Wisconsin Club for Growth

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCFG) is a state arm of the national Club for Growth, and one of the top political spenders in Wisconsin. WCFG spent $9.1 million during the Wisconsin recall elections, and has reportedly received a subpoena in a John Doe probe into possible campaign finance violations during those races. [1][2]

WCFG's Board of Directors includes Eric O'Keefe, a right-wing political operative with deep ties to the Koch brothers, and who helped form groups including the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and American Majority. WCFG is led by RJ Johnson, a close Walker ally and advisor.

"John Doe" Investigation

Wisconsin Club for Growth board member Eric O'Keefe told the Wall Street Journal editorial board that he received a subpoena in October 2013 in Wisconsin's John Doe investigation into campaign finance violations during Wisconsin's recall elections. O'Keefe told the Journal that some of the targets "had their homes raided at dawn, with law-enforcement officers turning over belongings to seize computers and files."[3] Stephen Moore, a founder of the national Club for Growth organization, is on the Wall Street Journal editorial board.[4]

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first broke the news that a second John Doe is underway, and that it is led by Francis Schmitz, a former federal prosecutor who George W. Bush had considered appointing to U.S. attorney.

“The subpoenas don’t spell out a specific allegation, but the demands suggest the government may be pursuing a theory of illegal campaign coordination by independent groups during the recall election,” the unsigned Wall Street Journal editorial states.

The Center for Media and Democracy (which publishes Sourcewatch.org) reported: [4]

"Wisconsin Club for Growth's top "advisor," R.J. Johnson, is a close Walker ally and the former Executive Director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. In Walker's soon-to-be-released book, Unintimidated, the governor refers to Johnson as a friend of more than 20 years and his key campaign operative. While the Wall Street Journal editorial notes that the John Doe inquiry may be looking into illegal coordination between independent groups and political campaigns, it fails to mention that Johnson is an advisor to both Walker's campaign and Wisconsin Club for Growth."
"For two years, Governor Scott Walker was caught up in an earlier John Doe probe into political corruption during his 2010 campaign for governor. Although the Wall Street Journal describes the previous John Doe as having "turned up nothing on Mr. Walker and embarrassingly little else," the probe netted six criminal convictions -- including three Walker aides, one political appointee, and one major campaign contributor -- for a variety of crimes including embezzlement, campaign finance violations and political corruption. That probe closed in March, but the new inquiry is following up on leads uncovered by that earlier investigation."

CMD also uncovered how WCFG was at the center of a "dark money web," where the "group took in funds from some of the top Republican donors and Koch-connected dark money conduits in the country, and in turn shuffled millions to other organizations that spent money on ads in 2011 and 2012, all while keeping Wisconsin voters in the dark about the true source of the funds."[4]

Funders

Cap-Times-Dark money.jpg

WCFG does not disclose its donors publicly. However, tax filings reveal that donors to WCFG include top Republican donors and dark money conduits associated with the Koch Brothers. In 2011 WCFG raised $12.5 million. Some of the donors that year included the following:

Center to Protect Patients Rights

The Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR) gave $225,000 to WCFG in 2011.[5] The New York Times described CPPR as "one of the largest political nonprofits in the country, serving as a conduit for tens of millions of dollars in political spending, much of it raised by the Kochs and their political operation and spent by other nonprofits active in the 2010 and 2012 elections."[6] CPPR, in turn, received most of its funding from another Koch-connected organization called "Freedom Partners. CPPR is also a dark money conduit, donating to many of the same Koch-related non-profits as the Wellspring Committee."[4]

The Wellspring Committee

The Wellspring Committee donated $400,000 in 2011. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Wellspring was created to allow donors concerned with protecting their anonymity a method to write "a check to a non-disclosing group that'll turn around and give the funds to another non-disclosing group."[4] WellSpring is little more than a USP mailbox, essentially serving as dark money conduit that offers donors a way to secretly funnel money to politically-active groups.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce

WCFG received $988,000 from the "action" wing of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), which is the state chapter of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. WMC has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Wellspring Committee in recent years. Additionally, WMC was a major Walker supporter that spent $4.7 million on the Wisconsin recalls. It was also one of the groups named in the John Doe investigation, along with WCG.[4]

Other Donors

  • Wisconsin Homeowners Alliance: $1.06 million
  • Wisconsin Insurance Alliance: $227,500
  • Building Industries Council: $140,000

Funding Recipients

In 2011, WCFG transferred millions of dollars to other non profits, which in turn went on to purchase pro-Walker and pro-Republican ads in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections.

