Fiddling While the Dome Burns
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s 2002 Nero Awards
June 4, 2002
In an advisory referendum held in 57 counties representing 86 percent of the state’s population, 90 percent of voters said they want campaign finance reforms that limit campaign spending, place tighter limits on political donations and require full and prompt disclosure of all election-related activities.
In the 2001-2002 legislative session, the elected representatives of these voters have so far failed to carry out the electorate’s wishes. Both houses passed competing comprehensive campaign reform bills, but a conference committee was never convened before the end of the regular session to work out the differences between the two bills. Plenty of elected officials bear responsibility for the stalemate over Wisconsin’s budget crisis and the lack of response to the state’s growing political corruption scandal - most notably the governor, Democrats who control the state Senate and Republicans who run the Assembly.
Not only has campaign finance reform been bottled up, but the ethical climate in Wisconsin government has been severely degraded, evidenced by swirling allegations of illegal campaigning in state offices, legislative leaders trading public policy for campaign contributions, and the destruction of public records to hide incriminating evidence. Along with the elected officials, a state regulatory agency - the state Elections Board - bears special responsibility for the fall of Wisconsin’s political standards and the damage that has been done to the state’s reputation for clean, open and accountable government. The Elections Board joins Governor Scott McCallum and 72 members of the state legislature as recipients of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s 2002 Nero Awards.
The award is named for the self-indulgent and corrupt 1st Century Roman emperor. One of the most famous events of Nero’s reign was the fire of Rome in 64 AD. While the fire spread and raged furiously for nine days, destroying much of the empire’s greatest city, the musically inclined Nero is famously said to have "fiddled while Rome burned."
With campaign finance reform derailed by parliamentary maneuvers and partisan game playing at the same time the Capitol is engulfed in a political scandal serious enough to warrant criminal investigations, the symbolic parallels to Nero’s reign are obvious.
Speaker Jensen kept comprehensive campaign reform legislation bottled up for nearly a year before finally allowing a vote - with barely two weeks remaining in the session - on a watered-down measure developed in secret with the Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Wisconsin Education Association Council. After the Assembly passed the bill (Assembly Bill 843) on an 87-12 vote, Jensen blocked the formation of a conference committee to work out the differences between the Assembly-approved bill and the Senate-passed SB 104.
While stonewalling reform, the speaker emerged as a central target in the criminal investigations of apparent illegal campaign activities in the Capitol. He approved the use of public funds to pay the legal fees of those under investigation in the probe, and went to court to prevent the public from learning the details of the arrangements for taxpayer-funded legal representation. He also authorized the use of public funds for unprecedented payments to private law firms to assist Assembly Republicans in developing a redistricting plan that would advantage them politically.
All the while, Jensen zealously solicited campaign money. The speaker was far and away the Assembly’s leading fundraiser during the legislative session, raising more than four times as much as any other Assembly member. Under his leadership, his caucus used its control over the policy agenda in the lower house to raise over three times as much in campaign contributions as minority Assembly Democrats in 2001.
Like Jensen, Senator Chvala kept comprehensive reform legislation under wraps until the session’s eleventh hour. Senate Bill 104, which the upper house eventually passed, was approved by the Senate Judiciary, Consumer Affairs and Campaign Finance Reform Committee last July but was not brought to the Senate floor for a vote until late February. Once SB 104 passed on a 25-8 vote, Chvala held the bill in the Senate instead of allowing it to be sent to the Assembly. He resisted the routine step of messaging the bill to the other house because he was seeking - but could not obtain - a commitment from the governor not to use his partial veto to alter any bipartisan agreement the Assembly and Senate might reach in a conference committee.
Also like Jensen, Chvala has become a central figure in the criminal investigations of illegal political activities in the Capitol, and he approved the use of public funds to pay the legal fees of those under investigation. Even after the scandal-plagued caucuses were abolished, Chvala sought to hold on to some of the staff positions, beating back repeated attempts to eliminate all of the caucus positions.
An April 2001 memo from prominent lobbyist Tony Driessen described Chvala’s demands for campaign contributions from Driessen’s clients. Driessen claimed Chvala was pressuring special interests to contribute more money to Senate Democrats, informing his clients that the majority leader "will not look favorably upon groups" that give more collectively to the 56 Assembly Republicans than they give the 18 Senate Democrats. A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis of subsequent campaign finance reports showed that special interest donors abruptly changed their giving patterns to meet the demands Driessen said Chvala made.
