ANOTHER VIEW | WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL
A decade ago, when former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison, was being prosecuted for secretly funneling money around campaign finance laws, some of the amounts were $50,000 and $75,000.
“It just stunned me,” former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann recalled recently.
McCann successfully prosecuted Chvala for misconduct in office in 2002, securing felonies and jail time. Other legislative leaders from both parties were punished, too, for turning small armies of public employees (known as the caucuses) into private campaign soldiers for unfair advantage in elections.
But the financial stakes in Wisconsin politics today are much higher, McCann stressed during testimony March 11 at the state Capitol.
A mining company, he noted, secretly gave $700,000 to a political group helping Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans win recall elections in 2011 and 2012. The GOP adopted a mining bill the company, Gogebic Taconite, wanted.
Prosecutors who investigated found “the appearance of corruption” and coordination between the politicians and the group, Wisconsin Club for Growth. But they couldn’t convince a judge to advance the case, which is now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Like McCann a decade ago, today’s prosecutors used a secret John Doe investigation to compel testimony from witnesses and secure documents — a process many Republicans want to restrict with Senate Bill 43.
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The $700,000 donation “makes the offenses in the caucus scandal look like peanuts,” McCann testified. “We don’t need less regulation, we need more regulation. We don’t need closing down the John Doe to investigate governmental wrongdoing, we need more aggressive DAs using the John Doe.”
Now it turns out even the $700,000 donation was small. Yahoo News reported Monday that Wisconsin Club for Growth also got $1.5 million from John Menard, Jr., Wisconsin’s wealthiest person, while his Menard’s home improvement company benefited from state tax credits. A Walker aide denies any favoritism.
GOP leaders suggest John Doe probes have been witch hunts by Democratic DAs. But McCann prosecuted a fellow Democrat. And in the most recent John Doe targeting conservatives, two of the DAs who signed off were Republicans.
McCann warned that passing SB 43 would essentially exempt political crimes from John Doe probes.
“This is a bill to protect legislators,” he warned.
“If people knew what this bill was removing, there would be a public hue and cry,” he added.
Limiting big money in politics may be impossible because of court rulings, but those donations should at least be disclosed to voters before elections. The mining and Menard’s money came to light only by mistake or through unofficial channels.
Lawmakers should adopt strong disclosure rules and stop the rush to pass SB 43.