Assembly Democrats tried but failed Wednesday to prevent Gov. Scott Walker from selling state-owned power plants without bids amid growing concerns by Democrats that the owners of a multi-billion dollar oil-and-gas company are driving the governor's legislative agenda.
That suspicion grew Wednesday after Walker was secretly recorded revealing his strategy for pushing through his anti-union budget repair bill during a 20-minute phone conversation with a blogger who purported to be David Koch, executive vice president of the Wichita, Kan.-based Koch Industries.
The defeated amendment, which would have required that the sale be approved by the Public Service Commission, is among dozens likely to be shot down by the Assembly's Republican majority.
The $43 billion Koch Industries, which Koch owns with his brother, Charles, includes numerous energy-related enterprises, including a natural gas pipeline, refineries and a company that supplies coal to Wisconsin power plants.
At a news conference Wednesday, Walker denied any connection between the sale of the state's 32 power plants and the Kochs' support.
"Absolutely nothing to that. One hundred percent wrong," Walker said. He described the sale as "one more tool to balance the budget."
Jeff Plale, director of the state Division of Facilities, also said he's not aware of any tie between the proposed sale of the plants and the Kochs' support of Walker.
"I don't know those guys at all," said Plale. "I wouldn't know them if they walked into my office. I don't know anything about the relationship between the governor and them."
Plale said the power plant proposal included the no-bid provision because the plants will be hard to sell.
"I don't think you're going to have people trying to outbid one another to get one of these," he said. "Selling these plants is not going to be quick and it's not going to be easy."
A spokesman for Koch Industries has denied the company has any interest in purchasing the plants.
Connections between Kochs, Walker
But connections between the Kochs and Walker are not difficult to find.
The political-action committee funded by Charles and David Koch was among Walker's largest political backers, donating $43,000 to his gubernatorial campaign.
David Koch also is chairman of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative anti-union group coordinating the effort to back the embattled governor. It organized Saturday's pro-Walker rally, funded a $342,200 television campaign and launched a pro-Walker website.
AFP-Wisconsin is headed by Matt Seaholm, former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who has said he will block any attempts to change Walker's bill. Seaholm most recently served as the chief of staff for newly elected U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Ashland.
"Seaholm is a political operative who has played an influential role in Wisconsin's conservative turnaround," Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said earlier this week. "We're proud that he will be the one to lead Wisconsin through this crucial budget battle."
A message left with Seaholm was not returned Wednesday.
Contributions to Republicans
In addition to the PAC contribution, the billionaire brothers gave $1 million to the Republican Governors' Association, which spent $3.4 million to support Walker's gubernatorial bid, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Lobbying by Koch Companies Public Sector heightened earlier this year as Walker ascended to the governor's office. The company opened an office on the Capitol Square two weeks before Walker was elected. And lobbyists for the company registered with the state Jan. 5, two days after Walker's inauguration.
The company employs seven lobbyists. A message left at the office at 10 E. Doty St. wasn't returned Wednesday afternoon.
It reported lobbying on behalf of two Walker-backed bills passed by the Wisconsin Legislature last month: The measure that requires the governor to personally approve all new state regulations; and curbs on how much plaintiffs in lawsuits against companies and nursing homes can collect in damages.
Said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin: "It's no coincidence that (Walker's) second largest campaign contributor, Koch Industries, has a long history of support for political action groups and think tanks hostile to public employee unions."