Very little is known about the new John Doe investigation that has emerged from the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office and is being conducted by special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, a former federal prosecutor.
The investigation has apparently spread from Milwaukee to Columbia, Dane and Iowa counties, according to the right-wing news website, Wisconsin Reporter. The site also alleged that the investigation is looking at one legislative leader, the 2011 and 2012 recalls and the operations of three right-wing groups, Wisconsin Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governors Association. Wisconsin Reporter has noted that “law enforcement officials have seized electronic devices and papers in Columbia and Dane counties.”
If this reporting is true, Schmitz may be looking at illegal coordination between these groups and at least one candidate committee. According to state law, candidates may not coordinate efforts with independent issue groups or political action committees.
An investigation of this type is difficult for reporters and outside observers, since these entities do not have to publicly report many details about their donors or expenditures. The Shepherd has looked at Internal Revenue Service filings, campaign databases and reporting from 2011 and 2012 to discover what the John Doe investigation may be targeting. The result is a tight connection of right-wing money funding phony issue groups, dirty tricks and millions of dollars in advertising supporting Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the recalls.
The Three Main Groups
If Wisconsin Reporter’s reporting is accurate, the John Doe is looking at the political activities of Wisconsin Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governors Association.
■ Wisconsin Club for Growth: This tax-exempt issue ad group is based in Sun Prairie. Its officers are Charles Talbot, Eric O’Keefe and Eleanor Hawley, but its more public representatives are Walker’s campaign advisor R.J. Johnson and Deb Jordahl, partners in the consulting firm Johnson Jordahl. O’Keefe is a small-government advocate and was instrumental in launching or running the Sam Adams Alliance, American Majority and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which sponsors watchdog.org and Wisconsin Reporter, which has broken the most detailed news about the new John Doe investigation.
Johnson is a longtime Republican operative. Walker hired him for his gubernatorial campaign in spring 2009; according to the Friends of Scott Walker campaign finance reports, the campaign paid R.J. Johnson and Associates more than $130,000 between July 2009 and January 2012. Johnson’s firm’s mailing address is in Randolph, which straddles Columbia and Dodge counties. During 2010, Johnson was one of the Walker campaign advisors who were copied on county emails recently released as part of the O’Donnell Park lawsuit. Johnson was a spokesman for Club for Growth ads that ran in 2011 supporting Walker’s anti-union agenda. Democrats have complained to the Shepherd about Johnson’s apparent involvement in both the Walker campaign and Wisconsin Club for Growth and have accused the two groups of coordinating, which, if the allegations are true, may be illegal. Johnson did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates that Wisconsin Club for Growth spent more than $9.1 million on ads for the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Reporting from that time indicates that Wisconsin Club for Growth spent more than $300,000 in ads in June and July of 2011 for the Senate recalls. The group, along with Americans for Prosperity, spent big in January-March 2012, when no Walker ads appeared on the air.
According to the organization’s tax filings, in 2010 it gave $246,000 to the political arm of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and $268,000 to the Citizens for a Strong America, which is run out of a post office box in Columbus, in Columbia County. Citizens for a Strong America’s treasurer appears to be Johnson’s wife, Valerie Johnson, and its director is John Connors, who has been involved in Americans for Prosperity and United Sportsmen of Wisconsin. In 2011, Club for Growth gave $425,000 to the Scott Jensen-connected Jobs First Coalition and $4,620,000 to Citizens for a Strong America.
■ Americans for Prosperity: This tax-exempt Astroturf group was launched in 2003 by Charles and David Koch to advocate for free market policies and has had a toehold in Wisconsin for quite a while. Longtime donors include the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose president and CEO, Michael Grebe, co-chaired Walker’s gubernatorial and recall campaign committees. The office of Wisconsin’s chapter of AFP, in West Allis, is just down the hall from John Connors’ political consulting group. Connors has been involved with AFP in various capacities since at least 2007. AFP-Wisconsin’s state director is Luke Hilgemann, who had been chief of staff to Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder and was involved in United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, a political front group that received a now-canceled $500,000 state grant to promote hunting in the state. AFP-Wisconsin was headed by Mark Block from 2007-2011 and by Matt Seaholm in 2011.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates that AFP spent more than $3 million on the 2011 and 2012 recalls. It also filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service alleging that AFP was violating its tax-exempt status as a charitable organization by supporting Walker’s recall bid by sponsoring a bus tour, recruiting out-of-state volunteers, and sponsoring rallies, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.
