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Leaked John Doe Documents Shed Light on Scott Walker’s ‘Karl Rove’

Shadowy operative worked for Walker campaign and Wisconsin Club for Growth

Sep. 20, 2016
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Photo Credit: Megan McCormick / via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, in more than a thousand pages of leaked documents from The Guardian, we got a fuller picture of Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign operations and what prosecutors called a “criminal scheme” meant to circumvent the state’s campaign finance laws. 

The documents show that Walker and his allies formed a coordinated campaign outfit that was known only to big donors and well-connected insiders.

The scheme worked this way: Walker would meet with Republican millionaires and billionaires around the country, ask for a six-figure donation, and assure the contributors that their checks would be kept secret, since the money would be sent to a dark-money group, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which would be in charge of campaign spending and messaging. In this way, the donors could send corporate checks and big-dollar donations that blew through legal limits placed on the campaign accounts of candidates, including Walker’s and the Republican senators who were up for recall in 2011 and 2012.

While Walker was the one who went begging for donations in corporate boardrooms and exclusive retreat centers, the individual apparently running the operation for Walker was his longtime political advisor, R.J. Johnson, who just happened to also be the “spokesman” for Wisconsin Club for Growth. Walker even went so far as to call Johnson “my Karl Rove,” referring to George W. Bush’s longtime political advisor and operative.

But this blurring of lines between Johnson’s work for Walker’s campaign and other candidates, and his work for an allegedly independent group, is likely not legal.

“In all the years that I was a practitioner, everyone understood that this kind of coordination was illegal,” said Bill Christofferson, who had worked on the campaigns of Democrat Jim Doyle and the Greater Wisconsin Committee—although never at the same time.

Up until last year, Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws prohibited coordination between a candidate’s campaign and independent groups. That’s because candidates must disclose all of their contributions, those contributions have dollar limits, and they cannot come from corporations. In contrast, dark-money groups can take unlimited donations, don’t disclose their donors and accept checks from corporations. 

When you link the two entities, you get the worst of both worlds: candidates taking huge sums of money from corporations and not disclosing any of that to the public, so the public has no idea that, for example, checks from Menard Inc., a lead paint manufacturer or Wall Street billionaires were sent in secret and potentially influenced state laws and regulations.

Now, of course, the Republican-led Legislature eliminated the state regulations on candidates’ contact with dark-money groups. They are now allowed to coordinate as long as they only work together on “issue ads,” or barely disguised campaign ads that don’t specifically say to vote for a particular candidate. In addition, legislative committees controlled by Senate and Assembly leaders can accept corporate donations—long banned in Wisconsin. And, to add insult to injury, Republicans prohibited John Doe investigations from being used to look into political crimes and corruption. 

In Walker’s War Room 

So who is R.J. Johnson, the operative that worked for Walker while apparently orchestrating a dark money-funded campaign to keep Scott Walker, state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser and embattled Republican senators in office?

In his political memoir, Unintimidated, Walker writes that the two have worked together for two decades; campaign finance reports show that Walker’s campaign paid Johnson at least through January 2012, as Walker’s recall was heating up. Walker’s memoir depicts Johnson as being with him every step of the way, and Johnson was with Walker and his wife, Tonette, on the June 2012 night that Walker won his recall. 

In the “war room,” Walker wrote, Tonette “threw her arms around him [Johnson] and sobbed. All the pressure of the past 18 months came spilling out. Then R.J. started crying, too.”

Looking through the Guardian’s documents it’s no wonder why Johnson was so emotional.

Going back to 2009, when Walker was still Milwaukee County executive, the national Club for Growth sent an email to Johnson questioning the Wisconsin Club for Growth’s activity, stating, “We are concerned about the potential legal issues that might be presented should the Wisconsin Club for Growth continue to air the previous ads or run additional advertisements or communications featuring Scott Walker.”

Johnson wrote back: “Under Wisconsin law we are allowed to criticize or praise anyone in the public policy arena at any time.” 

As Walker’s campaign for governor heated up through 2010, Johnson was routinely copied on Milwaukee County emails in which Walker’s campaign and county advisors weighed in on his political strategy and county business. 

