Gov. Scott Walker personally solicited millions of dollars in contributions for a conservative group during the 2011 and 2012 recalls, which prosecutors cited as evidence the governor and his campaign violated state campaign finance laws, records made public on Friday show.
Among the groups that donated money to Wisconsin Club for Growth during that time was Gogebic Taconite, which contributed $700,000, according to the records. The company later won approval from the Legislature and Walker to streamline regulations for a massive iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.
“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,” a lawyer for lead John Doe prosecutor Francis Schmitz wrote in an April court filing unsealed briefly Friday but later removed from public viewing.
That filing and other documents stem from a sweeping and secret John Doe investigation and were released Friday by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering whether to reverse a lower court judge’s decision to halt the probe.
Walker, facing re-election in November, and Club for Growth officials have denied breaking laws, and no one has been charged.
Schmitz’s lawyer said in the filing the investigation “is about a candidate and his personal campaign committee failing to disclose the funding of such coordinated advocacy.”
That document also includes excerpts from emails between Walker aides and associates that prosecutors say are evidence of state campaign finance violations.
“As the governor discussed … he wants all the issue advocacy efforts to run thru one group to ensure correct messaging,” fundraiser Kate Doner wrote to Walker adviser R.J. Johnson — also an adviser to Club for Growth — in an April 28, 2011, email. “The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept Corporate and Personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure.”
State law prohibits campaigns from coordinating their actions with independent groups for political purposes, but it’s less clear whether they can coordinate their work with issue advocacy organizations, which don’t expressly advocate a candidate’s election or defeat.
Prosecutors and the Government Accountability Board argued the coordination turned the Club for Growth’s issue advocacy into express advocacy, but a federal judge disagreed and halted the investigation.
David B. Rivkin Jr., an attorney for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, dismissed the prosecutors’ allegations outlined in court documents, some of which his spokesman said should not have been released by the court.
“At a time when President Barack Obama and his Cabinet members are raising funds for Democratic super PACs like Priorities USA, it is not a news story — and certainly not a crime — that Governor Walker would encourage support for groups that support his economic policies,” Rivkin said. “Today’s document release confirms that there is no evidence to support the John Doe investigation targeting Wisconsin conservatives. The prosecutors’ ‘evidence’ does not identify a single expenditure by the Wisconsin Club for Growth relating to Governor Walker’s recall election, much less one coordinated with the Walker campaign. There is no evidence of any attempt to circumvent campaign-finance limits.”
The court documents also indicated that Walker and his campaign solicited contributions for Club for Growth from nationally prominent conservatives, including Donald Trump, wealthy casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and brothers Charles and David Koch. Club for Growth — running “a soup to nuts campaign” as one Walker aide said in an email — then funneled money to 12 different groups.
“Quick thoughts on raising money for Walker’s possible recall efforts,” Doner wrote to Walker on Sept. 7, 2011. “Take Koch’s money”; “Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.”; “Corporations. Go heavy after them to give.” “Create a new c4.” Organizations such as Wisconsin Club for Growth are organized under federal tax code 501©4.
Prosecutors cited itineraries showing Walker planned to meet with wealthy individuals, including wireless executive David Hanna, manufacturing CEO Barry MacLean and hedge fund manager Paul Singer, who within a few months made contributions to Wisconsin Club for Growth. Hanna’s trust gave $50,000, the MacLean-Fogg Company gave $100,000 and Singer gave $250,000.
Twelve days after Doner sent Walker an email saying billionaire Bruce Kovner and his wife “want to give more” they wrote a check for $50,000 to Club for Growth with the memo line “501c4-Walker.”
The documents also reveal who district attorneys in four counties were investigating.
Wisconsin Club for Growth director Eric O’Keefe, and campaign aides Keith Gilkes, Johnson and Kelly Rindfleisch are identified as the individuals under investigation in Iowa, Dane, Dodge and Columbia counties by their respective district attorneys.
Johnson and Gilkes did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. Franklyn Gimbel, Rindfleisch’s attorney, could not be reached Friday evening for comment. Rindfleisch was convicted of campaigning while working as Walker’s aide in Milwaukee County under a previous John Doe investigation.
The district attorneys in the four counties— Jane Kohlwey in Columbia, Ismael Ozanne in Dane, Kurt Klomberg in Dodge, and Larry Nelson in Iowa — filed motions to open John Doe investigations in July 2013.
The following month, the four district attorneys joined Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who filed to open the initial John Doe investigation in August 2012, in asking a judge to combine the investigations into one.
In the Aug. 21, 2013, letter, they explained that the joint investigation was necessary because Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen had turned down a request to take over the investigation, citing concerns that his involvement would be viewed critically as political.
“Moreover, and just as the Attorney General himself recognized, the partisan political affiliations of the undersigned elected District Attorneys will lead to public allegations of impropriety,” they wrote. “Democratic prosecutors will be painted as conducting a partisan witch hunt and Republican prosecutors will be accused of pulling punches. An independent special prosecutor having no partisan affiliation addresses the legitimate concerns about the appearance of impropriety.”
The release of documents Friday came after a media coalition sought their release. They are the latest records about the secret, John Doe investigation to be made public.
Wisconsin Club for Growth had filed a lawsuit to block the probe. Federal judge Rudolph Randa halted the investigation in May, saying it infringed on the free speech and association rights of those being investigated.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing that decision. That court released 266 pages of documents in June revealing the nature of the investigation. It had planned to release 34 more documents on Tuesday. Wisconsin Club for Growth, two unnamed parties and prosecutors filed a flurry of motions on Monday asking the court to keep all or some of the documents sealed.
The court ultimately released 1,343 pages on Friday, though many of those pages include previously released information.
Walker campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre issued a statement in response to the release, stating: “As previously reported, the prosecutor’s attorney stated that Governor Walker is not a target, two separate judges have dismissed the allegations, and the Friends of Scott Walker campaign is not a party to the lawsuit in the 7th Circuit.”
Gogebic Taconite president Bill Williams and company spokesman Bob Seitz didn’t return phone calls or emails seeking their comments Friday.
— State Journal reporter Steven Verburg contributed to this report.