AFP drew additional complaints for sending out phony absentee ballot mailers before the summer 2011 recall elections. The fake ballot requests were to be sent to a post office box belonging to the anti-gay group Wisconsin Family Action. United Sportsmen sent almost-identical mailers at the same time, but the mailers’ return address was a dead post office box in Waunakee.
■ Republican Governors Association: The RGA set up the Right Direction Wisconsin political action committee (PAC), which has spent heavily in recent elections. Right Direction Wisconsin is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and its treasurer is RGA’s general counsel, Michael Adams.
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the PAC spent $2 million on ads in 2006, $5 million in 2010 and $8 million in the week before the June 2012 Walker recall. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign also reported that the RGA runs another political group that must report its donors and expenses. That group’s largest Wisconsin donor in the first half of 2012 was the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), which gave $437,725.
Three right-wing political organizations with strong ties to the alleged targets of the John Doe appeared again and again in tax filings.
■ Jobs First Coalition Inc.: This Brookfield-based nonprofit political group was formed in 2009, apparently by former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen while his criminal case was still unresolved. Jensen isn’t listed as an officer of the group, however. Its president is Mary Jo Baas, wife of MMAC’s Steve Baas; its vice president is Waukesha GOP activist Candee Arndt; its secretary is attorney Michael Dean of the First Freedoms Foundation; and its executive director/treasurer is Brookfield alderman and former WMTJ radio reporter Bob Reddin. According to its tax filings, the organization raised $95,250 in 2009, $898,675 in 2010 and $927,860 in 2011, $425,000 of which came from Wisconsin Club for Growth.
In 2010, it gave $30,000 to Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, $200,000 to the Jensen-connected voucher group American Federation for Children, $35,000 to Citizens for a Strong America, $50,000 to the political wing of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and $3,000 to the Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG). In 2011, it gave $75,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth and $145,000 to American Federation for Children.
Although the group isn’t required to disclose its spending, it is currently active in opposing Democrat Elizabeth Coppola in District 21. She’s running against voucher advocate Jessie Rodriguez. (For more on this race, go to “School Voucher Money Pours Into South Side Election to Replace Honadel,” page 8.)
■ Citizens for a Strong America: This nonprofit issue group was formed in 2011 to support Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in his re-election campaign against JoAnne Kloppenburg. In spring 2011, its anti-Kloppenburg ad was rated “pants on fire.”
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, it spent roughly $2.7 million on phony issue ads in the Supreme Court race and the 2011 and 2012 recalls.
Citizens for a Strong America’s treasurer appears to be R.J. Johnson’s wife, Valerie Johnson, and its director is John Connors. The organization, run from a post office box in Columbus, gets most of its funding from R.J. Johnson’s group, Wisconsin Club for Growth, including a $4.2 million donation in 2011. In turn, Citizens for a Strong America has sent money to Wisconsin Family Action ($51,000 in 2010 and $916,000 in 2011), Wisconsin Right to Life ($179,712 in 2010 and $347,000 in 2011), the Connors-connected United Sportsmen of Wisconsin ($235,000 in 2011) and Safari Club International ($77,000 in 2011).
■ United Sportsmen of Wisconsin: This allegedly pro-hunting group has connections to two Americans for Prosperity figures, Luke Hilgemann and John Connors. The group sent phony absentee ballot mailers in the summer of 2011, on the heels of similar mailers from Americans for Prosperity. The group received a $500,000 state grant this year, which has since been rescinded. Allegedly a former Walker campaign intern, Connors is a director of Citizens for a Strong America and in 2011 he was listed in tax filings as the sole independent contractor of the Franklin Center, which is linked to the Club for Growth’s Eric O’Keefe. Connors earned $119,277 from the organization.
John Connors did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.