely accused" him in 2003 of exceeding the $10,000 limit, because the Elections Board ruled back then that his use of a joint checking account to make the donations meant that no violation occurred.

Some pertinent facts . . . .

When the Elections Board let Brogan and 16 others off the hook in 2003, the board ignored a 1999 state appeals court ruling that campaign contributions made from joint accounts are made by an individual – not a couple – from his or her portion of those shared funds.

The candidates who received contributions from John Brogan in 2007 reported them as coming from him alone, not as joint contributions from him and his wife. We frequently see candidates report split or joint donations from a married couple, but did not see it in Brogan's case.

Both John Brogan and his wife, Gisela, are active donors. They often give to the same candidates but not always. For example, in 2007 Gisela gave Tom Nelson a $500 contribution on June 4 while John made a $500 donation on the same day to Jim Soletski. Governor Jim Doyle's campaign reported receiving separate $2,500 donations from both John and Gisela Brogan on January 5, 2007.

We did not count any part of Gisela Brogan's $2,500 donation to Doyle among the $12,500 in total campaign contributions John Brogan gave to various candidates in 2007. But John Brogan now says the donations that candidates reported receiving from him alone should be considered as coming from both him and his wife.

Over the years, the Brogans have given to 25 different candidates or campaign committees. Only one candidate reported a donation as coming from them jointly. The other 24 candidates or committees all reported receiving donations from either John or Gisela, but not both of them jointly. Maybe it's a coincidence that two dozen campaigns all considered these individual donations coming from just one of them, but it's a hell of a coincidence.

Looking at Gisela Brogan's giving history, on at least eight different occasions she's made contributions on days when her husband did not make any donations. On other occasions, she made donations on the same day as her husband did, but not always to the same candidate.

When all this evidence is considered, we believe John Brogan's argument that his donations were all jointly made with his wife is very weak. The Elections Board bought this argument in the past (and even encouraged donors to use it to appear to be in compliance), but hopefully the new Government Accountability Board that replaced the Elections Board will not allow the law to be gamed in this way.

We believe Brogan is in violation of the law now and was in violation of the same law when he made more than $10,000 in donations in 2002, but as I made clear in remarks to the GAB at the board's January 28 meeting, the old Elections Board's approach to enforcement of this particular section of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws left a great deal to be desired. We are hopeful that the new board will take a stronger stand and faithfully enforce the law.

Finally, it's worth noting that the other violator we identified, Patricia Kern, can't make the argument that her donations were jointly made because her husband, Robert, maxed out for the year when he gave $10,000 to Annette Ziegler in 2007. So if any portion of Patricia Kern's donations are considered to be from her husband, that would put him over the legal limit.

Now the question is whether there will be a double standard with respect to enforcement of the law in these two cases, with one donor punished because a reallocation of some portion of the excess amount of donations to a spouse is not an option while the other donor is again let off the hook. We obviously hope the new board will not repeat the mistakes of the old board, and will develop a more consistent and defensible approach to enforcement.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Representatives Of The Machine

Read this and weep. No, it only resembles a script from an episode of the Sopranos. It's real life in Wisconsin politics. It's the plea agreement in the Allan Kehl case, which is the latest offshoot of the casino corruption scandal that led to the criminal convictions of Dennis Troha, John Erickson and Achille Infusino.

Mr. County Executive, here's an envelope stuffed with $10,000 in cash. Oh, Mr. Kehl, there's something for you in your car. Hey, a stack of bills. Five grand.

This chapter stings because it's still being written. But with history as our guide, we know how the book will end. Read this and be cheered.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

It's A Symbol Alright

State lawmakers were four months late passing a state budget, and the budget they did eventually pass is already badly out of balance. And now they can't come to an agreement on how to patch up the holes. They also couldn't bring themselves to do a thing about the broken health care system. And even after we all had to shower after the most recent Supreme Court election, campaign finance reform seems the furthest thing from their minds.

But, hey, give credit where credit is due, they agreed on something . . . a new state symbol. On Monday, Governor Doyle signed into law legislation approved by both houses that designates an official state tartan.

