The state’s wealthiest person secretly gave more than $1.5 million to a conservative group at the center of a stalled John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign, according to a report published Tuesday.
That’s more than twice as much as a previously disclosed contribution to the Wisconsin Club for Growth from a mining company that investigators said in court documents illustrated the potential for political corruption.
According to the Yahoo News story — which cites three anonymous sources familiar with the transactions — the 2011 and 2012 contributions from John Menard Jr., owner of the home improvement retail chain Menards, “were uncovered among hundreds of emails and internal documents seized by state prosecutors in the course of a wide-ranging criminal investigation into whether Walker’s campaign committee violated state campaign finance laws.”
The story, written by former Newsweek and NBC News correspondent Michael Isikoff, does not include or quote from any emails that mention Menard or his reported donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth.
Wisconsin Club for Growth attorney Andrew Grossman issued a statement that did not address the donations.
“The other side wants to promote some kind of conspiracy theory where a contribution to the Club to help it weigh in on public policy is somehow transformed into an arrangement with the Governor, but they have absolutely no support for it at all because that never happened,” Grossman said.
A spokesman for Menard, Inc. did not respond to a request for comment.
Walker is considering a run for president in 2016 and has been crisscrossing the country in recent months raising money and laying the groundwork for a campaign. The stalled John Doe investigation, widely discussed and reported in Wisconsin, has so far not been a major topic in national coverage of his potential candidacy.
Asked about the story as he left a state building commission meeting Tuesday, Walker said, “I haven’t engaged in any of that and there’s going to be lots of stories going forward.” He then walked away as an aide told reporters that he would not take questions.
The story notes that Menards has been awarded $1.8 million in tax credits from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and suggests that the company may have benefited from an overall reduction in environmental enforcement actions by the Department of Natural Resources.
But Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick pushed back against the notion that those represent a quid pro quo benefit for the company.
“Governor Walker was not involved in either contract with Menard, Inc.,” she said in an email. “These were handled between the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and Menard exclusively.”
Walker is chairman of the WEDC, a public-private entity he created during his first term. The board he leads doesn’t review awards unless they total $10 million or more.
Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, challenged the notion that Walker, who is chairman of the WEDC board, can distance himself from the Menard awards.
“Is Walker going to get away with telling people that he has nothing to do with the allocation of WEDC dollars?” Ross said.
Patrick said the tax credit awards of $1.5 million in October and $300,000 in July 2013 were contingent on job creation targets. So far, the company has received $164,500 from those awards. It also received a potential $1.5 million award in 2006 from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s Commerce Department, of which it received $1 million.
Patrick also said Walker’s DNR has issued one citation against Menard, the same number issued under Doyle.
“Governor Walker believes it’s possible to protect our clean air, clean land, and clean water while enacting policies that improve our business climate and spur economic growth,” Patrick said. “We are proud that the number of referrals has gone down.”
Previously, the company had received 13 citations going back to 1976, more than any company in the state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2005. That included a $1.7 million fine in 1997 for illegally dumping hazardous waste in private trash containers. In a separate case, a judge ordered the company pay $2 million for illegally polluting Wisconsin waterways in 2001 and 2002.
The reported $1.5 million donation represents an even larger contribution to Wisconsin Club for Growth than a previously disclosed $700,000 from Gogebic Taconite. That company helped rewrite the state’s mining regulations as it sought to open an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.
John Doe investigators wrote of the Gogebic donation in a court filing that “because Wisconsin Club for Growth’s fundraising and expenditures were being coordinated with Scott Walker’s agents at the time of Gogebic’s donation, there is certainly an appearance of corruption in light of the resulting legislation from which it benefited.”
The filing did not mention the contribution from Menard, whose net worth according to Forbes Magazine is $9 billion, tied for 142nd-richest person worldwide.
The John Doe investigation, the fate of which is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court, is probing whether Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with Wisconsin Club for Growth to raise millions of dollars that it then distributed to other groups that sought to influence public opinion during the gubernatorial and Senate recall elections.
The Club has fought back against the investigation in state and federal court, saying it has not done anything illegal and that its issue advocacy is protected free speech. Walker has also denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild cited the reported Menard contribution as an example of the “potential of a corrupting influence” during testimony Tuesday before a joint informational hearing of the state’s Assembly and Senate elections committees about potential revisions to the state’s campaign finance laws.
He noted in a later statement that Menard has given $30,000 to the campaigns for Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch since 2009.
“This is part of the total wave of dark money that is leaving a stain all over the Capitol in Madison,” Rothschild said.
State Journal reporter Dee J. Hall and the Associated Press contributed to this report.