Gov. Scott Walker’s use of his veto pen on June 30 helped keep alive a $500,000 grant that the politically connected United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation later won — then lost when it was revealed the group misled state officials about its tax status and its president was cited for illegal bear hunting.
Walker’s budget veto removed a provision calling for federal funds to pay for most of the two-year grant, leaving intact language stating that the grant would be paid for with state money.
Walker’s office responded that the veto was not intended to help United Sportsmen.
“This veto has nothing to do with any particular group and is only related to the funding source for the grant,” spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster said. “As I’m sure you all are aware, the provision for this grant was added by the Legislature and not in the governor’s original budget.”
Former Department of Natural Resources Secretary George Meyer said Tuesday that Walker’s veto helped both United Sportsmen and the DNR because the grant likely would have violated strict federal guidelines about how the money could be used.
“The veto of federal funds saved the program,” said Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. “Otherwise the program would’ve been illegal under federal law.”
Critics charge that the budget language authorizing the grant, which was inserted by former Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, was tailor-made for United Sportsmen, whose parent organization endorsed Walker and whose officials include former Suder chief of staff Luke Hilgemann.
In his veto message, Walker said he was concerned that the purpose of the grant — to recruit and train people to hunt, fish and trap — may not be an “appropriate” use for federal funds under the Wildlife Restoration Act and the Sport Fish Restoration Act.
“Instead, I am directing the department to identify $300,000 in other funds in fiscal year 2014-15 and $450,000 in each biennium thereafter that would be suitable for the grant,” Walker wrote.
Meyer, whose own group last week lost a $239,000 contract with DNR to run the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center, said federal money comes with many more restrictions than state money. The funds originally targeted to pay for the “sporting heritage” grant generally are reserved for creating shooting ranges or acquiring and managing fish and wildlife habitat — not to pay salaries, he said.
United Sportsmen told the DNR it planned to use the majority of the money to pay wages and benefits to its employees.
Without Walker’s veto, Meyer predicted, “This wouldn’t have been able to go forward.”
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin called it “more business as usual” for the governor.
“Walker took the opportunity to grease the skids for his political supporters to receive $500,000 in taxpayer money,” party spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said.
Last week, Walker ordered that the grant be yanked after its president, Andy Pantzlaff, apologized for mistakenly telling a DNR committee tasked with deciding whether to award the grant to United Sportsmen that the foundation had 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. In fact, it had been told a week earlier by the IRS that its application was pending.
In addition, Pantzlaff was cited in 2005 for hunting bears without a proper license.
“In light of new information that has come to our attention and the many concerns raised by citizens of the state and state officials, we feel it is in the public interest to cancel this grant,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp wrote in a letter to Pantzlaff on Friday.
Scot Ross of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, who raised questions about the foundation’s tax-exempt status, said canceling the grant doesn’t end questions about how the “sweetheart deal” made its way into the two-year state budget.
“This deal engineered for an organization which endorsed Gov. Scott Walker was bad from the beginning, and the governor owes the people of Wisconsin a full accounting of how this deal happened in the first place,” Ross said.
Messages left Monday and Tuesday with Annette Olson, a tea party and pro-gun activist who represents both United Sportsmen groups, were not returned.
Also Tuesday, United Sportsmen’s parent group came under scrutiny for its own tax status. Olson acknowledged to the State Journal last week that the parent group was a for-profit company, although it claimed to be a nonprofit.
The Wisconsin Department of Revenue reported on Tuesday that United Sportsmen of Wisconsin had filed no state tax returns in 2012 or 2011, the year it was formed.
The parent group claimed to be a 501(c)(4) nonprofit on its state incorporation papers and in dealings with another pro-Walker group, Citizens for a Strong America Inc., which gave United Sportsmen $235,000 in 2011.
Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney for Citizens for a Strong America, said his group would have relied on United Sportsmen’s representations about its tax status before sending financial support to what it thought was a fellow nonprofit organization.
“These grants are generally made to tax-exempt organizations aligned with CSA, and their activities augment CSA’s own grassroots lobbying efforts,” Wittenwyler said. “Details about a specific grant recipient would have been based on the information provided by the organization itself at the time the grant was made.”