Meanwhile, there's a new toll-free hotline citizens can use to report waste, fraud and abuse in Wisconsin. The number to call is 877-372-8317. Or you can go here and report what's bugging you via the Internet.

Maybe the first phone or Web tip should be about the Legislature.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Half Remembering Dr. King

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. As we all reflect on Dr. King's legacy, it is sure that one part of the man will be celebrated. That's the sanitized, historical King. What is too often glossed over is the subversive, prophetic King.

I ask you to read two things. First, a column by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Cynthia Tucker. Second, a speech Dr. King made one year to the day before his assassination. As "I Have a Dream" stirs the soul, this speech gnaws at the conscience. Now more than ever.

It's important to remember the life of this amazing man. But it's even more important to remember the whole man and his whole life. To do otherwise is to allow enemies of Dr. King's vision of humanity to rob that vision of its true power.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Casualties Of War

A war is being waged for control of our courts. And, as with all wars, there are casualties. It's said that truth is the first casualty, and that certainly was the case in this year's Supreme Court election. The campaigning was ceaselessly deceptive and misleading, often downright untruthful, and with very few exceptions unrelentingly trashy.

Two other casualties also stand out. One is judicial independence. Wisconsin is well on its way to special interest ownership of our courts. A handful of special interest lobbying groups and phony front organizations did over 90% of the campaign advertising in the race. The candidates were for the most part bystanders in this election. The interest groups defined the candidates, decided which issue would be discussed, and controlled what was said about that issue. The issue was crime, even though it has virtually nothing to do with the work of the Supreme Court.

Another casualty is the state's judicial code of ethics, which is no longer worth the paper it's written on. This election was conducted in a way that is not remotely in keeping with the requirements of the ethics code. The code is dead as a doornail unless the state Judicial Commission and ultimately the Supreme Court itself take forceful action to enforce these rules and hold candidates for the high court accountable for obeying them.

The court is in a no-win position. If they vigorously enforce the code, that means punishing one of their own (well, actually, two of their own). That would require them to throw cordiality out the window and let the chips fall where they may. If on the other hand they opt to maintain constructive working relationships (if that's even possible anymore), they sign the ethics code's death certificate. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

The Supreme Court is in the midst of a hostile takeover. Many in the legal community and many more in the broader community of Wisconsin citizens have pulled a Switzerland. But as Dante famously said, the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, remain neutral.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Why Do New York Financial Interests Like Wisconsin Supreme Court Candidate?

Four employees of a New York hedge firm and one of their spouses have contributed a total of $50,000 to Supreme Court candidate Michael Gableman in the past two weeks.

The question is: Why?

None of these employees or any company employees since 1993 has contributed to any Wisconsin candidates for the legislature or statewide office until Gableman.

The five $10,000 contributions since March 17 came from Paul Singer, Gordon and Jenny Singer, Bonnie Loeb and Jay Newman with Elliot Management Corporation in New York.

Federal campaign contribution records show Paul and Gordon Singer, Loeb and Newman have given several thousand dollars to the campaigns of former GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani and several Republican political party committees and congressional candidates over the years.

Billionaire Paul Singer was the sole donor – of $175,000 – in 2007 to a Missouri-based group called Take Initiative America, which put the money behind an unsuccessful effort to change the way California electoral votes are apportioned. Democrats say the plan was meant to favor Republican presidential candidates.

Oil Sheiks For A Greater Wisconsin

In a recent program aired on the WisconsinEye public affairs TV network, moderator John Powell questioned Wisconsin Right to Life legislative director Susan Armacost about her views on disclosure of election campaign activity. Powell, the former State Capitol reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio, asked hypothetically:

"Some wealthy oil sheik could dump $10 million on a race to influence a Wisconsin election and no one would know where the money came from. Now isn't that possible?"

Armacost's answer was a jaw-dropper.

"So what? If he has a . . . you know, so what? It's like this argument about if you don't live in the district of a legislator you shouldn't be giving them money. Why not?"