Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Most Offensive AIG Payouts Of All

Everybody's howling this week about insurance giant AIG's recent payouts to its executives and foreign banks, and with good reason, but payouts the company made over a much longer period – to politicians – have been largely overlooked. But one is surely tied to the other.

In the last 20 years AIG contributed more than $9 million to federal candidates and parties. The company carefully hedged its bets over the years, giving almost exactly half of its donations to Democrats and the other half to Republicans. AIG showed a meteorologist's fixation with the direction of the winds. When they blew in the Republicans' direction, the company's money followed. When they began to fill the Democrats' sails, AIG redirected its largesse.

These "investments" paid handsome dividends. Lax government oversight. Tens of billions of dollars in handouts to save the company from itself.

P.S. What kind of company obligates itself to pay employee bonuses? Aren't bonuses, by definition, supposed to be discretionary? Something a manager can choose to give an employee whose performance exceeds expectations? AIG insists it had no choice but to pay all those bonuses to people who ran the company into the ground. A contract is a contract. Washington pundits have been fond of saying AIG is "too big to fail." I'm thinking the company is actually too stupid to live.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Priorities, Priorities. . . .

Earlier this month the Democracy Campaign released a report showing the state's new electronic reporting system is generating current and past campaign finance reports that are riddled with errors for dozens of candidates and political action committees.

The board's staff has yet to publicly respond - or worse yet - address the problem. The same incorrect reports cited by WDC, including ones for the state's biggest fundraiser Governor Jim Doyle, remain up for public viewing, and more are added every day.

Apparently the board's staff has more important stuff to do than correct erroneous public documents or figure out what to do about another floundering IT project - important stuff like creating a pronunciation guide for the names of all the spring election candidates.

And it tackles all of them, even the toughies like:

Marc A. Hammer Mark A. HAMM-er
Paul W. Baxter Pawl W. BAXX-ter
Michael W. Hoover MI-kul W. HOO-ver
Steve Gibbs Steev Gibbs
Daniel W. Blank DAN-yul W. Blank
Jerry Wright JERR-ee Rite
Joe Donald Jo DON-uld

Unfortunately, in trying to make some tough names easy to pronounce they managed to list some wrong - the pronunciation for John P. Anderson is shown as Jon D. AN-der-sun

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Special Interest Control Of Another Court Election, With A Twist

What do Michael Gableman and Randy Koschnick have in common? A lot. Both grew up in the Milwaukee area. Graduated from the same law school. Became circuit court judges in small rural counties. Virtually indistinguishable judicial philosophies. Same physical build, for crying out loud.

Both developed a desire to sit on the state Supreme Court, and articulated almost identical reasons for their aspirations. But that's where their stories begin to diverge.

Gableman, of course, won his election and claimed a seat on the high court. Koschnick appears to stand no chance. He has almost no money and his opponent, incumbent Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, has raised over $1 million. Even a poll by a newly created right-wing group shows him running almost 30 points behind.

So what sets apart Koschnick and Gableman, these virtual clones? Other than the fact that Koschnick is actually the far more polished candidate of the two, the one big difference is that Gableman had three special interest groups and about $2.7 million of their money going for him.

While the 2007 and 2008 Supreme Court races made most every legal professional cringe and citizens of just about every stripe recoil in horror, this year's race is turning out to be an equally vivid illustration of the extent of special interest control over the fate of those who aspire to sit on Wisconsin's highest court.

I say that not only because of what was done for Gableman but is being denied his twin. I say it also because of the campaign Abrahamson is waging. As I pointed out in a recent newspaper commentary, the looming threat of another special interest hijacking surely lit a fire under the chief justice hot enough to inspire her campaign to raise funds with such vigor that she long ago surpassed the seven-figure mark. She saw that a few interest groups did almost all of the TV advertising in last year's high court contest and controlled most of what voters were able to read, see and hear about the candidates. She understandably wanted no part of a similar fate.

But all those donations will come back to bite her. At least some of her biggest donors will inevitably stand before her in court one day. And perfectly legitimate questions about whether she can rule fairly and impartially on those cases will arise.

Which is why this year's election may well turn out to be every bit as powerful a case study in why we need Supreme Court election reform in the worst way.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Something's Missing

One thing you would normally see by now on is a write-up of campaign fundraising and spending shown on year-end reports filed by candidates by the end of January. Last year, we posted our analysis of those end-of-year filings on February 20.

