As you may or may not recall, we recently had a three-year long John Doe probe focusing on Governor Scott Walker’s aides in Milwaukee County. (If you do not recall, feel free to blame the media for their disappointingly lean coverage of this huge event.) Although the outcome was not as grand as many Walker opponents hoped, six aides were ultimately convicted on a range of charges from campaigning on taxpayer time, to embezzlement to sexual assault of a child.
We now know that a second John Doe probe is going through the state, examining records and witnesses in five different counties. Sources suggest the probe is looking at a current legislative leader and the last governor’s race. While any John Doe case is secret and therefore open to speculation until charges are filed, it seems that the targets this time around are people involved with funding the Republican candidates in the 2012 recall election.
To keep things relatively simple, this month I am offering a “Who’s Who” of all the major players in this case… how will prosecutors do at following the money and connecting the dots? Stay tuned.
Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCG): a tax-exempt issue ad group based in Sun Prairie. Eric O’Keefe is an officer, and Walker’s campaign adviser R.J. Johnson is a representative. O’Keefe is a small-government advocate and was instrumental in launching or running the Sam Adams Alliance, American Majority and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. WCG raised $12.5 million in 2011 and spent more than $9.1 million on ads for the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Reporting from that time indicates that WCG spent more than $300,000 in ads in June and July of 2011 for the Senate recalls. WCG received $225,000 from the Center to Protect Patient Rights, a group that was recently fined $16 million for failing to disclose its donors. Other donors were the Wellspring Committee ($400,000), State Government Leadership Foundation ($50,000, and employs former Walker spokesperson Jill Bader), Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce ($988,000), Wisconsin Bankers Association ($203,600) and the Faith and Freedom Coalition ($60,000). In 2010, WCG gave $246,000 to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and $268,000 to the CSA. In 2011, WCG gave $425,000 to the Scott Jensen-connected Jobs First Coalition and $4,620,000 to CSA.
Americans For Prosperity (AFP): mailed false information to voters across the state to misinform the public and suppress the vote in that election by providing an incorrect date for the recall. Absentee ballots were mailed to registered Democrats saying they could return the ballot up to two days after the election — which was false and possibly illegal. AFP director Matt Seaholm (former policy adviser for Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald) claimed the ballots had a typo (which is plausible) and were only sent to AFP members (which is patently false). Longtime donors include the Bradley Foundation, whose president and CEO, Michael Grebe, co-chaired Walker’s gubernatorial and recall campaign committees. The office of Wisconsin’s chapter of AFP in West Allis is just down the hall from John Connors’ political consulting group. Connors has been involved with AFP in various capacities since at least 2007. AFP-Wisconsin’s state director is Luke Hilgemann, who had been chief of staff to Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder and was involved in United Sportsmen of Wisconsin. AFP spent more than $3 million on the 2011 and 2012 recalls, and violated its tax-exempt status as a charitable organization by supporting Walker’s recall bid by sponsoring a bus tour, recruiting out-of-state volunteers, and sponsoring rallies, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.
Citizens for a Strong America (CSA): This nonprofit issue group was formed in 2011 to support Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in his re-election campaign against JoAnne Kloppenburg; it spent roughly $2.7 million on phony issue ads in the Supreme Court race and the 2011 and 2012 recalls. The organization, run from a post office box in Columbus, gets most of its funding from WCG, including a $4.2 million donation in 2011. In turn, CSA has sent money to Wisconsin Family Action ($967,000), Wisconsin Right to Life ($526,712), United Sportsmen of Wisconsin ($235,000) and Safari Club International ($77,000). CSA’s treasurer is R. J. Johnson’s wife Valerie Johnson, and its director is John Connors, who has been involved in Americans for Prosperity and United Sportsmen of Wisconsin.
Jobs First Coalition: This Brookfield-based nonprofit political group was formed in 2009 by former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. Its president is Mary Jo Baas, chair of the Wisconsin Women’s Council; its vice president is Waukesha GOP activist Candee Arndt; its secretary is attorney Michael Dean of the First Freedoms Foundation; and its executive director/treasurer is Brookfield alderman Bob Reddin. According to its tax filings, the organization raised $95,250 in 2009, $898,675 in 2010 and $927,860 in 2011, $425,000 of which came from WCG. In 2010, it gave $30,000 to the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, $200,000 to the Jensen-connected voucher group American Federation for Children, $35,000 to CSA, $50,000 to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and $3,000 to the Citizens for Responsible Government. In 2011, it gave $75,000 to WCG and $145,000 to American Federation for Children. Why money was flowing both to and from WCG is both unclear and suspicious.
R. J. Johnson: A longtime Republican operative and likely the top target of the probe. Walker hired him for his gubernatorial campaign in spring 2009; according to finance reports, the Walker campaign paid Johnson more than $130,000 between July 2009 and January 2012. Johnson was a spokesman for WCG ads that ran in 2011 supporting Walker’s anti-union agenda. Johnson’s apparent involvement in both the Walker campaign and WCG suggests the two groups were coordinating, which may be illegal. Johnson’s wife Valerie is CSA’s treasurer.
United Sportsmen of Wisconsin: mailed out information suspiciously similar to AFP, suggesting they were coordinating. The group received a $500,000 state grant this year, which has since been rescinded. The group has connections to two AFP figures, Luke Hilgemann and John Connors. Allegedly a former Walker campaign intern, Connors is a director of CSA and in 2011 he was listed in tax filings as the sole independent contractor of the Franklin Center, which is linked to the WCG’s Eric O’Keefe. Connors earned $119,277 from the organization.
So, what is the point of all these names and numbers? In short, the goal seems to be to determine two things: was voter suppression intentional? And, why was money being shifted around, often back and forth between groups? Was it to disguise who was donating to various causes?