MADISON — 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.
The amount — reported by a Yahoo News story that cites three anonymous sources familiar with the transactions — 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.”
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The filing did not mention the contribution from Menard, whose net worth is estimated at $7.7 billion.
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.
The club has fought back against the investigation in state and federal court, saying it has not done anything illegal. Walker has also denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.
According to the Yahoo News story, “the contributions by Menard, made in 2011 and 2012, 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 Michael Isikoff, does not include or quote from any emails that mention Menard or his reported donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth.
The story notes that Menard’s home improvement company has been awarded $1.8 million in tax credits from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and speculates 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 in exchange for the contribution.
“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 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.
A spokesperson for WEDC did not immediately return a message seeking information about what role Walker had, if any, in the awarding of tax credits to Menard.
But Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now dismissed the contention that Walker, as board chairman of WEDC, was not involved in the transactions.
“Is Walker going to get away with telling people that he has nothing to do with the allocation of WEDC dollars?” asked Ross, executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group.
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. The company also received a $1.5 million award in 2006 from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s Department of Commerce, of which it only qualified for $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.”
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Matt Rothschild cited the Yahoo News story 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.
“The tsunami of outside money is leaving a stain on our government,” Rothschild said.
“The tsunami of outside money is leaving a stain on our government.” Matt Rothschild, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director