In 2011 and 2012, mining company Gogebic Taconite donated $700,000 to the conservative group Wisconsin Club for Growth.
In 2013, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill easing mining regulations, allowing Gogebic Taconite to begin work on a mine that will make Gogebic Taconite millions and millions of dollars. That looks like a pretty good return on a $700,000 investment.
And it's just one of the fun facts revealed late last week when the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals released more than 1,000 pages of records in a John Doe investigation. The secret probe is looking at whether Walker's campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups when the governor faced a recall election in 2012.
Page after page of the records detail anonymous donations -- at least they were anonymous until revealed in a court order -- to Wisconsin Club for Growth ranging from $15,000 to $1,000,000 from big-money donors including hedge fund CEOs, heads of energy companies and Donald Trump. There's a $50,000 donation from the trust of the CEO of Atlanticus Holdings. I have no idea what Atlanticus Holdings is, other than it sounds like a company a Bond villain would start.
Here's the thing -- none of that was illegal. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, donors can anonymously give as much as they want to an independent organization like Wisconsin Club for Growth.
But laws were potentially broken when the Walker campaign solicited those donors to all give to the same organization. Several of the donations came shortly after Walker called or visited the aforementioned donors.
"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," wrote fundraiser Kate Doner in a 2011 e-mail.
Essentially, that coordination makes the Club for Growth an extension of the Walker campaign. This is what is simply mind-boggling to me. Today's political environment already allows campaigns and donors to do so much shady stuff. That they had to break one of the few meaningful fundraising laws left -- the prohibition against express advocacy coordination -- comes off as arrogant. Even under the most open reading of the law, it's morally shaky.
It is nearly impossible to say how all those massive donations were spent as Wisconsin Club for Growth funneled the money from the donors to 12 other groups. Most of those groups don't have to disclose their finances. For example, the AP reported the Wisconsin Club for Growth gave $2.5 million to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to produce ads promoting Walker and slamming Barrett.
It's a shell game, financial tricks that belong more in the Cayman Islands than on the Capitol Square.
This release shed some light on these donations but it is unlikely to change the electoral fundraising process. The parties involved are unrepentant. The courts might even throw out the fundraising law that was broken, saying it violates rich people's freedom of speech. After all, we are living in an age where "money equals speech," which is such an apt descriptor of our new Gilded Age that Mark Twain is probably kicking himself in the grave for not thinking of it first.
Even if the fundraising law remains in place, even if some folks at Wisconsin Club for Growth are given a slap on the wrist, this behavior won't stop. This is a state-level symptom of a national disease. The Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United created a situation where it all but invited campaigns to break the law.
Campaigns and organizations can step so close to the line of illegal behavior, it is very difficult to find when they've crossed that line. In this case, prosecutors only found out about any of this because they were looking through the Walker campaign's previous ethical violations.
The next violations are going to be even harder to find. This investigation covers the recall elections, when campaigns and organizations were still figuring out how to run these nearly-coordinated-but-vaguely-not-coordinated races. They've had a few elections since then to learn how to hide their tracks better.
Both parties are walking, and potentially crossing, that thin ethical line. Post-Citizens United, the campaign fundraising machine never shuts down. At least with Democrats, their union funding sources tend to divulge financial records. Not to mention there was a move to cut off public employee unions at the knees less than a year after Citizens United -- you may have heard about it.
Walker's fundraising machine is unethical -- but it probably isn't unique. This corrupt political system will be the norm as long as the Citizens United decision stands.