Why the Walker Probe Could Get Serious

If you’re like most reasonably aware but not monomaniacal political animals, you’re probably dimly aware there’s some obscure investigation going on in Wisconsin of the people financing Scott Walker’s successful campaign to rebuff a recall in 2012, though it’s already been shut down once by a local judge and could be shut down permanently by the Wisconsin Supreme Court after a hearing next month. You are even more likely to be aware that Walker’s trying to turn his state into a Job Creator’s Paradise like South Carolina, with weak (if any) unions, vitiated regulations, and plenty of taxpayer dollars available to bless the investments of capitalists–all of which has earned him deep appreciation from said capitalists.

But there’s a chance–it’s hard to calculate the percentages, but they are not negligible–that all these strands could come together into something of a political noose for Scott Walker. That’s the import of Michael Isikoff’s investigative piece for Yahoo on the probe into alleged orchestration of “independent advocacy group” fundraising in Wisconsin by Scott Walker and his political aides, which is exposing large secret donations from corporate players receiving benefits from or having major problems with state government. Worse yet, there’s some evidence big money was steered (a major campaign finance violation in itself) to the independent groups by Team Walker precisely to hide really suspicious donors.

Here’s Isikoff’s lede:

John Menard Jr. is widely known as the richest man in Wisconsin. A tough-minded, staunchly conservative 75-year-old billionaire, he owns a highly profitable chain of hardware stores throughout the Midwest. He’s also famously publicity-shy — rarely speaking in public or giving interviews.

So a little more than three years ago, when Menard wanted to back Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — and help advance his pro-business agenda — he found the perfect way to do so without attracting any attention: He wrote more than $1.5 million in checks to a pro-Walker political advocacy group that pledged to keep its donors secret, three sources directly familiar with the transactions told Yahoo News.

Menard’s previously unreported six-figure contributions to the Wisconsin Club for Growth — a group that spent heavily to defend Walker during a bitter 2012 recall election — seem to have paid off for the businessman and his company. In the past two years, Menard’s company has been awarded up to $1.8 million in special tax credits from a state economic development corporation that Walker chairs, according to state records.

And in his five years in office, Walker’s appointees have sharply scaled back enforcement actions by the state Department of National Resources — a top Menard priority. The agency had repeatedly clashed with Menard and his company under previous governors over citations for violating state environmental laws and had levied a $1.7 million fine against Menard personally, as well as his company, for illegally dumping hazardous wastes.

In case the big picture eludes you, here it is:

“This, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the dark-money world we live in,” said Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based based nonprofit group that tracks the influence of money in politics. “Here’s somebody who obviously has issues before the state, and he’s able to make a backdoor contribution that nobody ever sees.

This is some pretty serious New Gilded Age stuff, folks, and although it’s complicated the involvement of people like Menard–who once reportedly had employees of a lumber plant take home arsenic-laden ash deposits to place in their personal trash in order to avoid detection by state regulators–helps make the story vivid and ominous. It may well be there’s enough already in the public domain to cause Walker some problems down the road–or just as bad, undermine his electability-based nomination campaign. But if the state Supreme Court does shut down the investigation that is producing these brief rays of light into dark money practices, expect Walker and his allies to loudly proclaim he’s somehow been vindicated, and that any further scrutiny into his dealings with the funders and beneficiaries of his assault on Wisconsin’s progressive legacy is mere partisan persecution.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.