Citizens for a Strong America

In 2011, WCFG almost entirely funded Citizens for a Strong America (CSA), giving the organization $4,620,000.[7] CSA, in turn, spent millions on the 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin recall elections, and to make transfers to other groups active during the recalls.

CSA, almost entirely funded by WCFG, transferred $916,045 to Wisconsin Family Action, an anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage group; that amounted to 90% of the grants that Wisconsin Family Action received that year.[1][7]

Another group, United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, received $235,000 from CSA.[7] United Sportsmen was the subject of controversy in early 2013, when it was revealed that outgoing Assembly Majority leader Scott Suder (a former ALEC State Chair) slipped a half-million dollar, renewable grant into the Wisconsin budget that was later called a "sweetheart deal" for the group. Wisconsin industrialist Terry Kohler, a top donor to Republicans in the state and nationally, personally reached out to lawmakers on the budget committee and urged their support for the grant.[4]

In January 2014, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel confirmed that the donation from CSA was the sole source of funding for United Sportsmen in 2011. This means that Club for Growth Wisconsin was effectively the sole funder for the controversial group, with CSA acting as a middleman.[8]

CSA also gave $347,582 to Wisconsin Right to Life in 2011, a group that was the plaintiff in a high-profile 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down regulations on the so-called "issue ads" with which many groups in this dark money network were involved.[4]

CSA appears to be the successor to an earlier dark money group named the Coalition for America's Families, which WCFG also bankrolled. [7]

Jobs First Coalition

WCFG gave The Jobs First Coalition (JFC) $425,000 in 2011, which amounted to nearly half of the $927,860 that the Coalition raised that year. (JFC also gave WCFG $75,000, in what appears to be a reimbursement.) According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, JFC is a pro-business and economic development group created in 2009. The group claims to "regularly monitor state legislative and regulatory activities and take positions on policy matters," according to its website. The same website, however, lists no staff and JFC is not registered as a lobbying organization with the state Government Accountability Board.[9] [4]

JFC has close ties to disgraced former Assembly Majority Leader Scott Jensen, who was the ALEC state chair for Wisconsin as a legislator. JFC in turn donated $245,000 in 2011 to Jensen's other group, the American Federation for Children. In the 2012 gubernatorial recall race, American Federation for Children reported spending $1.1. million in support of Governor Scott Walker's recall campaign, making it one of his top PAC supporters. The organization also reported spending $1.3 million to help GOP Senators who faced recall in 2011.[4]

Staff, board, personnel and advisers

RJ Johnson

R.J. Johnson, a political strategist for (and close ally of) Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, is a key adviser to the Club for Growth Wisconsin.[10]

Walker’s campaign paid R.J. Johnson and Associates more than $130,000 between July 2009 and January 2012. [11][12][13] In the 2008 tax year, R.J. Johnson's eponymous consulting business made $33,791 on activities performed for the Club for Growth Wisconsin.[14]

According to the Shepherd Express: [11]

In his just-released book, Unintimidated, Walker makes special mention of Johnson in the acknowledgments, writing, “In the political world, R.J. Johnson and I have worked together for more than two decades. He and [campaign manager] Keith Gilkes laid out the plan to win our 2010 election and they both have keen political instincts.”
A closer read of Walker’s book reveals that Johnson was advising the new governor at the same time Johnson was defending Club for Growth in the press.
“Not long after the unions made their announcement [on Feb. 18, 2011], my chief political strategist, R.J. Johnson, took me aside and said, ‘Governor, you’re in trouble,’” Walker wrote in Unintimidated about his dismal poll numbers.
Later, Walker claims that he was getting “killed in the air wars with the unions vastly outspending us in paid advertising. The situation was so bad that my chief political advisor, R.J. Johnson, called the Wisconsin airwaves a ‘no-fly zone’ for us, such was the union saturation.”
Although campaign finance statements show that Walker’s payments to Johnson stop in January 2012, Johnson appears in Walker’s book on the night he won his recall in June 2012. It seems that Walker’s wife, Tonette, wouldn’t believe that Walker won the election until Johnson, watching the voting results in Walker’s “war room,” confirmed it.
“She threw her arms around him and sobbed,” Walker wrote. “All the pressure of the past eighteen months came spilling out. Then R.J. started crying, too.”

