Thursday, January 26, 2012

Senate Recall Targets Attract Big Donors

Four Republican senators targeted for recall later this year collectively raised $260,434 in five weeks, thanks mostly to a small band of wealthy special interest donors, including Milwaukee’s chamber of commerce which gave three of them $10,000 each.

The senators were targeted for recall because of their support for a successful plan by GOP Governor Scott Walker that slashed public employee collective bargaining rights and for deep cuts to health care, education and other state programs.

The recall process allows targeted legislative and statewide officeholders to exceed normal campaign contribution limits and collect unlimited amounts from donors until the state verifies recall petitions against them and sets an election date. Individual and political action committee contributions to state Senate candidates are normally limited to $1,000 per donor per candidate in a four-year election cycle.

Topping the list in fundraising between December 11 and January 17 was Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau who raised $105,663. More than a quarter of that – $28,000 – came from just six donors, including $10,000 from the Milwaukee chamber of commerce’s PAC; $5,000 each from Waukesha liquor distributor Aldo Madrigrano and Madison real estate developer Joe Alexander; $3,000 from Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Local 215 PAC; and $2,500 each from retired Green Bay paper company executive Paul Schierl and Duane Foulkes, founder of metal fabricator Apache Stainless in Beaver Dam.

Senator Van Wanggaard of Racine accepted $64,206. He also drew a $10,000 donation from the Milwaukee chamber of commerce PAC and $3,000 from the Milwaukee firefighters PAC. Robert Schuemann, a retired Signicast executive from Milwaukee, gave $2,000. Wanggaard also got 14 $1,000 contributions from individuals and PACs, including $5,000 from five out-of-state givers who are longtime backers of Milwaukee’s school voucher program: William and Patricia Hume and William Oberndorf of San Francisco, Arthur Dantchik of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania and Virginia James of Lambertville, New Jersey.

Senator Pam Galloway of Wausau accepted $58,915 between December 11 and January 17. More than half her take – $34,000 – came from six committees and individuals. The Milwaukee chamber of commerce and Wausau plastic surgeon John Butler each doled out $10,000; campaign fundraising committees for Republican Senators Mike Ellis of Neenah and Mary Lazich of New Berlin each gave $5,000; and Schierl and Wausau investment consultant Neil Gulsvig each contributed $2,000.

Senator Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls accepted $31,650 in contributions over the five week period. His biggest contribution was $2,500 from Schierl. He also received 13 $1,000 contributions from PACs and individuals, including $5,000 from the same five out-of-state school voucher supporters who contributed to Wanggaard.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Man Behind The Mine

Wisconsin's legislature will soon decide whether to reopen part of the northwoods to iron ore mining. Much has been written and said about the proposed new mine in the Penokee-Gogebic Range, but not much attention has been paid to the man behind the project and the sprawling global conglomerate he is connected to.

The Democracy Campaign first started noticing large campaign contributions from mining interests to Wisconsin politicians just over a year ago, long before the mining bill was introduced. All of the money came from out of state. Roughly a quarter of the donations came from West Virginia mining magnate Chris Cline. The rest came from associates of Cline's. Some of those associates are at Cline Resource and Development. Others are with a company called Foresight, which is majority-owned and led by Cline. Still others are with a law firm Cline does business with. The remainder are other mining executives who've done business with Cline.

Environmentalists claim the mining bill being pushed in Wisconsin was written by the mining industry and would gut existing safeguards. The legislation certainly is Chris Cline's dream. And its approach to permit streamlining and environmental deregulation does bear a striking resemblance to the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council's model legislation known as the "Performance Based Permitting Act" and "Groundwater Protection Act."

Cline's Foresight is part of the global asset management firm Carlyle Group, a highly controversial and politically well connected corporate behemoth with tentacles that reach across the defense, aerospace, automotive, energy, health care, real estate, technology, telecommunications and transportation industries. Carlyle Group first earned a mention on the Democracy Campaign's website in a 2005 report we issued about shady Illinois donors who were funneling money to three candidates for governor in Wisconsin.

The Economist describes Carlyle Group as "deeply embedded in the iron triangle where industry, government and the military converge" and says it "arguably takes to a new level the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower feared might 'endanger our liberties or democratic process.'"

Carlyle Group also is into mining, through Chris Cline's Foresight. Which is itself a danger to our liberties and democratic process here in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Age Of Ethical Flexibility

People in politics have a funny idea of right and wrong. If my side does it, it's right. If the other side does it, it's wrong.