Chvala refused to allow a floor vote on legislation (AB 682) explicitly prohibiting the practice of trading votes for campaign donations, even though the "Pay to Play" bill passed unanimously in the Assembly and was approved unanimously in the Senate Judiciary, Consumer Affairs and Campaign Finance Reform Committee.
While keeping reform legislation bottled up for all of 2001, members of Chvala’s caucus collected more than three times as much campaign money over the course of the year as minority Senate Republicans.
Governor McCallum has been allergic to leadership on the campaign finance reform issue. Since becoming governor, McCallum has had numerous chances to exercise leadership on issues relating to political corruption and has passed up every opportunity. He could have put funding in the budget for campaign reform as did his predecessor, former Governor Tommy Thompson. He had the chance to veto funding for the corrupt legislative caucuses. He was asked to authorize the attorney general to challenge the legislature’s use of state funds to pay private lawyers to defend employees under criminal investigation for illegal campaigning. He was asked to pledge not to use his partial veto to alter a bipartisan agreement on campaign reform - as Thompson did and as McCallum himself has done on other issues. And he was asked numerous times to call the legislature into special session to enact campaign finance reform legislation once legislative leaders ran out the clock on the regular session.
In each and every case, the governor declined to step up to the plate. He wasn’t bashful about pursuing special interest donors, however. He raised $2.8 million for his campaign in 2001. Of the $2.6 million he collected from individuals, over half - 53 percent - came from donors who gave $1,000 or more.
With two notable exceptions - Senators Gary George and Jon Erpenbach - Democrats who control the Senate have supported Majority Leader Chvala through the protracted stalemate over the state’s budget crisis and the growing political corruption scandal.
The price of independence in the Senate Democratic Caucus is steep. Erpenbach, for example, saw three of his pet proposals removed from the budget repair bill as punishment for suggesting that Chvala step down as chair of the budget conference committee.
Senate Democrats earning a Nero Award for remaining loyal to Chvala and silent about the Senate’s direction in the face of partisan gridlock and accumulating evidence of political corruption include: Assistant Senate Majority Leader Rod Moen, Senate President Fred Risser, and Senators Jim Baumgart, Roger Breske, Brian Burke, Russ Decker, Rick Grobschmidt, Dave Hansen, Robert Jauch, Mark Meyer, Gwen Moore, Kim Plache, Judy Robson, Kevin Shibilski and Robert Wirch. (To campaign finance profiles.)
The Assembly’s gatekeeper on campaign finance reform legislation - the Campaigns and Elections Committee - kept the gate locked for most of the legislative session. Comprehensive reform legislation was introduced and referred to the committee in March 2001. For over 11 months, the committee was not permitted to vote on any comprehensive reform proposals.
Once it was clear the Senate was taking action on reform legislation, a bill (AB 843) was rushed to the floor of the Assembly with just over two weeks remaining in the legislature’s regular session. Assembly Republicans voted for the bill, but then voted twice within two days to block the formation of a conference committee to work out the differences between AB 843 and the Senate-passed SB 104. When minority party members forced a third vote on convening a conference committee, an amendment was offered that created a parliamentary condition on the formation of a conference that even the legislature’s own legal counsel said was unnecessary. With the poison pill amendment attached, the Assembly passed the conference committee resolution. The practical effect of the amendment was to continue to block the final negotiations needed to reach agreement on campaign reform, but give Assembly Republicans a phony roll call vote enabling them to claim they had voted to form a conference committee.
The Assembly majority’s stonewalling on campaign reform legislation is indicative of its blind adherence to Speaker Jensen and its refusal to seriously address the issue of political corruption. Lower house members receiving a Nero Award include: Majority Leader Steve Foti, Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Freese, and Representatives John Ainsworth, Sheryl Albers, Garey Bies, Marc Duff, Jeff Fitzgerald, Donald Friske, John Gard, Glenn Grothman, Scott Gunderson, Mark Gundrum, Eugene Hahn, J.A. Hines, Timothy Hoven, Michael Huebsch, Jean Hundertmark, Suzanne Jeskewitz, DuWayne Johnsrud, Dean Kaufert, Neal Kedzie, Steve Kestell, Judy Krawczyk, Robin Kreibich, Bonnie Ladwig, Frank Lasee, Michael Lehman, Joe Leibham, MaryAnn Lippert, Gabe Loeffelholz, Terri McCormick, Dan Meyer, Phil Montgomery, Terry Musser, Steve Nass, Luther Olsen, Alvin Ott, Carol Owens, Jerry Petrowski, Mark Pettis, Mike Powers, Kitty Rhoades, Lorraine Seratti, Rick Skindrud, Samantha Starzyk, Jeff Stone, Scott Suder, Tom Sykora, John Townsend, Gregg Underheim, Frank Urban, Daniel Vrakas, Scott Walker, David Ward and Steve Wieckert. (To campaign finance profiles.)