Eric O'Keefe

Eric O'Keefe is also a board member of the WCFG. O'Keefe is part of the Koch Brothers' political network, having attended the Kochs' 2010 Aspen strategy soiree.[15] He is also the chair and CEO of the Sam Adams Alliance, and a board member of the Institute for Humane Studies, which has taken millions from the Kochs and for which billionaire Charles Koch serves as chairman. [16]

According to Eric O'Keefe's website:

"The Wisconsin Club for Growth was the major platform for Eric’s efforts to raise money and fund communications with voters in the most focused and effective fashion. These activities were conducted by meticulous operatives with many years of experience, with the review of the Club’s approach by skilled counsel familiar with the state of the law, and with Eric’s oversight and overall responsibility for the operation." [17]

In October 2013, O'Keefe broke a secrecy order and told the Wall Street Journal editorial board that he had been served with a subpoena in the "John Doe" investigation into possible campaign finance violations during Wisconsin's 2011 and 2012 recall elections, apparently in his capacity as chair of Wisconsin Club for Growth. The investigation was conducted under Wisconsin's "John Doe" laws, which is similar to a grand jury investigation. The Journal's editorial board characterized the investigation as a "political speech raid." [18] [19]

Gov. Scott Walker's Budget Bill

On Feb. 14, 2011, three days after Gov. Scott Walker introduced his controversial Act 10 "budget repair bill" severely limiting collective bargaining for public employees, WCFG began running ads accusing state workers of not having to sacrifice like private sector workers. [20] The commercial urged private sector workers to support Walker’s budget repair bill and make state workers “pay their fair share.” When the commercial failed to dissuade protesters from going to the capitol, WCFG along with Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the Koch brothers, organized a pro-Walker rally on Feb. 19. [21]

During the February, 2011 battle in Wisconsin over Republican Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair bill, the Club for Growth Wisconsin sponsored a black-and-white television ad that featured working-class faces and superimposed newspaper headlines about the economic downturn which asserted that public employees have made no sacrifices while ordinary people have suffered substantially. The ad cited concessions by workers at Harley-Davidson, Mercury Marine and Sub-Zero while somber music played in the background. The narrator intoned: "But state workers haven't had to sacrifice. They pay next to nothing for their pensions, and a fraction of their health care. It's not fair. Call your state legislator and tell them to vote for Gov. Walker's budget repair bill. It's time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us."[22]

PolitiFact Wisconsin reported that "officials with the Club for Growth -- Deb Jordahl and R.J. Johnson -- told us the ad meant to highlight just two issues regarding state employee compensation: pension and health care payments.... The portion of health premiums paid by employees more than doubled under then-Gov. Jim Doyle, from 2.5 percent to 5.6 percent in 2011.... But the most notable change for state workers has come on pay.

"The Club for Growth ad dramatically highlights 'frozen wages' and 'pay cuts' accepted by unions at the private companies -- and then says 'state workers haven’t had to sacrifice.' In fact, state workers have taken a hit on wages -- in the form of furlough days.... Doyle also rescinded 2 percent raises for non-union employees in the 2007-2009 state budget.... Doyle also suspended merit awards in November 2008.... So state workers have in fact given up some pay, which is the definition of sacrifice."[23]

WCFG criticized protesters for taking off of work because private sector workers “would like [public workers] to contribute more towards their healthcare and pensions,” [24] even though state workers said they were willing to do so if they could keep their collect bargaining rights. According to the Nation’s John Nichols, WCFG is “an organization funded by extremely wealthy conservatives to carry out their budget-stripping goals [and] has been a key player in Republican Governor Scott Walker's move to take out the state's organized workers.” [25] In addition to this, WCFG, in a press release, targeted eight Republican State Senators that did not initially commit to Walker’s budget repair bill.[26] Club For Growth, according to Think Progress, funded several “hard-hitting attack ads” against candidates who supported raising taxes on the rich or “have done anything to hold powerful corporations accountable.” [27]

