By Daniel Bice, Bill Glauber and Don Walker, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Saturday he played no role in soliciting cash from a mining company for the Wisconsin Club for Growth during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, adding that no one should be surprised that the pro-business governor backed legislation helpful to the firm.
Asked if he was aware that Gogebic Taconite secretly donated $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth — a pro-business advocacy group directed by the governor’s campaign adviser — Walker said, “Not to my knowledge.”
When asked if the previously undisclosed funds and subsequent legislation were part of some pay-to-play scheme, Walker said, “That’s a ridiculous argument.”
Long before the recall elections were launched, he said he advocated creating jobs in Ashland and Iron counties by permitting the iron ore mine. “Nobody’s shocked … that I supported the mine,” Walker said after a campaign event in Kenosha.
Later, at a Racine stop, Walker said he helped solicit contributions to Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 primarily to help GOP senators who faced recalls. The court filings suggested, however, that he was involved in raising more than $1 million for Club for Growth in the months before his own recall election.
Walker said he is not soliciting funds for Wisconsin Club for Growth in the current election, stating that his focus now is on raising cash for his personal campaign and the state Republican Party. He also said he doesn’t believe he directed campaign funds to the group during his 2010 campaign for governor.
Two separate judges have concluded the secret investigation is without merit, Walker said. “What it shows, just by the bits and pieces that come out, this is more evidence of a political witch hunt that’s been disproved not once but twice in both state and federal courts,” the first-term Republican governor said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, who will face off against Walker in November, said she found it “appalling” that Walker may have been steering donations to a group with which he was closely associated.
“If it isn’t illegal, it should be,” Burke said in a statement. “That is not the Wisconsin way.”
The disclosure of the secret fundraising operation occurred in court documents that were unsealed for a short time Friday. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made the documents public as part of ongoing litigation over a probe into Walker’s campaign, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups.
The appeals court is considering whether to reverse a lower court’s ruling to halt the probe, which was started in 2012 by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.
The brief release of a 24-page document filed by the attorney for Francis Schmitz, the special prosecutor appointed to lead the John Doe probe, contained detailed information about how investigators believed Walker solicited funds for Wisconsin Club for Growth. An attorney for Schmitz has said that Walker is not a target of the probe.
The document was supposed to have remained under seal but was mistakenly released, according to Andrew Grossman, an attorney for the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Among the documents released were several emails laying out the governor’s role in raising funds for the pro-Walker group.
“The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth,” said an April 28, 2011, email from Kate Doner, a Walker campaign consultant, to R.J. Johnson, an adviser to Walker’s campaign and the advocacy group. “Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure.”
In the email, Doner wrote to Johnson that Walker wanted Wisconsin Club for Growth exclusively to coordinate campaign themes. “As the Governor discussed … he wants all the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging,” she wrote.
By late Friday, documents could no longer be accessed on the court’s website.
But the disclosure continued to reverberate Saturday, especially among those who were at the center of the fight over Gogebic Taconite’s efforts to build a massive open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin. In 2013, Walker signed a bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature that eased environmental regulations for iron mining.
Donations to nonprofits like Wisconsin Club for Growth are generally not disclosed to the public. Emails obtained by Schmitz’s investigative team suggested that Walker encouraged groups and individuals to give to Club for Growth during the recall in an effort to bypass state rules on disclosure and donation limits.
“I want to throw up that we have a governor that encourages that sort of pay to play mentality,” said Democratic state Sen. Bob Jauch. “It is Louisiana-sleaze politics in which big money thinks it can spend enough to get the government it wants.”
GOP state Sen. Dale Schultz, the only Republican senator who voted against the mining legislation, indicated he was not surprised by the donation. Schultz sought to craft a bipartisan mining bill with Jauch and Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen.
“The fact that someone gave a donation in and of itself does not indicate solid evidence that there is pay to play,” Schultz said. “But there just isn’t any question that the quality of public policy making in Wisconsin has suffered since big money has come to this state.”
He said it was “particularly disturbing” that the mining company sought to conceal its activities.
“They have obviously tried to channel their money in places where the public won’t see it,” Schultz said.
“I just think in this state that is going to get a very negative reaction from the public. And I think it has taken an exceedingly long time for all of this stuff to come out,” Schultz continued. “As my dear late mother used to say, eventually the truth will win out. I guess I’m just saddened. I love this state. I have loved its political traditions, and I just don’t think this is us. I really don’t.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, said he was unaware that Gogebic had given the money.
Vos said he did not believe what Gogebic did amounted to a pay-for-play scheme.
“Gov. Walker had already stated a position on the mine. Pay for play in my mind is I will give you X if you do Y. It seems to me what happened is, ‘I am going to do Y, and we did it,'” Vos said.
Vos also took issue with allegations that Walker’s campaign coordinated efforts with outside conservative groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth. He said neither the governor nor his campaign committee violated any state law.
“An elected official has the ability to help raise money for the campaign or to appear in events that do,” Vos said. “They can’t have any direct efforts or their campaign staff can’t have direct efforts in how the money is spent.
“If my campaign committee coordinated with someone on how the money is spent to elect me, that crosses the line,” Vos said. “And that never happens.”
Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, a Democrat and a foe of the mine, said the Gogebic cash was tantamount to bribery.
“I think it’s the essence of bribery to be able to have one entity pay that much money to help politicians and to very quickly have those politicians, and not just the governor, turn around and take the bill and pass it,” Larson said.
Larson said he also believed there was coordination between the Walker campaign and Wisconsin Club for Growth.
“State law is very clear on coordination between outside groups and campaigns,” he said. “Coordination is illegal. What he has not explained is why he feels he is exempt from those laws. Those laws are clear.”
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr