WASHINGTON ― Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature faced challenging recall elections in 2011 and 2012 after enacting legislation gutting public employee union rights. To fight those recalls, Walker and his closest campaign aides devised a scheme to collect as much money as possible through a series of nonprofit groups to help hold control of the levels of power in the state.
That scheme is shown in detail in leaked documents from a squashed investigation into illegal campaign coordination between Walker and those nonprofit groups provided to the Guardian. These documents, including numerous emails between Walker and the aides working for his nonprofit groups, reveal the internal workings of America’s broken system of funding campaigns in the post-Citizens United world.
The Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 that corporations and unions could spend unlimited sums on elections so long as they remained independent from candidates. The decision, which Justice Anthony Kennedy penned, found that independent election spending could not be limited because it could not lead to quid pro quo corruption. This was determined because of the supposed independence of the spender from any particular candidate. “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate,” Kennedy wrote. This was not the first court decision that opened the door to Walker’s scheme, but it has been the most widely known and consequential.
The leaked documents reinforce the argument from opponents of the Citizens United ruling that the court majority was woefully naive about how politics actually plays out. These emails show Walker’s top campaign aide commanding an interlocking network of nonprofit groups to help Republicans maintain the governor’s mansion and legislature. To fund it all, Walker is sent from city to city to plead for money from billionaires and corporations for these supposedly independent nonprofits.
R.J. Johnson, Walker’s chief campaign aide, sat at the center of the Pro-Walker hydra. At the same time he ran Walker’s recall campaign, Johnson directed the independent efforts of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. The Wisconsin Club for Growth was the central hub spreading money and instructions to a network of nonprofit groups to help nine state Senate recall campaigns, a state Supreme Court race and Walker’s recall campaign.
As the state Senate recall elections came into view in the spring of 2011, Johnson emailed to explain that he had “locked in” Wisconsin Club for Growth chief Eric O’Keefe “to head up our national fundraising operations with donors we know from the Koch seminar and across the country as we discussed at the residence.”
“I need the Governor on probably 7-8 trips to get us where we need to be along with some in-state stuff,” he said.
Kate Doner, Walker’s chief fundraising consultant, said in an April 2011 email, “The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept Corporate and Personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure.”
The note explaining that donors to Wisconsin Club for Growth becomes a common refrain throughout the emails. Citizens United allowed certain nonprofit groups, which do not have to disclose their donors, to be more open in their electoral appeals, particularly when using corporate funds. This led to a rise in undisclosed or dark money helping to elect candidates across the country.
The source of the nonprofit spending supporting Walker and his allies was not disclosed publicly, but the governor knew very well who gave money.
“Stress that donations to WiCFG are not disclosed and can accept Corporate donations without limits,” Doner wrote to Walker when he was sent to raise money from Chris Lofgren, head of Schneider International, a Green Bay, Wisconsin large trucking company.
Doner echoed this talking point in another email when Walker was to plead for money from Mark Schwabero, president of Mercury Marine engine and parts manufacturing plants, based in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. “Let him know that you can accept corporate contributions and it is not reported,” she wrote.
In August 2011, after raising millions to help protect his state Senate majority, Walker asked Doner in an email, “did I send out thank you notes to all of our c(4) donors?”
As it appeared likely Walker would face his own recall election, Doner presented an action plan in September 2011 built off of the coordinated campaign they ran to protect the Senate. “Take Koch’s money,” she wrote. “Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now. Corporations. Go heavy after them to give. Didn’t give much to the recall effort this summer. Create a new c4. Club for Growth name has issues.”
Team Walker did not create a new nonprofit. They doubled down on the strategy that worked for them. Walker traveled the country, asking wealthy donors to give to Wisconsin Club for Growth. Of course, he would remind them that corporate contributions were accepted and their identity would remain hidden.
He flew to New York City and met with Donald Trump, who gave him $15,000 (and later lied about how much he donated). He solicited money from Adelson, the Koch brothers, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, coal baron Joseph Craft, former Ambassador Mel Sembler, Morgan Stanley’s John Mack, Steve Forbes, hedge fund billionaire Louis Bacon, Stanley Herzog, Harlan Crow and countless other executives and corporations or corporate lobbying groups.
Johnson was seen in several emails directing spending decisions and coordinating with other groups supporting Walker, including Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin.
Walker won his recall and the Republican maintained control of the legislature thanks to the efforts of this supposedly independent network his top aides ran.
The scheme detailed in the leaked emails is the first real behind-the-scenes look at the obvious coordination occurring between independent groups and politicians. The Huffington Post has previously reported on independent groups linked to political leaders including Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The leaked documents came from the John Doe II investigation by a bipartisan group of prosecutors, with support from the state’s nonpartisan elections agency, which a state judge initially approved. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court shut the investigation down. It claimed that the prosecutors had overstepped their bounds as the supposedly independent groups did not have an overt electoral message and, thus, were not bound by anti-coordination rules. That is to say that the spending Johnson directed through Wisconsin Club for Growth and other nonprofit groups stopped short of calling for the election of Walker or the defeat of his Democratic rival Tom Barrett.
These are called issue ads. The emails, however, demonstrate that the Walker aides running the nonprofit network saw their efforts as explicitly electoral and designed to help elect their favored candidates.
Keith Gilkes, a top Walker advisor, sent the governor a list of talking points that Johnson crafted for Walker to use when selling donors on giving to the Wisconsin Club for Growth for his recall race. “Wisconsin Club for Growth raised 12 million dollars and ran a soup to nuts campaign,” the talking points read, referencing the state Senate recall races in 2011. Walker was supposed to tell donors that the seemingly independent nonprofit ran a targeted advertising and get out the vote campaign that successfully protected the Republican majority.
Walker was also routinely sent informational emails about the donors he would be meeting. These would include short biographies, political interests and business holdings. They would also include clearly explicit requests for the governor to press them to donate “in support of the recall.” That support would flow to the Wisconsin Club for Growth and its supposedly independent, supposedly issue-based campaign.
The conservative federal district court judge Rudolph Randa upheld the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling by citing Citizens United and analogizing the investigation to “the Guillotine and the Gulag.”
Randa applauded Walker and Johnson for finding a way to subvert campaign finance laws. “The plaintiffs have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted,” Randa wrote.
The prosecutors have since filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to review the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling and clarify whether past legal judgments allow the kind of coordination the state’s court approved in the Walker case. Time will tell if the evidence laid out in the leaked documents will force the court to take the case and reexamine the decisions that made Walker’s scheme possible.