In Wisconsin there used to be a bipartisan consensus on – and adherence to – high ethical standards in politics and government. No more. A cancerous form of moral relativism has now taken hold across the political spectrum.

We have a Supreme Court justice who has ignored clearcut ethical standards, first in defending himself (ironically enough) against ethics charges and then in close to a dozen cases that have come before him on the high court. When the Democracy Campaign filed complaints against him alleging judicial misconduct, we were immediately accused by those on his side of the fence of being motivated by partisanship. Never mind the position of Supreme Court justice is officially nonpartisan.

We have filed complaints against Scott Walker. And Jim Doyle, on multiple occasions. And against both major state parties. And against legislators from both parties. And every time, we have been accused by people on one side of acting out of a desire to help the other side.

The other night I ran into a reporter for the state's largest newspaper, and he told me readers rip him a new one every time he reports on death threats received by public officials. When police are alerted to a threat against a Republican, one group of readers howl that it clearly was fake or trumped up or otherwise unworthy of coverage. When a Democrat is threatened, another group of readers say the same thing.

Really? I mean, for real? What a pathetic commentary on what ethics have come to in the political arena. Serious transgressions are readily forgiven or overlooked altogether if it's my side at fault, but if the other side twitches that's another matter. Throw the book at 'em!

Is it too much to ask that all public officials, regardless of political affiliation, be held to a consistent standard when it comes to ethics?

Today, apparently it is.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Disclosure Isn't Enough

This is going to sound funny coming from someone who spends nearly every waking hour tracking political money in Wisconsin and shining light on the legal bribery that is the trademark of today's politics.

The truth that campaign finance disclosure provides won't set us free.

Don't get me wrong. Disclosure is important. Hell, it's more than important. It's absolutely essential. And there should be more of it. Far too much is hidden. Voters deserve to know who's paying who. Far too much about the financial transactions in politics is concealed from public view.

But while disclosure is necessary, it is not sufficient. Not even close.

According to the conservative Rasmussen polling firm, public approval of Congress is down to 5%. The firm claims a margin of error of plus or minus 3% for this poll, so if you buy what Rasmussen is selling it's possible as few as 2% of Americans think Congress is doing an acceptable job. As pathetic as this is, it's hardly surprising when you consider another of the poll's findings, namely that half of Americans now believe most members of Congress are corrupt.

This underscores the limitations of disclosure as a political reform. When so many are convinced that elected officials are bought, knowing exactly who did the buying is cold comfort.

Packed courts across the country, and the U.S. Supreme Court in particular, have in recent years ruled most forms of campaign finance regulation out of bounds, with the exception of disclosure. In the high court's infamous Citizens United decision, a 5-4 court majority ruled from never-neverland that unlimited corporate election spending does "not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." And since the prevention of corruption is currently the only court-approved rationale for campaign finance regulation, finding no sign of corruption in unlimited corporate electioneering paved the way for opening the floodgates.

Yet even in a case decided in a fashion as intellectually and morally bankrupt as that seen in Citizens United, eight of the nine justices came down squarely in favor of disclosure. What such clueless judges don't seem to get is that more disclosure will most certainly give rise to a more widespread belief that the system is corrupt. Not to mention a heightened public appetite for reform that goes way beyond disclosure.

People want government officials who are not corrupt. Disclosure alone cannot give us that. It can show us what we don't have. But it cannot give us what we want. People also want campaign financing rules that facilitate broad participation and encourage greater electoral competition, that make it possible for more people from more walks of life to enter the political arena. Disclosure can't give us that either.

People want election campaigns paid for in a way that promotes political independence and thoughtful representation. What we have now is a system that sentences us to elected officials who are hopelessly beholden to undeniably powerful and unquestionably narrow interests. Disclosure can reveal just how narrow these interests really are and it can give us a measure of their power. It cannot straighten out the mess, it cannot broaden the reach of the citizenry's influence.

People want election financing that fosters greater confidence in the system and yields a government that is viewed as legitimate and reflects the consent of the governed. What we have now is a system that has led half of Americans to believe most members of Congress are corrupt. It's not that all these people believe members of Congress are taking old-fashioned bribes every day. It's that people understand full well that yesterday's under-the-table bribery has been replaced by a newfangled over-the-table variety. More disclosure will raise awareness of legal bribery. It won't do away with it.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm all for disclosure. I work for more of it every day. But that doesn't mean that's all I'm for. Democracy's survival requires much, much more.