–A Special Report from Rep. Chris Taylor
It wasn’t the one Governor Walker continues to repeat. That’s the one where newly elected tea party politicians who had all the power took away workers’ rights and faced down thousands of school teachers, firefighters and high school kids (a/k/a “the union bosses,” who were actually exercising the First Amendment rights our founding fathers had envisioned).
It was the other, lesser known, but equally powerful myth that is eaten up by the ALEC crowd. That’s the one where Wisconsin Republicans had “shut down” a government run amok that had resorted to early morning military raids to suppress the First Amendment rights of “free market supporters” (i.e., ALEC allies and supporters).
These “victims,” in case you have forgotten, are the individuals peddling dark money, who run organizations like the Wisconsin Club for Growth, directed by Eric O’Keefe.
The Corruption Investigation and the Court
The investigation in Wisconsin focused on the previously illegal art of coordination between so-called independent groups and the campaigns of political candidates.
That bipartisan criminal investigation examined the funneling millions of dollars among groups whose activities were coordinated by Scott Walker’s righthand man to aid the anti-recall campaign of the governor and several senators.
But a majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court cut short the investigation. The Wisconsin Club for Growth and others in the investigation helped that majority get elected through ads and more. It issued an edict attempting to legalize such activities under our Constitution.
And then the Wisconsin legislature, stacked with ALEC members and backed by the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity, changed state statutes to try to legalize activities like those Wisconsin Club for Growth was suspected of pursuing.
These efforts attempt to keep the public in the dark about who really is financing elections.
This Wisconsin myth helps embolden other efforts at ALEC for state legislators to repeal and resist campaign finance regulations.
Using the First Amendment to Thwart Transparency
For example, the State Policy Network (SPN) sponsored an ALEC workshop at the annual meeting. It was entitled “Protecting your constituents from harassment: How to stop bureaucrats from targeting and harassing people based on their First Amendment beliefs.” SPN links together all of the right-wing think tanks now in every state. The Kochs and other billionaire allies fund SPN.
SPN handed out a single “how to” sheet that encouraged state lawmakers to resist ethics bills and dismantle government entities charged with enforcing ethics codes (like Wisconsin’s independent, nonpartisan Government Accountability Board).
SPN also instructed legislators to defeat or repeal anti-corruption legislation. That includes donor disclosure laws and any regulation of phony “issue ads” that, while not using the magic words “vote for” or “vote against” words, are clearly designed to influence who wins elections.
Appearing at ALEC to make the case that any attempt at clean, transparent, and open government is a violation of individual First Amendment speech rights was none other than Eric O’Keefe.
Attacking Oversight and Transparency
As he tells it, the mischief started when the legislature created the “left-wing” Government Accountability Board (GAB). The state’s representatives launched the GAB after an explosive discovery of widespread corruption and on a strong bipartisan basis. And it was actually an independent watchdog governed by retired judges tasked with monitoring ethics and campaign finance laws.
In O’Keefe’s distorted reality, special prosecutors specifically and illegally targeted conservatives who were running “effective” organizations. Never mind that a court oversaw and sanctioned this investigation and that two of the district attorneys involved were Republicans.
As many will remember, part of this dark money included a $700,000 “donation” to Wisconsin Club for Growth from Gogebic Taconite. That’s the company that wanted to rewrite Wisconsin’s mining laws.
ALEC Legislators Changed the Law to Aid Allies
As a result of the discover of such various nefarious activities, the Wisconsin legislature “cleaned out” government and campaign finance standards.
O’Keefe indicated he does not support any agency having any ability to regulate campaign or ethics activities.
And the state’s GOP majority, aided by Wisconsin Club for Growth in retaining their majority, ensured O’Keefe’s vision became reality. It wiped out the GAB and returned the state to an ineffective Ethics and Elections Board structure paralyzed by partisanship.
O’Keefe Continues to Target Prosecutors
O’Keefe got so carried away at the conference that he preemptively announced he would be launching yet another lawsuit against John Chisholm. That the Milwaukee prosecutor, one of the DA’s involved with the John Doe investigation who actually was doing what DA’s do: investigating potentially criminal activity.
With a different state Supreme Court majority in power due to dark money spending by O’Keefe’s Wisconsin Club for Growth and their cronies, the prosecutors might have been able to bring charges. But the court shut down the investigation into their powerful allies, despite conflicts of interest.
On a related front, O’Keefe has tried to get rid of Chisholm by aiding a Democratic primary challenge against him.
The Recipe to Thwart Transparency in Wisconsin
This type of excessive litigation to silence prosecutors comes on top of the GOP’s destruction this last legislative session of the three-legged stool keeping our elections fair and government accountable.
1) Dismantle the GAB.
2) Gut our once exemplary campaign finance laws in a massively broad sweep that will allow more dark money to pour into our elections with less disclosure.
3) Repeal Wisconsin’s “John Doe” investigations for political corruption but not for any other crimes.
“Beat ’em then defeat ’em” could be the ALEC tagline and that of our own state government. That is the real story, with tragic consequences.
In the name of free speech, ALEC and our own state are leading national efforts to shut down speech from actual people. They’ve done so by making it harder to hear through the tidal wave of dark money and corporate cash infusing our elections.
In turn, the Wisconsin GOP majority dismantled the public accountability systems needed to keep our government clean and responsive to the people.
This may be the Koch brothers’ and Eric O’Keefe’s dream scenario, but it is a nightmare for most of the people of our state and our once-proud tradition of clean government in Wisconsin.