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that in the first month after Walker's budget repair bill was introduced, WCFG had spent $805,610 on broadcast TV ads over Wisconsin's budget fight.[28]

Overall, WCFG spent $9.1 million on Wisconsin's recall elections, with much of the spending and the source of the funds undisclosed. </ref name="WISDC recall">

$400,000 spent on Prosser Supreme Court race

During the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in March of 2011, WCFG also ran four ads promoting Walker’s budget reforms and endorsing Supreme Court Justice David Prosser; that race was treated as a referendum on Walker's controversial union bill. WCFG spent over $400,000 supporting Prosser’s campaign.[29]

Other Resources

Club For Growth ads: http://www.youtube.com/user/clubforgrowthwi?feature=mhum#p/u/0/im9DfnOW8XM

Past Wisconsin Supreme Court electioneering

Club for Growth Wisconsin spent more than $1 million on outside electioneering activities in the 2007 and 2008 state Supreme Court races and the 2008 and 2010 fall elections.

The Club for Growth Wisconsin was the first outside special interest group to promote a candidate in the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court race, spending at least $321,000 on the race, and out-spending all candidates combined, and accounting for 70% of all spending in the race. The group has hired the Republican polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, to health defeat efforts to obtain universal health insurance in Wisconsin.[30][31][32]

Previous negative ads & electioneering

"Club for Growth Wisconsin spent an estimated $950,000 on negative broadcast advertising and other electioneering activities in the 2007 and 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court races and the 2008 fall elections," according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "The group sponsored a radio ad about three weeks before the November 2010 elections against Democrat Elmer Monk of Kimberly, who is running for the 1st Senate District open seat against Republican Frank Lasee. The ad criticized Monk for voting to raise property taxes as Kimberly school board member."[33]

Issues

Pro-corporate, anti-worker

The Club for Growth Wisconsin "seek[s] to extinguish the voice of public labor unions... because those unions... provide the most important bulwark of campaign-season defense via volunteers and dollars against the corporate interests' unimpeded domination over elections."[34] The Club for Growth Wisconsin's other efforts are aimed at helping corporations "avoid... their fair share of taxes, blocking minimum wage efforts and preventing any 'mandate' in environmental or workplace regulation they find inconvenient."[35] The Club's overall strategies are aimed at splitting the middle and working classes by "pitting unionized workers against non-unionized workers, public-sector workers against nonpublic, older workers within sight of Medicare and Social Security against younger workers who don't believe these programs will be there for them, and the poor against the working middle class," according to former labor secretary Robert Reich. Reich said, "By splitting working America along these lines, Republicans want Americans to believe that we can no longer afford to do what we need to do as a nation. They hope to deflect attention from the increasing share of total income and wealth going to the richest 1 percent while the jobs and wages of everyone else languish." [36]

Climate change denial

The Club for Growth Wisconsin calls global warming/climate change a "fraud." [37]

Backing "tort reform"

The Club for Growth Wisconsin supports and works to advance tort reform,[38] a "movement" propagated by companies and entire industries -- such as the tobacco and asbestos industries -- that are vulnerable to legal actions seeking damages for the impacts of their products. Proponents use the term "tort reform" to refer to legislative measures designed to limit the ability of individuals to sue companies and to restrict the amount of potential damages available to individuals who take legal actions against companies.

History

According to Eric O'Keefe:

"in 2004, after serving on the board of directors for the [national] Club for Growth for several years, Eric [O'Keefe] encouraged people involved with the Club for Growth to support similar efforts at the state level, as part of an accountability infrastructure. The national Club charted state chapters in seven or eight states before losing enthusiasm for the project. The chapter in Pennsylvania achieved early success, but later idled. Kansas has a Club which had a notably influential year in 2012."

