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Has Wisconsin Become a Corrupt State?

Has a state government known as a clean government become dirty?

Aug. 18, 2015
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It may seem like a dim memory, but Wisconsin was known for our clean government. At the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wisconsin was viewed as a sophisticated, progressive and totally honest state government.

The credit goes to the Progressives in state government—who at the time were Republicans—and Socialists in Milwaukee government from the turn of the 20th century through the mid-1900s, who ushered in reforms that opened up government to the people and kept corruption at bay. Both groups believed in clean, transparent government and rejected systems of patronage that would create a political machine that doled out jobs and favors in exchange for dues and votes.

“They contrasted greatly with New York and Chicago,” said state Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee).

Now, of course, that’s all been turned on its head and now Wisconsin seems to be one of the most corrupt states in the country. Even the usually corruption-plagued Illinois is beginning to look like an honest state next to Wisconsin. The steady pace of scandals during the past few years are signs that our elected officials are corrupting the public trust for the benefit of a select few insiders.


What’s Corruption?


Policies like breaking unions, attacking women’s reproductive rights, cutting back on educational opportunities and many more very conservative policies may be anathema to many of our readers, but conservative policies are fair game in the legislative process.

Corruption, on the other hand, manifests itself in how these policies become law, who is behind them, how the special-interest groups influence legislators and the lack of transparency, for example. It’s difficult to measure the level of corruption, but even if you only had a cursory knowledge of current affairs you wouldn’t be able to ignore a few examples of activities that seem to be ethically dubious, such as:

■ The secret $700,000 donation from Gogebic Taconite to Wisconsin Club for Growth, an allegedly “independent” special-interest group that just happened to be supporting Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators as they crafted a favorable mining bill

■ The lax ethical standards that allow Wisconsin judges and Supreme Court justices to decide cases involving major campaign contributors and allows each of our Supreme Court justices and judges to be the sole decision makers on whether to recuse themselves in cases where there are perceived conflicts of interest

 The taxpayer-funded loans funneled from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to very dubious businesses

■ The near-constant attacks on independent, nonpartisan watchdog groups such as the Government Accountability Board (GAB) and the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) to prevent these agencies from doing their job of exposing potential corruption

 The attempt to gut the state’s open records law so that the public wouldn’t be able to know which special interests have a hand in writing legislation, for example

 Giving legislators charged with ethical violations home court advantage by allowing them to be tried in their home counties, instead of where they allegedly committed their crimes, typically Dane County, and allowing them to choose their appellate court if they appeal their case. This allows legislators to be tried by prosecutors they likely know and are friends with and a jury made up of their constituents. Many court observers believe that’s how former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen was able to turn a conviction on three felonies and one misdemeanor in Dane County into a sweetheart plea on one misdemeanor and a fine in Waukesha County

These headline-grabbers referenced above aren’t the simple result of politics played roughly but are signs of potential corruption. There is a difference. Walker has played hardball when he decided to make historic cuts to the University of Wisconsin System and K-12 public education, his attempt to “reform” health care for low-income Wisconsinites by not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and blowing a $561 million hole in state budgets, or his gutting of collective bargaining rights for public employees. The policies, as much as they upset many people, are not corrupt and are merely political decisions in line with his small-government ideology.

Nor is corruption quid simply pro quo bribery, either, the proverbial brown bag full of cash that’s handed to a legislator who votes a certain way. That narrow definition of corruption is actually bribery and is against the law, of course. But a broader, more subtle array of actions is just as corrupt and far more common.

Bribery has been illegal since 1897, explained Mike McCabe, former executive director of the government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the author of Blue Jeans in High Places.

“But bribery has taken on a new form,” McCabe told the Shepherd. “For all practical purposes, the bribery prohibition is now useless. You still can’t put a wad of $50 bills in a brown paper bag and slip it under a table to somebody in exchange for a favor. But you can give even more money than that at a fundraiser or give it in the form of a campaign contribution and you can get the same favor and that whole transaction is perfectly legal. We now really have a new form of political bribery.”

Even worse, as the scandals multiply, the public gradually begins to accept corruption as the inevitable business as usual in the Capitol and lose faith in a representative democracy that actually looks out for the common good. When the governed lose confidence in the governing system, democracy begins to break down.

“The public has become very cynical about government,” said Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “They think that those who give money have all of the influence and get all of the benefits. The result of that cynicism is a turning away from our own democracy so that we don’t even expect anything.”


Taxpayer Money for Cronies

Upon being elected governor, Walker destroyed the fully public Department of Commerce and replaced it with the quasi-public Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). Since then, many questions have been raised about how this agency operates and doles out taxpayer money.