In 2007, we were able to put a pricetag on the 2006 race for governor by February 6. Two days later, we reported the total cost of the attorney general race. On February 21, we were able to issue an analysis of spending by candidates and interest groups in all state races, including all of the state legislative contests.

The year before that, it was also February 21 when we put out final numbers for campaign fundraising in 2005 reflected on year-end reports filed in late January 2006. In 2005, we reported final figures for 2004 on February 14. In 2004, it was February 18.

In 2003, we tallied the total cost of the 2002 governor's race by February 6, and reported year-end totals for fundraising and campaign spending in state legislative elections on February 24.

Notice that every year these reports were made public before the end of February. Also notice that we're already into March and we have not yet posted anything on the year-end reports filed in January that cover campaign activity in the 2008 elections. We're not able to because we can't get all of the reports from the state's new campaign finance reporting system.

This new electronic filing system was supposed to enhance public access to information about campaign fundraising and spending in state elections. So far, it's not living up to that promise. What's worse, there are substantial problems with the reliability of the data in the system. We discovered a number of glaring problems and reported on them a little less than four weeks ago. Now we've unearthed even more glitches and issued another report today.

The agency responsible for the new electronic reporting system, the Government Accountability Board, has done a lot of things right in its first year of operation, most notably standing up to the special interests and voting to restore meaning to state laws requiring full disclosure of electioneering and limiting campaign contributions. The new board also imposed stiff penalties on wealthy donors flagged by the Democracy Campaign for breaking campaign donation limitations, something the old Elections Board was loathe to do. And don't forget the new board's baptism by fire – the unenviable task of administering the 2008 election. The GAB deserves stellar marks for its maiden electoral voyage, as voting went smoothly and the controversies that marred the 2000 and 2004 elections were noticeably absent in Wisconsin last November.

But the GAB still is plagued by the Achilles' heel of the staff the new board inherited from the old one it replaced – utter haplessness when it comes to managing information technology projects. The current mess with campaign finance recordkeeping is hardly the lone example of IT work bungled by this crew. The ill-fated attempted privatization of voter registration was an even more publicized and costly misadventure.

One state senator has gone so far as to suggest candidates for state office in Wisconsin be given the option of going back to filing paper reports on their campaign finances. While the frustration that inspires such a proposal is totally understandable, there's no going back. We live in an electronic age and an increasingly paperless society. Besides, we fought long and hard for the enactment of the Citizens Right to Know law that created electronic disclosure of campaign finances. And then we fought a years-long battle to get the law implemented. Members of the public should not have to make a pilgrimage to a state agency office and paw through thousands of pages of paper reports to see who's giving money to our elected state officials.

But just as it became clear a couple three years ago that we needed a "paper trail" bill requiring any electronic voting machine to produce a verifiable paper record, and we got it, now the obvious shortcomings of the state's new campaign finance reporting system cry out for a paper trail of campaign contributions and election expenses. Wisconsin needs a mandatory paper backup to the campaign finance reports that are being stored in this new, all-too-fallible electronic filing cabinet.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Astronauts, Judges And Stupid People

In our last blog post, I said it was only a matter of time before the Wisconsin State Journal used a federal court ruling that judges can join political parties as evidence that voters can no longer be trusted to decide who sits on Wisconsin's Supreme Court. Nothing if not predictable, the State Journal fulfilled the prophecy yesterday.

Opinion page editor Scott Milfred praised Federal Judge Barbara Crabb's decision as "smart and strong." Despite the fact Crabb took pains to stress that nothing in the ruling should make states consider abandoning elections, Milfred interpreted Crabb's opinion to mean just that. After reading the same decision, John Nichols came to the exact opposite conclusion. As did we.

But the most striking thing about Milfred's column was this statement: "We don’t elect school principals, hospital administrators or astronauts. Unlike politicians, they actually need to know what they’re doing. The same is true with our high court justices...."

Perhaps it hasn't yet dawned on the State Journal's editorial board, but realizing their dream of replacing an elected Supreme Court with an appointed one depends on amending the state constitution. That takes approval by two successive legislatures and then ratification by the voters in a statewide referendum. In other words, the newspaper's braintrust will need those politicians who don't know what they're doing to go along with them not once but twice. And then they'll need those pesky voters who are too stupid to pick good judges to agree with them too.

And people give me a hard time for believing this is the year the Cubs will end that World Series drought.