Thursday, December 08, 2011

Playing Games With Clean Government Laws

I was asked in recent weeks to write an assessment of Wisconsin's campaign finance disclosure laws and their enforcement for a six-state review being done by the Midwest Democracy Network. Here's what I had to say about the agency responsible for enforcing our state's election and campaign finance laws:

"The Government Accountability Board has distinguished itself with an even-handed and politically independent approach to election administration and enforcement of campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws."

I went on to say that the agency's independence "is now coming under attack, however, with legislation enacted this year giving the governor veto power over any rules or regulations approved by the GAB." I also sympathized with the agency's budgetary plight, noting the financial pressures brought on by more or less continuous rounds of cuts have left the GAB "strapped for resources at a time when its workload has increased dramatically with a flurry of recall elections to administer and a new voter ID law to implement."

This is not the first time I have sung the GAB's praises or come to the agency's defense. I share this to show that I am no enemy of the Government Accountability Board.

But I am beginning to wonder if the GAB is intent on making me into one.

On October 11 the Democracy Campaign filed an open records request with the GAB seeking evidence of any enforcement action taken relating to the law requiring disclosure of the financial interests of campaign donors who give more than $100. More than seven weeks later, I received a letter dated November 29 from the GAB's director informing me that the agency "has no records responsive to your request."

The letter also claims the agency responded to our request more than three weeks earlier, on November 7 to be exact. Judge for yourself.

On October 12, Democracy Campaign research director Michael Buelow received an e-mail from GAB public information officer Reid Magney confirming that our open records request had been received and promising to "respond as soon as possible."

About a month later, on November 7, Mike e-mailed Magney to inquire about the status of the request.

Magney replied that same day, shortly before noon: "There is nothing we can report to you at this time." (This, evidently, passed for a formal response to our request in GAB director Kevin Kennedy's mind.)

Buelow, shortly after noon: "Can you tell me when you will have something?"

Magney, five minutes later: "At this point, there's nothing I'm able to tell you. And I can't tell you today when I'll be able to tell you. If/when we are able to say something, we'll be in contact. Sorry."

Just over three weeks later, Kevin Kennedy told us that they already told us, but were telling us again that they had no records to give us. Kennedy also asserts in his letter that the board had received just two complaints since 2008 alleging a failure on the part of candidates to provide required employer and occupation information about their donors. The Democracy Campaign alone filed three separate complaints in June of this year. And we know the advocacy group One Wisconsin Now also filed a complaint in September 2010 alleging more than 650 violations of this particular law.

Kennedy's letter concludes with the claim that the GAB "takes all campaign finance reporting requirements seriously" and tries to explain away the absence of any evidence of enforcement action by saying it is "unlikely that the Board could successfully obtain a forfeiture if a committee was, in fact, making good faith efforts to obtain information."

State law requires campaign committees to file complete reports providing information including, among other things, the occupation and employer of contributors who give over $100. The law does, indeed, require committees to "make a good faith effort to obtain all required information."

The GAB apparently has an odd way of defining good faith. Looking at just one report filed by Scott Walker's campaign more than two years ago covering contributions to Walker from January through June 2009, we found employer information required by law still has not been supplied for 176 of the governor’s contributions totaling $57,159.

Eyeballing that lengthy list of improperly reported donations and I see more than two dozen instances where the Walker campaign could have easily found the omitted information by looking either at our website (because we took it upon ourselves to research the financial interests of these donors) or campaign finance reports filed by other candidates who received contributions from the same donors and disclosed their occupations and places of employment.

So how good is Walker's faith? What kind of effort has been put forth when donations received over two years ago still have not been properly disclosed? It's not that hard to find the required information. I know. It's what we do. Doesn't the Walker campaign have Google?

With some of these donations, it's hard to believe Walker doesn't know the donors personally. For example, he got a $2,000 donation in March 2009 from Keith Burns of the accounting giant Ernst & Young. Walker's campaign still hasn't disclosed his employer. Even in the unlikely event the governor hasn't actually crossed paths with Burns, you'd think his people must be aware of LinkedIn.

Then there's a $500 donation Walker reported receiving in June 2009 from Oconomowoc auto dealer James Tessmer. To this day, Walker's campaign hasn't disclosed Tessmer's employer in its reporting of this contribution. The campaign must know Tessmer. The Better Business Bureau does.

With some of the donors, it's laughable to think Walker doesn't know them personally. Mary Kohler gave Walker $3,000 in March 2009, and yet as of today the Walker campaign still has not disclosed her financial interests. Terry and Mary Kohler are major Republican donors in Wisconsin and nationally and have been for years.

Has the GAB fined the Walker campaign for failing for over two years to comply with the disclosure law in good faith? No, it has not. Has the Walker campaign been required to return any of the improperly reported donations? No, it has not.

Is the GAB taking the open records law as seriously as it should and is the agency rigorously enforcing the law that upholds the public's right to know the financial interests of major campaign donors? No, it is not.

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