Republicans Killing Those Bothersome Public Watchdogs
Wisconsin Republicans frequently get away with their shadier political activities because it’s difficult to prove whether questionable actions within Gov. Scott Walker’s administration are the result of sheer incompetence or actual corruption.
But it’s a dead giveaway when the governor’s political agents start taking steps to demolish independent, nonpartisan watchdogs whose sole purpose is to police unacceptable practices within state government.
Such is the brazen, current Republican attempt to destroy the 50-year-old Legislative Audit Bureau, the independent investigative unit that examines state agencies for ethical lapses and shoddy practices that aren’t in the public interest.
The absolute necessity of such an independent, professional review removed from Republican political control was dramatically proven by the bureau’s scathing audit exposing operations of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), the jobs agency Walker created and chaired until Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee voted to remove him.
We now know in its first 15 months WEDC handed out $124 million in unsecured corporate loans and grants to 24 state companies without completing any formal reviews of those companies’ finances or ability to create any promised jobs.
Would your company like lots of taxpayer money, no questions asked? Here you go.
One of those deals was a half-million-dollar loan now in default made to Building Committee, Inc., owned by William Minahan, a state tax-delinquent businessman whose company has been the subject of major lawsuits.
Minahan had one important qualification, however. At the very last minute on Election Day 2010, he made the maximum legal contribution of $10,000 to Walker’s election campaign.
Lobbying WEDC on Minahan’s behalf along with some of Walker’s closest assistants was former Democratic State Sen. Gary George, once a powerful legislator known for cutting private deals with the Thompson administration, often with some benefits for himself or his friends.
In 2004, George was convicted of felony conspiracy to defraud the government and spent three years in federal prison.
The largest WEDC award made to a Wisconsin company without any review was $62.5 million in free money to Kohl’s Corp.
Apparently, WEDC even tossed in Gov. Walker as a corporate spokesman. In his unofficial presidential campaigning around the country, Walker models a sweater from Kohl’s he swears he got for $1. If that qualifies as a kickback, I hope he got a pair of pants, too.
Perhaps the most imaginative WEDC handout was $686,000 sent to Sheboygan’s Morgan Aircraft. Morgan was created by the former engineer for a company making sanitary napkin holders who dreamed of manufacturing a corporate jet that could take off and land vertically like a helicopter.
Today the company is described as a “virtual” company that’s “virtually broke.”
Independent Audit Bureau and Elections Board on the Chopping Block
Very few people can possibly fail to see the value in having independent, outside audits of how state agencies, especially horribly run ones like WEDC, are spending taxpayer money.
So how do Republican state legislators David Craig of Big Bend and Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake explain their bill to abolish the Legislative Audit Bureau? They don’t, really.
In an email to legislators, they express respect for the bureau’s long history of exposing financial and legal problems within state government.
But they immediately pivot from praising the bureau’s “tremendous” record to claiming they want to create a process that will prevent problems in advance instead of merely documenting government misdeeds after they’ve already been committed.
The only real way to assure that, of course, would be for Walker or whoever was governor to appoint highly qualified professionals to run government departments who were neither incompetent nor corrupt.
But Craig and Jarchow propose just the opposite—letting Walker and Republicans investigate themselves.
Incredibly, the Republican legislators suggest independent, nonpartisan audits be replaced with partisan “inspectors general” within state agencies appointed by Walker’s Republican Legislature to police whether their own Republican governor or his Republican appointees are misusing taxpayer funds or engaging in illegal or unethical activities.
We’re talking about a Republican governor whose office and associates have been embroiled in criminal investigations ever since he took office five years ago. And a Republican Legislature whose extreme actions in collusion with that governor face continual legal challenges in the courts.
The political response to all the legal difficulties Wisconsin Republicans find themselves in is always the same: Do everything possible to destroy independent, outside investigations into allegations of wrongdoing.
That’s true not only of the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, which examines irresponsible or illegal government practices, but also the Government Accountability Board, which enforces state election laws and even a John Doe investigation conducted jointly by Democratic and Republican district attorneys into possible illegal campaign activities and money laundering under campaign finance laws.
Instead of destroying legal oversight and independent investigations designed to expose public corruption and protect the interests of Wisconsin taxpayers, maybe Republicans should just stop being corrupt and stop funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to their biggest political donors.