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The Wisconsin "John Doe" investigation into whether the Scott Walker campaign illegally coordinated with third-party groups during the 2012 recall election is dead, and likely to stay dead. The U.S. Supreme Court will announce soon whether the case will be among those heard in its upcoming term; my prediction is no, and that will be the end of it.
The end of the legal case, anyway.
The fallout for Gov. Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans tangled in that web may well continue because now, thanks to the Guardian U.S. and someone who will probably go to jail for leaking them, all of the prosecution's documents in that case are public and available for all to see. They provide a remarkable picture of what a true political pay-to-play scheme looks like.
This is important, because in the 2016 presidential campaign, the Republican party has been eager to hang the pay-to-play label on Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State, current Democratic nominee for president and one of three Clintons on the masthead of the Clinton Foundation. As we will see, Clinton can't begin to compare to the pay-to-play corruption on the Republican side.
The Clinton Foundation maintains high ratings from organizations that rate charities. Its spending has put AIDS drugs into the hands of millions, helped tens of thousands of third-world women gain economic independence, and worked furiously to abate the damage done by climate change and polluters. No one named Clinton takes a cent in salary from the foundation, and the foundation spends more of its income on projects and recipients than the majority of other charities.
Republicans have alleged that donors to the Foundation received favorable treatment by the State Department. The opposite seems to be true; the evidence we have, through released State Department emails and emails "hacked" by various malefactors, suggests that donors often asked for special treatment and were simply denied.
Even when the Associated Press tied dozens of donors to meetings with Secretary Clinton, it failed to prove any wrongdoing or favors done by Clinton and included in that number people whom a Secretary of State should be meeting with: Nobel Prize winners, global philanthropists, even decades-long Clinton friends whose donations surely had nothing to do with getting on the calendar of an old friend. Also Ben Affleck, but who among us hasn't had a mistaken Ben Affleck meeting (cough, "Daredevil," cough)?
In other words, Republicans have been fanning the smoke around the Clinton Foundation for months now, but no fire has been located.
The same cannot be said for her opponent's eponymous foundation. The Trump Foundation, it was revealed recently, sent a donation to a political action committee, which is illegal, and paid an IRS fine for doing so.
Why did the Trump Foundation make that donation? The simplest explanation is that the recipient, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, asked Trump for a donation shortly after her office started investigating claims that Trump University was defrauding Florida residents. In fact, Bondi was one of many state Attorneys General considering a Trump U legal action. Then Texas AG, now Texas Governor Greg Abbott was one of those; a donation from Trump also conveniently made its way to Abbott, though that was personal and not from the Trump Foundation.
In the end, neither Bondi nor Abbott pursued Trump University. Other legal actions are still ongoing against the school, and revelations about how embarrassingly awful the place was should be enough to disqualify Trump from the presidency even without the pay-to-play part of the scandal. If Trump's judgment is such that he would put his name on something like that, how do we trust him with access to the White House kitchen, let alone the nuclear codes?
Trump's Foundation is itself a bit of a disaster. Unlike the Clintons, Trump hasn't put any of his own money into it for almost a decade. An exhaustive investigation into the Trump Foundation found plenty of bizarre and shady dealings, including foundation money being spent on a six-foot portrait of Trump and holding events at his properties with foundation money picking up the tab (his campaign, too, is spending wads of campaign cash on rent paid to Trump properties). All the charitable gifts he personally promised during his run on "The Apprentice" were actually paid for by NBC, through the Trump Foundation.
For those keeping score at home, that's Clinton 1, Republicans 0.
The biggest reveal of the John Doe documents was not actually the confirmation that Walker's campaign and third-party groups coordinated. It was clear from previously available documents that was the prosecutors' theory of the case, and there was pretty strong evidence that they could have proved it, too. This is not about that part of the case, so I won't go too far into the weeds, but you may need the nickel version.
In Wisconsin, until recently, coordination between a political campaign and a third-party group, even a not-to-profit group producing only "issue ads" (that is, the ads don't advocate a vote for or against a specific candidate), had to be disclosed by the campaign, as that is a kind of campaign contribution. Big donors who want to stay anonymous like the third-party groups because there are no contribution limits and limited disclosure rules; donors to campaigns must be disclosed and face limits on how much to give.
A guy named R.J. Johnson worked, during the recall elections, for both Walker's campaign and the Wisconsin Club for Growth. The sharing of an employee alone is a giant red flag that there might be coordination happening, but previously released documents showed pretty clearly that the Walker campaign directed donors to Club for Growth, and Club for Growth worked with the campaign on timing and content of advertising.
The Walker campaign knew this was illegal; in an irony meter-busting email released by the Guardian, Walker ally Deb Jordahl suggested that the Republicans file a complaint against Democratic state senate candidate Shelly Moore for coordinating with a non-profit group. "Imagine if a GOP candidate opened up shop with Club for Growth," she wrote. I am not making this up.