WEDC has been plagued by scandals, but the public wouldn’t have known about them if the nonpartisan, independent Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) hadn’t shone a light on them in some deeply disturbing audits. The LAB found that WEDC wasn’t following state law or its own protocols when it handed out loans to businesses; allowed businesses that receive taxpayer funds to outsource jobs; failed to keep track of loans; didn’t verify how many jobs were created as a result of taxpayer funds; and is plagued by heavy turnover. In a nutshell, if WEDC were a private corporation, its board of directors would be voted out by the shareholders and perhaps sued and the corporation would eventually shutter its doors due to poor business practices. But since WEDC has the backing of Walker, who was chairman of the board, and legislative Republicans, little to nothing is done to reform it. Rather, they want to undercut the LAB’s independence so that it can’t do its job properly and get the truth out to the public. Don’t change things; instead, kill the watchdog.

In addition to the LAB’s audits, ongoing reporting by One Wisconsin Now shows that 60% of WEDC’s taxpayer-funded loans went to businesses whose owners, directors or employees donated to Walker. In turn, Walker received $2.1 million from those recipients. And Citizen Action of Wisconsin found that “jobs impacted” by WEDC loans were far more likely to be found in Republican legislative districts, not in Democratic districts or areas where job-creation efforts are truly needed.

Citizen Action’s Kraig said that WEDC needs to be totally revamped and made completely accountable to the public.

“When you have a lack of financial controls, a lack of real standards for who’s getting a grant or a tax credit, it turns WEDC into a major corruption problem, especially when you deregulate campaign finance,” Kraig said. “The state Supreme Court just ruled that large, secret donations can be made that can be directed by the candidate. So you pair that with a semi-private, unaccountable economic development agency that can dole out benefits to campaign contributors and it’s a recipe for corruption.”

But the flow of taxpayer money to political insiders doesn’t end with WEDC. For example, Republicans in charge earmarked $500,000 in the state budget for a phony sportsmen’s group that was made up of tea party allies. Once it was exposed and the public learned about this attempted transfer of public moneys to a political group, it was quickly taken out of the budget. Another example is using a constitutional amendment to protect the transportation fund from “raids,” thereby permanently ensuring that Republicans’ major campaign contributors, the road builders, get taxpayer dollars.


Attacking a National Elections Model

A simple way to get away with corrupt practices is to silence the independent watchdogs like the LAB. If nobody’s looking, then no one can notice the shady deals and devious plans of those in power.

In addition to attacking the LAB, we’ve seen Walker and his allies target the independent, nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) time and time again, and Republicans apparently are considering making the board more partisan.

The Legislature created the GAB in 2007 on a near-unanimous, bipartisan vote. The board oversees our elections, as well as campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws. The board is made up of retired judges who are recommended by sitting judges, then nominated by the governor and confirmed by a two-thirds vote of the state Senate. In this way, all board members must have the support of at least some members of both major political parties.

The GAB replaced the State Elections Board—whose members were appointed by partisan legislative leaders, the heads of the Republican and Democratic parties, the governor and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court—and the State Ethics Board, whose members were nominated by the governor with the consent of the state Senate.

Back in 2007, the GAB was seen as a more efficient, independent, cleaner and nonpartisan way to oversee our campaigns and elections. That intent to create this efficient, independent, clean and nonpartisan body has became a reality. The GAB is doing a good job, and it fights hard to preserve its independence. Now, of course, the GAB is under near-constant attack by Republicans who are upset by the board’s independence. Although Democrats have had some criticisms of the board, Republicans are furious with the way that the GAB handled the vetting of the signatures on the recall petitions—Republicans wanted the GAB to go beyond the statutory requirements and verify each signature—as well as the GAB’s involvement in the John Doe investigation into Walker and “independent” special-interest groups’ coordination during the recalls.

But are the Republicans’ complaints warranted? Not at all, according to a 2013 article by Daniel P. Tokaji of Ohio State University in the UC Irvine Law Review, “America’s Top Model: The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.”

Tokaji found that the GAB is totally unique in the country and should be a model replicated in other states looking for an independent elections monitor. Unlike every other election authority around the country, Wisconsin’s GAB is the only nonpartisan multimember board in the nation. Every other state has either a partisan elected official in charge of elections, a political appointee, or a board made up of partisan representatives.

Although Wisconsin’s nonpartisan GAB is unique in the U.S., this model “is widely viewed as essential to the integrity of the democratic process” in other countries, Tokaji wrote. It seems that Americans don’t mind having partisans in charge of elections but it’s seen as a corrupting influence in other nations.

But has the GAB worked as intended? Tokaji found that despite being under great stress during the recalls as well as coping with the thousands of “found” votes in Waukesha County that changed conservative Supreme Court Justice David Prosser’s losing campaign into a winning vote count, “there is no good reason to question the GAB’s impartiality.” Yet Wisconsin Republicans do question the GAB, repeatedly, apparently in a bid to put political appointees back in charge of our elections and campaigns, a corrupting practice that other nations shun.


Supreme Court Gone Wild


An entire book could be written on the sorry state of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The reputation of the court has plummeted, most likely because of the corrupting influence of big money in campaigns for the state’s highest court. Instead of remaining above the political fray or being a neutral check on the power of the other two branches of government, the majority of the justices are now merely hired hands whose legal decisions can be predicted far in advance if you know how much money the parties before the court have spent on their campaigns.