The state Elections Board has become the captive of the political power brokers it is supposed to regulate. A classic example of the fox guarding the hen house, Elections Board members are political appointees hand picked by the state’s top political leaders. The governor and the four legislative leaders - the Senate majority and minority leaders and the Assembly speaker and minority leader - each make an appointment to the eight-member Board. The remaining three appointments are made by the state Democratic and Republican parties and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
The Board has compiled a lengthy record of inaction. For example, a “Citizens Right to Know” law was enacted in 1998 requiring the Board to create a system of electronic filing of campaign reports by July 1999. But it took four years - and the threat of a lawsuit seeking a court order - for the Board to adopt an emergency rule that takes a first step toward implementing the law.
The Board ignored an open invitation from the state Supreme Court to craft new regulations closing a gaping loophole in Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws that special interest groups have exploited to avoid the law’s limits and disclosure requirements by running so-called “issue ads.” Instead of taking the Court up on its invitation, the Board instead opted for a rule institutionalizing the loophole.
Last November, the Board significantly widened the loophole when it ruled that state political parties also can avoid campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements in Wisconsin law by running issue ads. On the same day, the Board stopped its investigation into apparent illegal collusion between the Assembly Republican Caucus and a shadowy private campaign group known as Project Vote Informed without interviewing two central figures in the case, caucus staffers Mark Jefferson and Heather Smith. Moreover, the Board voted to dismiss the complaint filed by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause in Wisconsin that triggered the probe before it received answers to investigators’ questions sent in the mail by former Assembly Republican Caucus director Jason Kratochwill.
The Elections Board also dropped its investigation into allegations of illegal campaign activity by legislative employees without contacting individuals with evidence of unlawful activity, including former Democratic Party voter file manager Don Fish, who filed a 15-page complaint with the Board and claimed to have 500 pages of documents supporting his allegations. The Board still has not acted on Fish’s complaint.
While Elections Board officials claimed the Board was cooperating with the investigations of the district attorneys in Dane and Milwaukee counties as well as the state Justice Department, one Board member publicly expressed his disdain for the probes. In an article published on the WisPolitics.com news service, Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen’s appointee, R.J. Johnson, referred to Dane County DA Brian Blanchard as “Mr. John Doe investigation” and a “moron extraordinaire” who “continues to chase an issue he knows won”t hold water.“ Johnson said the Wisconsin State Journal had “adopted National Enquirer standards” in its investigative series on the legislative caucuses and likened the newspaper’s caucus coverage to supermarket tabloid stories about “alien abductions.”
The Elections Board joined the state Ethics Board in entering into an agreement with legislative leaders last October to formally abolish the scandal-plagued legislative caucus offices. But the settlement allowed the legislature to keep roughly half of the staff positions, assigning six positions to each of the four legislative leaders. The caucuses were enormously powerful tools at the disposal of the legislative leaders that enabled them to consolidate power and exercise control over their colleagues. Doubling the number of staff positions assigned to the leaders was hardly a solution to the problem of too much power concentrated in too few hands.
The settlement also assessed fines but allowed the fines to be paid by the legislative campaign committees, meaning those who ran the caucuses were not held personally accountable and did not face direct punishment for any wrongdoing in these offices. Instead, they were able to hold fundraisers to solicit donations from special interest groups in order to pay the fines levied under the agreement.
More recently, it was brought to the Elections Board’s attention that 19 wealthy donors had exceeded the annual $10,000 limit on campaign contributions. Even though one of the donors - Julilly Kohler - told the Board last month that she was ignorant of the law and was willing to pay a fine to resolve the matter, the Board declined to take action. Moreover, the Board announced it would take no action against any of the 19 violators - even if a formal complaint were filed in the future.
The ultimate indictment of the Elections Board is the deteriorating ethical climate in Wisconsin politics. According to a recent poll, 69 percent of those surveyed say that state government in Wisconsin is no cleaner than other states. Current public opinion is a sharp departure from how Wisconsin residents have traditionally viewed their state government, and is evidence that the public no longer feels Wisconsin is deserving of its longstanding reputation for squeaky-clean politics.