I walked into my 6 th American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference last week as a familiar Wisconsin myth was being told. It was the powerful myth that the ALEC crowd adores: Wisconsin Republicans “shut down” a government investigation run amok that was suppressing the First Amendment rights of “free market supporters” (i.e., ALEC members and supporters).
The “victims” in this story are people who run dark-money organizations like Wisconsin Club for Growth, directed by Eric O’Keefe. The investigation in Wisconsin focused on the previously illegal art of coordination between so-called independent groups and the campaigns of political candidates. That bipartisan criminal investigation examined the funneling of millions of dollars among groups whose activities were coordinated by Scott Walker’s right-hand man to aid the anti-recall campaign of the governor and several senators.
But the investigation was cut short because a majority on the Wisconsin state Supreme Court, which the Wisconsin Club for Growth and others in the investigation helped to elect, issued an edict attempting to legalize such activities under our Constitution. Then the Wisconsin legislature, stacked with ALEC members, changed state statutes to try to legalize activities including those Wisconsin Club for Growth was suspected of pursuing. This Wisconsin myth has helped embolden other efforts by ALEC state legislators to repeal and resist campaign finance regulations.
For example, the State Policy Network (SPN), a Koch-funded group that links together right-wing think tanks in every state, sponsored an ALEC workshop entitled “Protecting your constituents from harassment: How to stop bureaucrats from targeting and harassing people based on their First Amendment beliefs.” SPN handed out a single “how-to” sheet that encouraged state lawmakers to resist ethics bills and dismantle government entities charged with enforcing ethics codes (like Wisconsin's independent, nonpartisan Government Accountability Board). SPN also instructed legislators to defeat or repeal anti-corruption legislation, including donor disclosure laws and any regulation of phony “issue ads” that, while not using the magic words “vote for” or “vote against,” are clearly designed to influence who wins elections.
Appearing at ALEC to make the case that any attempt at clean, transparent and open government is a violation of individual First Amendment speech rights was none other than dark money’s front man himself, Wisconsin Club for Growth’s Eric O’Keefe. In O’Keefe’s distorted reality, special prosecutors were hired to specifically and illegally target conservatives who were running “effective” organizations (never mind that a court oversaw and sanctioned this investigation and that two of the district attorneys involved were Republicans).
O’Keefe got so carried away at the conference that he preemptively announced he would be launching yet another lawsuit against John Chisholm, one of the DA’s involved with the John Doe investigation who actually was doing what DA’s do, investigating potentially criminal conduct by O’Keefe and others. Were it not for a state Supreme Court majority in power—due to dark money spending by O’Keefe's Wisconsin Club for Growth and its cronies,—prosecutors might have been able to bring charges. But the court shut down the investigation into its own powerful allies.
This type of excessive litigation to silence prosecutors comes on top of the GOP’s destruction of fair elections and accountable government by: 1) Dismantling the GAB; 2) Gutting our once exemplary campaign finance laws, which will allow more dark money to seep into our elections with less disclosure; and 3) Repealing John Doe investigations for political corruption but not for any other crimes.
In the name of free speech, ALEC and Wisconsin are leading national efforts to shut down free speech for most people by making it harder to hear through the tidal wave of dark money and corporate cash. This may be a dream come true for the Koch brothers and Eric O’Keefe, but it is a nightmare for the people of our state and our once-proud tradition of clean government.