In the end, the Republican legislature changed the laws in 2015 to allow that behavior (though they did not make the change retroactive), and the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided that banning such coordination was a violation of the first amendment and ordered prosecutors to drop the case. To be clear, federal election law still bans such coordination in federal elections, and U.S. Supreme Court precedent explicitly allows states to ban such behavior, apparently reading the first amendment differently than the majority of the Wisconsin court. That difference might be explained by how some of the Wisconsin justices were also supported by third-party "issue ads" and one of whom, David Prosser, is on record in a newly-released email thanking a campaign worker for "the coordination you provided with friendly organizations outside the Republican Party."
But also new in the Guardian documents is the massive scope of the Walker campaign's pay-to-play operation.
We've long known that major GOP donors like John Menard, who also gave to Club for Growth, got favorable treatment from Republican legislators. There's not much to be done about such things except change the campaign finance laws to make them stiffer. Such a thing did happen once, after the legislative "caucus scandal" fifteen years ago, in which state legislative staffers campaigned and solicited donations on the taxpayer's dime. Among the players in the scandal were people involved in Walker's campaigns, like campaign manager Keith Gilkes. If anyone should have known to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing, it would be someone like Gilkes, who already rode the political corruption train once in this state.
Not only were laws changed after the caucus scandal, but the way Wisconsin elections were overseen was changed. After legislators and staffers from both parties were convicted in the scandal, it was decided that partisan oversight of elections was maybe a bad idea. The result was the Government Accountability Board, a non-partisan group of retired judges tasked with keeping things on the up-and-up. The GAB assisted prosecutors with the John Doe case against Walker and Club for Growth, since the GAB members were the experts on what's legal and not in Wisconsin campaign finance.
In addition to legalizing the kind of coordination prosecutors went after in John Doe, the Republicans last year also disbanded the GAB and replaced it with two partisan bodies, setting the stage, potentially, for more caucus scandal-level corruption.
The Guardian's documents reveal how not only did Walker seek donors for his own campaigns, he actively sought meetings with big-money people and asked them to give to Club for Growth; the title of the Guardian's story is "Because Scott Walker Asked," what one donor to Club for Growth wrote on the memo line of his check. These donors often had business or other financial interests in Wisconsin that, subsequent to their donations, were significantly eased by Walker or Republicans in the legislature.
The smoking-gun case is that of Harold Simmons, at the time owner of NL Industries, a former lead-paint manufacturer. He gave Club for Growth $750,000 and shortly thereafter was granted immunity from lawsuits by the legislature. But Simmons is not alone. The documents list meeting after meeting Walker had with business leaders while he was supposed to be running the state. Those meetings were followed by donations to Club for Growth and help for the businesses – like Gogebic Taconite, the mining company, and EZCorp, a pay-day lender.
Here's what else is new: Sometimes the checks to Club for Growth were written from company accounts. It was legal in Wisconsin at the time for corporations to give to groups like Club for Growth, but not if that group was coordinating with a campaign, as was clearly happening here – Walker solicited the funds himself in many cases. The "issue ads" that followed, paid for with these corporate dollars, were so blatantly done in coordination with Walker that the executive director of the national Club for Growth wrote to RJ Johnson – the guy who worked for both Walker and Wisconsin Club for Growth – to say what he was doing looked iffy.
This is what pay-to-play really looks like: a candidate personally soliciting donations from private and corporate accounts to a third-party group that directly supported and coordinated with the candidate, with the other side of the equation being tangible favors done for those donors and companies.
We have tens of thousands of Hillary Clinton's emails, from her State Department days and from various other hacks and leaks. None of them prove any pattern of anything like what these John Doe documents show about Walker.
If you're still with me and keeping score, it's Clinton 2, Republicans 0.
We don't even have time here to get into the overwhelming irony of Walker repeatedly criticizing Clinton's decision to have her own email server – the emails from which were turned over to be archived as government work product – when Walker's staff had a secret server that he knew about just feet from his office in Milwaukee County that was admittedly designed to get around open records laws. Really, at this point, Walker should be pushing that Republican score deep into negative territory, but that's not how sports-style scores work.
The Guardian has done us all a huge favor here by publishing these documents. Yes, someone should go to prison for breaking the law to leak them (although Wisconsin Club for Growth's Eric O'Keefe has bragged about leaking documents to the Wall Street Journal when he thought it would make him look sympathetic). But with this record now fully public, there should be no further excuses for stalling or blocking or rolling back campaign finance reform. Clearly, we need tougher laws. Even when it was clearly illegal, Walker and his allies thought they could get away with it– and they did, since none of them will be going to jail.
But it should never be allowed to happen again, and when 2018 rolls around, Walker should be held accountable by the voters for this behavior, since the legal system cannot do so any longer.