Sourcewatch resources

External resources

Contact

Wisconsin Club for Growth Inc.
1223 West Main Street, #304
Sun Prairie, Wisconsin 53590

Phone: (877) 707-0571

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Recall Race for Governor Cost $81 Million, Posted: July 25, 2012/Updated: January 31, 2013
  2. Abe Sauer A Blueprint for a Takeover: Wisconsin Republicans Lied While the Kochs Schemed, The Awl, March 8, 2011
  3. Wall Street Journal editorial board, Wisconsin Political Speech Raid, Nov. 18, 2013.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 Brendan Fischer, WI Club for Growth, Target of Walker Recall Probe, at Center of Dark Money Web, prwatch.org, Nov 18, 2013
  5. Lisa Kaiser, Exclusive: Koch Brothers’ Dark Money Flowed into Wisconsin Recall Fight, Shepherd Express, Nov 13, 2013
  6. Nicholas Confessore, Group Linked to Kochs Admits to Campaign Finance Violations, New York Times, Oct 24, 2013
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Club for Growth Wisconsin Form 990, IRS filing, 2011
  8. Jason Stein, United Sportsmen seeks exemption from penalty for faulty tax filings, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Jan 12, 2014
  9. Hijacking Campaign 2010: Jobs First Coalition, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report, Oct 28, 2010
  10. Don Walker Wisconsin Club for Growth plans to stay active, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 22, 2011
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lisa Kaiser, John Doe #2 Looking at Walker’s Campaign Committee and Dozens of Conservative Groups, Shepherd Express, Nov. 20, 2013.
  12. Government Accountability Board Friends of Scott Walker Fall Pre-Primary 2010 Report, Campaign Finance Report, accessed/uploaded to Sourcewatch May 9, 2011
  13. Government Accountability Board Friends of Scott Walker July Continuing 2010 Report, Campaign Finance Report, accessed/uploaded to Sourcewatch May 9, 2011
  14. Club for Growth Wisconsin, United States Internal Revenue Service Club for Growth Wisconsin's 2008 Tax form 990 (pdf), accessed/uploaded to SourceWatch on March 17, 2011
  15. Little Sis Koch Network Participants, Aspen 2010 photos, accessed March 17, 2011
  16. Abe Sauer A Blueprint for a Takeover: Wisconsin Republicans Lied While the Kochs Schemed, The Awl, March 8, 2011
  17. Eric-OKeefe.com, "About Eric", accessed December 23, 2013.
  18. Wall Street Journal editorial board, Wisconsin Political Speech Raid, Nov. 18, 2013, Wall Street Journal.
  19. Mary Bottari, Heart of Darkness: Criminal Investigation of WI Recall $, prwatch.org, Nov. 25, 2013
  20. Wisconsin Club for Growth Benefits YouTube, Feb. 14, 2011.
  21. Ed Schultz [1] YouTube, Feb. 17, 2011
  22. Paul Fanlund Madison360: Why the revolt downtown is even bigger than it appears, The (Madison, WI) Capitol Times, February 21, 2011
  23. Group says Wisconsin state workers 'haven’t had to sacrifice', Journal Sentinel PolitiFact Wisconsin, February 18, 2011
  24. Club For Growth Update Facebook, Feb. 16, 2011.
  25. Ed Shultz [2] YouTube, Feb. 17, 2011
  26. Club For Growth Update Facebook, Feb. 14, 2011.
  27. .” Lee Fang Club for Growth Radical Success Think Progress Editorials, Jun. 26, 2010
  28. Craig Gilbert Budget fight TV ads top $3 million, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, March 15, 2011
  29. Ian Millhiser Leader of Koch Front Group is Behind Ads Supporting Wisconsin Justice David Prosser Think Progress, Apr 4, 2011
  30. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Hijacking Justice 2011 Club for Growth Wisconsin, February 17, 2011
  31. Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law Special Interest Group Outspends Candidates on TV in Wisconsin Judicial Election, Press release, February 15, 2011
  32. Gene Ulm Confidential memorandum to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Club for Growth - Wisconsin, Public Opinion Strategies (polling firm), August 21, 2007
  33. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Hijacking Campaign 2010 Club for Growth Wisconsin, organization website, accessed May 9, 2011
  34. Paul Fanlund Madison360: Why the revolt downtown is even bigger than it appears, The Capital Times Political Blog, February 21, 2011
  35. Ibid.
  36. Robert Reich The Republican Strategy, Robert Reich Blog, February 17, 2011
  37. Club for Growth Wisconsin Breaking News/Global Warming: a Fraud Running on Fumes, article, October 28, 2009
  38. Club for Growth Wisconsin Tort Reform, organizational web site/position statement, undated, accessed March 17, 2011