ALEC's Dark Money Game

I walked into my sixth American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference over a week ago as one of two familiar Wisconsin myths was being told by the queen of ALEC, state Senator Leah Vukmir. It wasn't the one Governor Walker continues to repeat, 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 (aka "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--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 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 right-hand man to aid the anti-recall campaign of the governor and several senators.

But the investigation was cut short because a majority on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court, which the Wisconsin Club for Growth and others in the investigation helped get elected through ads and more, issued an edict attempting to legalize such activities under our Constitution. And the Wisconsin legislature, stacked with ALEC members, has changed state statutes to try to legalize activities like those Wisconsin Club for Growth was suspected of pursuing. These efforts are nothing less than an attempt to keep the public in the dark about who really is financing elections.

This Wisconsin myth has helped embolden other efforts at ALEC for state legislators to repeal and resist campaign finance regulations.

For example, the State Policy Network (SPN), another Koch-funded baby that links together all of the right-wing think tanks now in every state, sponsored an ALEC workshop entitled "Protecting your constituents from harassment: How to stop bureaucrats from targeting and harassing people based on their First Amendment beliefs."

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, including 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.
As he tells it, the mischief started when the legislature, after an explosive discovery of widespread corruption and on a strong bipartisan basis, created the "left-wing" Government Accountability Board (GAB), which actually was an independent watchdog governed by retired judges tasked with monitoring ethics and campaign finance laws.

In O'Keefe's distorted reality, special prosecutors were hired to specifically and illegally target 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, the company attempting to rewrite Wisconsin's mining laws, which was discovered.

As a result of these 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 become reality by wiping out the GAB and returning to an ineffective Ethics and Elections Board structure paralyzed by partisanship.

O'Keefe got so carried away at the conference that he preemptively announced he would be launching yet another lawsuit against John Chisholm, one of the DA's involved with the John Doe investigation who actually has doing what DA's do, investigating potentially criminal conduct by Wisconsin Club for Growth and others. 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.

Sure enough, four days later, the MacIver Institute, one of two right-wing think tanks in Wisconsin and a member of SPN, had filed a lawsuit against the John Doe district attorneys. On a related front, O'Keefe was also trying to get rid of Chisholm by aiding a Democratic primary challenge against him.

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) Dismantling the GAB; 2) Gutting 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; and 3) Repealing 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 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 has 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 the people of our state and our once-proud tradition of clean government in Wisconsin.