By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Watchdog
MADISON, Wis. — In late spring 2008, liberal organizations and donors got together to form what was loosely billed as the “Wisconsin progressive donor collaborative.”
National heavy hitters from big labor, including the guiding hand of the National Education Association, collaborated with the tax-exempt 527 group Advancing Wisconsin.
The goal, it seems, was to seek big-ticket donations from some of Wisconsin’s wealthiest residents to forward the cause of Democratic Party candidates and liberal causes, according to emails released in a Wikileak document dump.
Lots of people were involved in what inner-circle emails described as an “unprecedented, coordinated effort by individual, in-state donors” — donors assisted by national political players.
John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, former counselor to President Barack Obama and namesake of the now-infamous “Podesta emails,” is copied on the spring 2008 emails, alongside national and Wisconsin liberal grassroots campaign and community organizers.
Noted in one of the emails from the NEA are then-Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and his controversial fundraiser.
“(Talked to) Katie Boyce, Governor Doyle’s political staff person about getting help from the Governor’s (volunteer) finance team to assist with raising in-state money for Advancing Wisconsin. She has promised to get back to me this coming week,” wrote John Stocks, who was at the time the NEA’s deputy executive director. He is the education association’s head man these days.
The collaborative, arguably, is similar to political fundraising activity that conservative groups were involved in during Wisconsin’s bitter recall campaigns of 2011 and 2012.
There is a key difference, however.
The people and groups involved in the 2008 initiative apparently were not hounded by a partisan prosecutor in a politically driven “illegal coordination” investigation.
It doesn’t appear that Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the Democrat who in 2012 launched the “John Doe II” against 29 conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign, or the former state Government Accountability Board had anything to say about Advancing Wisconsin and its political partners.
Chisholm and his assistants have spent the past four years either investigating or legally fighting to maintain the probe the state Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. The John Doe investigation included predawn, armed raids on the homes of citizens never charged with wrongdoing and an expansive spy operation to seize millions of documents and other personal property. And it was all conducted under a secrecy order that demanded silence from targets and witnesses on penalty of jail and hefty fines.
Nothing like that for the “Wisconsin progressive donor collaborative,” however.
Campaign finance law experts say the emails from the liberal groups do raise questions, at least through the prism of the John Doe prosecutors’ theory on what constitutes illegal coordination.
“If they were coordinating with a state campaign and doing it with express advocacy, then that could be an issue,” one attorney told Wisconsin Watchdog.
If the groups were simply coordinating on fundraising, that isn’t enough to move the meter on campaign finance law, experts say. But it certainly might for Francis Schmitz, the John Doe special prosecutor, or Shane Falk, the former partisan “nonpartisan” staff attorney at the old GAB, one conservative First Amendment expert said.
“I’m sure they would see red if they saw any of this — from conservatives,” the expert said.
The bigger issue is the potential violations the groups could have faced under federal election law, which is much broader than state campaign finance law.
“That’s unlike the John Doe. We might have criminal conduct here” under federal law, the expert said of the progressive collaborative. “This could be a big deal.”
In a May 22 email to Podesta and several others, Stocks excitedly updated the fundraising potential of heiress and liberal philanthropist Lynde Bradley Uihlein and retired investor and philanthropist Grant Abert.
“Per my conversations with Lynde and Anne at the DA meeting, Lynde and Grant (Abert) agreed to pledge $250,000 each to Advancing Wisconsin,” Stocks wrote. “They asked two donors in the collaborative for $150,000 each to match $300,000 of their $500,000 and asked the rest of the smaller donors to come up with $200,000 to reach a total of $1 million from in-state sources by July 31st.”
“Larry Marx, staffperson for the collaborative, is following up with individuals. Per our last board meeting discussion and the AV/Atlas written recommendations, they are seeking $1M in matching funds from the Fund to Advancing Wisconsin by July 31 toward an overall budget of @ $5M. The Fund Board has already approved $100,000 to Advancing Wisconsin.”
Stocks did not return calls seeking comment.
Advancing Wisconsin bills itself as an “advocacy organization that is engaged in educational and grassroots lobbying.” The group seeks to “advance the public debate around progressive issues by engaging in face-to-face conversations with citizens throughout Wisconsin through an expansive door-to-door canvass.”
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s Hijacking Campaign 2009, Advancing Wisconsin spent nearly $243,000 on behalf of Democratic candidates in 26 legislative races. It also deployed several hundred volunteers in a statewide door-to-door campaign on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Obama.
Some of the usual suspects in Wisconsin Democratic Party politics and liberal causes turned up in Stocks’ email, including Mike Tate, who would go on to lead the Democratic Party of Wisconsin before being pushed out of that position after the 2014 elections. Tate previously served as director of Fair Wisconsin and then executive director of Advancing Wisconsin.
“Mike Tate of ATLAS, formerly the Deputy State Director of ACT (America Coming Together) is the new ED. The Advancing Wisconsin BOD is Bob Gibson, SEIU Political Director, Bob Burke, WEAC Government Relations Director and Sara Rogers, VP of Wisconsin AFL.”
“Advancing Wisconsin will coordinate Citizen Action and Working America field programs in the state. It will also build its own field program to fill critical gaps of geography not covered by the other programs. (See AV/ATLAS recommendations),” the email continues.
In July, Marx wrote of “Great News: $1 million for Advancing Wisconsin.” The email’s bold directive is that recipients not forward the information contained therein.
“Dear Friends, On behalf of all the Donor Collaborative partners, I am very pleased to announce that the group – with lots of help, including Deputy Director of the National Education Association John Stocks and former Wisconsin Secretary of Administration and Foley & Lardner partner Marc Marotta – has met the terms of the challenge grant that Grant Abert & Lynde Uihlein made in our meeting on May 21st, 2008,” the July 21st email stated.
“More than $1 million has been raised for Advancing Wisconsin and the Progressive Wisconsin Political Fund as of today, in an unprecedented, coordinated effort by individual, in-state donors.”
“While some checks are still outstanding, this includes participation from 20 different partners and friends of the Collaborative, including two other contributors joining Grant & Lynde in making gifts over $150,000 each,” the email continued.
An individual who answered at a number listed for Advancing Wisconsin initially said she was with the organization and did not know anything about the 2008 emails. She later said she was not with Advancing Wisconsin.
An “unprecedented coordinated effort” is precisely what Chisholm and the John Doe prosecutors argued was going on between conservative organizations and Walker’s campaign. Multiple courts rejected their legal theory that effectively transformed issue advocacy — unregulated political messages — into express advocacy — highly regulated communications that support or oppose a candidate.
Conservative groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce broke no campaign laws with their political activity, according to the Supreme Court.
Perhaps the liberal collaboration of 2008 did nothing illegal. These like-minded progressives certainly have the right to work toward the same political goals.
It’s not clear whether Doyle’s “political staff person” got back to Stocks about fundraising collaborative efforts, or what that all entailed, based on the Wikileak emails.
We do know that Doyle’s two terms were clouded by allegations of quid pro quo. In 2006, for instance, Oracle Corp gave more than $3,000 to Doyle’s campaign weeks after he approved a $29 million no-bid contract with the software provider.
There sure were all kinds of allegations about “criminal schemes” involving Walker’s campaign and the conservative groups over the course of the John Doe legal battles. But while several courts found the conservatives did nothing wrong, the liberal groups never had to prove their innocence in secret courts.