It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 2008, a UC Davis Law Review analysis named the Wisconsin Supreme Court as the eighth most influential high court in the nation and it was generally seen as a well-functioning, ethical and reputable court. Now, following a string of ethical scandals, purchased elections and dubious decisions, our justices are seen by many as sellouts who no one should emulate. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has developed a reputation for mediocrity and some special-interest lobbyists smile and call it “the best court money can buy.”

The blame can be placed on the “conservative” majority who now rules the court. It’s difficult to call them conservative because they truly are radicals who ignore precedent and instead “creatively interpret” the constitution to serve various special interests. As a result, they are destroying the court and eroding the public’s faith and confidence in a truly fair judicial system.

The current majority—Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, Justice Michael Gableman, Justice David Prosser and Justice Annette Ziegler—shows exactly how big money can have a corrupting influence in judicial races. Three of them have been dogged by ethics scandals. Despite these serious scandals, these candidates were able to win in low-profile and low-turnout elections due to the millions of dollars spent by special-interest groups savaging their opponents. Among the scandals were Ziegler deciding a number of cases as a circuit court judge in which her husband’s business had an interest. Then there was Gableman running a notorious—and false—race-baiting campaign ad against then-Justice Louis Butler and getting away with it. Although the Wisconsin Judicial Commission brought an ethics charge against him, the court deadlocked 3-3 on whether to discipline Gableman.  

And Prosser, of course, called then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a “total bitch” and later put his hands around throat of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley as the “conservative” majority was trying to stage a coup. The conservative group of justices was trying to force the court to quickly issue its decision on Act 10, the first major anti-union bill, by a deadline set by then-Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald so that the GOP wouldn’t have to take a second vote on busting public employee unions. The coup never should have been attempted, since the court and the Legislature are supposed to be separate, independent and equal branches of government. The justices shouldn’t have to jump when a legislator tells them to do so. Despite his outrageous behavior and threatened violence, Prosser, like Gableman, hasn’t been disciplined by his fellow colleagues on the bench.

The same “conservative” majority that can’t bring itself to discipline its members also supported new judicial ethics rules that allow them to decide cases that involve big campaign contributors. The new rules the court adopted just happen to be written by big campaign contributors, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association. In essence, Wisconsin judges and justices decide for themselves if their campaign donations and support have a corrupting influence on their decisions, and whether they should recuse themselves from a case, hardly a high ethical or objective standard.

Wisconsin’s rules fly in the face of judicial recusal guidelines set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Caperton v. Massey in 2009, just a year prior to the Wisconsin court’s vote. In Caperton, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges could be required to remove themselves from a case that involves a significant campaign contributor. If the judge remains on the case, he or she could be depriving the other party of getting a fair trial, which is unconstitutional. Yet in 2010, the “conservative” Wisconsin Supreme Court majority ignored this U.S. Supreme Court decision and voted for utterly meaningless recusal rules.

So it’s no wonder that the outcomes of cases involving big campaign contributors can be predicted far in advance. It was no shock that the “conservative” majority has supported the agenda shared by Walker and the four justices’ major campaign donors, including upholding the public union-busting Act 10, the ban on same-sex marriage and Wisconsin’s extreme version of a voter ID law. In the process, the court has also shredded the state’s open meetings law and campaign finance regulations.

And then there’s the court’s recent decision in the John Doe investigation into Walker and allied special interest groups. As the Center on Media and Democracy reported extensively, the groups apparently under investigation along with other groups they control spent $10 million on the elections of the four “conservative” justices yet those justices decided the case anyway. Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, a Republican, asked Gableman and Prosser specifically to recuse themselves from the case, but both men stayed on. Not only did the conservative majority on the court shut down the investigation, as expected, but they also canceled oral arguments in the case, rewrote the state’s campaign finance laws and, as a kicker, ordered that the evidence gathered in the investigation should be returned and the copies destroyed.

As a result of their decision, Wisconsin now allows candidates and allegedly independent groups to coordinate on fundraising and campaign spending on political issue ads while withholding that information from the public. No other state’s court shares that view. That means that a candidate can take in up to $10,000 for his campaign per individual contributor but can direct that same donor—or a corporation, which is prohibited from donating directly to a candidate’s campaign committee—to give unlimited sums in secret to a front group, which can spend the money on negative attack ads against the candidate’s opponents or very sympathetic ads that fall just short of overtly advocating for the candidate’s election. Although the court’s majority went way beyond the current understanding of Wisconsin campaign finance regulations and rewrote state law, you won’t hear any cries from conservatives about “activist judges” who need to respect legal precedent. Instead, they’re applauding the court’s “anything goes” attitude.

We think that the John Doe prosecutors should appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Frankly, we believe it’s the only way to bring the Wisconsin court into line and begin halting some of its unethical actions. Although many Wisconsinites are upset by the sharp right turn the state has taken, those policy decisions aren’t as troubling as the evidence of outright corruption of the democratic process that we’ve witnessed in recent years.


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