The good people of Wisconsin witnessed this week why it’s next to impossible to loosen the grip of money on our politics.
A blustering state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, simply because his Republican Party controls all of state government, including its Supreme Court, exercised his unchecked power and not unlike a Mafia don made it clear that if you have the audacity to mess with us, we’ll get even.
And Fitzgerald did just that, effectively firing the administrators of the state’s Ethics Commission and Elections Commission because they once worked for the defunct Government Accountability Board, which a few years ago did what it was supposed to do and joined in an investigation to determine if Scott Walker and his collaborators had violated the state’s campaign finance laws.
The GAB, charged with independently enforcing elections and ethics laws, cooperated with Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm’s probe into the possible violations. Chisholm had convened a second John Doe probe, a uniquely Wisconsin investigative tool, to examine records and question witnesses. A first John Doe, focused mainly on Walker’s behavior as Milwaukee County executive, had already resulted in several convictions.
But you don’t question those in power in Wisconsin these days, even if the smell of corruption is distinctly in the air. The second John Doe probe was squelched by a Supreme Court whose majority was elected with money from the same pots that greased the skids for Walker, Fitzgerald and even Attorney General Brad Schimel.
And then the vendetta began. It has cost two innocent state workers their jobs (those decisions might be challenged in court) with promises that there’s more to come.
Not even the publication by Britain’s Guardian newspaper of 1,500 pages of leaked documents from the second John Doe slowed the Republican leadership’s desire to get even. The leaked documents showed why Chisholm had launched his probe.
Walker brazenly cooperated in what was nothing more than a shakedown of big money figures — everyone from Sheldon Adelson to Carl Ichan — to funnel money into his 2012 recall campaign.
There was evidence of what could reasonably be considered bribery, like a donation of $750,000 to a third-party group aligned with Walker from the owner of a lead paint manufacturer seeking immunity to suits filed by families of kids who had suffered lead poisoning. Or the secret routing of $700,000 to the Walker cause by the out-of-state mining company seeking legislation to open an open-pit mine in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills.
But Wisconsin’s Supreme Court insisted investigators were misreading the campaign finance statutes and ended the probe.
Now one might think that legislators — even highly partisan ones — might want to examine the influence of astronomical donations on the political process and perhaps clean it up for the benefit of Wisconsin’s future.
No, not Scott Fitzgerald or his Senate colleagues. First, let’s make sure there’s no one left in state government who was remotely connected to that investigation of government corruption. Joe McCarthy would be proud.
In 1887 British historian John Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Scott Fitzgerald and his wrecking crew have shown us is still very much the case.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. Zweifel is the co-author, along with John Nichols, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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