Campaigns for Prosser, Walker and GOP Senators 

Just a year later, one month after Walker won election as governor on Nov. 2, 2010, Johnson was ramping up for the next campaign. Johnson wrote an email—apparently to Wisconsin Club for Growth’s executive director, Eric O’Keefe—about Diane Hendricks, one of Walker’s billionaire backers, saying, “It would be good for her to talk with us or have her see our plan. Club is leading the coalition to maintain the court. Thus far I have raised 450K and am looking to raise an additional 409K…. Plan is attached, FYI.”

Prosser, of course, refused to recuse himself from hearing the John Doe case and last summer was a member of the majority that shut it down. That decision is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which should announce in the next few weeks if it’ll take the case. 

After Walker took office in January 2011 and “dropped the bomb” on Wisconsin in the form of his union-busting budget repair bill in February 2011, Johnson was one of the crucial figures in the coordinated campaign to defend Walker, get Prosser re-elected that spring and survive his recount, and help Walker and the Republican senators win their recall elections.

As Walker’s Texas-based fundraiser Kate Doner explained in an April 2011 email to billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ aide, the goal was to raise $9 million in six weeks. Walker “wants all of the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging. We had some past problems with multiple groups doing work on ‘behalf’ of Gov. Walker and it caused some issues. … The governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure.”

Pickens, as the emails show, didn’t take Walker up on his offer to contribute to his campaign via Johnson’s group.

An August 2011 email of suggested remarks for a phone call states, “Our efforts were run by Wisconsin Club for Growth and operatives R.J. Johnson and Deb Jordahl, who coordinated spending through 12 different groups. Most spending by other groups was directly funded by grants from the Club. We tactically outmaneuvered [the Democrats].”

Later, the email states, “Wisconsin Club for Growth raised 12 million dollars and ran a soup to nuts campaign.” That campaign included polling, focus groups, message development, an absentee ballot program that involved “pro life, pro family and second amendment rights activists” as well as former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed’s Faith and Family organization. In addition, “the statewide voter list was enhanced with district specific micro-targeting data and 3.5 million pieces of issue-specific mail was sent to targeted donors.”

Another leaked document appears to show bank records from the Wisconsin Club for Growth revealing its anonymous big-money donors, including Wall Street hedge fund manager Steven Cohen ($1 million), Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s Issues Mobilization Council ($988,000), the voucher group American Federation for Children ($622,000), the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce ($599,775), casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson ($300,000), the Koch-connected Wellspring Committee ($250,000) and many more.

The Guardian published a copy of a $1 million check from Menard Inc. to Wisconsin Club for Growth from June 2011. Obviously, Walker could not have accepted a check from a corporate account—but the Wisconsin Club for Growth could.

John Menard later got a valuable tax break from state Republicans.

Wall-to-Wall Ads 

For the first time, in the leaked documents the public got a look at the ad-buying operation R.J. Johnson appears to have run on behalf of Republican candidates and the dark-money groups. 

Beginning in February 2011, 10 days after Walker “dropped the bomb” on public employee unions, Johnson was coordinating “Stand with Walker” ads with Matt Seaholm, then with the Koch-funded fake grassroots group Americans for Prosperity. The two have some testy exchanges over the lack of coordination on ad buys and strategy.

Throughout 2011 and into 2012, Johnson appears to have been booking ads on behalf of Wisconsin Club for Growth, Wisconsin Family Action, Citizens for a Strong America and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. The ads targeted legislators up for recall, pretty much showing that they were campaign related, not pure “issue ads.” In 2012, Johnson appears to be part of the group approving ads for Walker’s recall defense.

In an excerpt from a transcript from the John Doe investigation, in October 2011 Johnson told prosecutors: “I don’t generally charge a lot in terms of consulting fees because I make a percentage on the media placed.” He said he received 5% of the media buys for the Walker campaign.

At the time of his testimony, Johnson apparently was coordinating the dark-money campaign to save the Republican legislative majority and was also being paid by the Friends of Scott Walker.

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