Guess what? There's a new "John Doe" investigation making the news in Wisconsin and putting political operatives on edge.
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Dan Bice reports, the new probe is looking into potential campaign law violations during Wisconsin's recent run of recall elections. Six state senators faced recall elections in August 2011, and Walker and his lieutenant governor were recalled in the spring of 2012. At this point, anyone involved in the recall elections—including Walker and his opponent in last year's gubernatorial recall, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett—could be implicated. A source also told Bice that investigators have set their sights on at least five counties throughout the state, including Dane County, which includes Madison, the state capital.
Here's more from Bice:
Sources said the investigation is following up on a number of leads turned up by an earlier John Doe probe, which was led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm into the former and current aides of Gov. Scott Walker during his time as Milwaukee County executive.
A John Doe probe functions much like a federal grand jury, allowing prosecutors to conduct searches, subpoena records and other material, and take testimony under oath from witnesses—all in secret.
It appears the state-related case opened in February 2012, meaning it was active at the same time as the one focusing on Walker's county aides.
However, several sources said they became aware of the newer probe only in the past month and that much of the recent activity has taken place in Madison.
Sources familiar with the probe told the Journal Sentinel that it was scrutinizing a wide variety of state-related issues, including the recall races. Sources suggested the probe is looking at a current legislative leader and the governor's contest.
"This is activity that occurred since the 2010 election," said a source.
Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor, tried to use the first John Doe investigation as a bludgeon in the 2012 recall election, accusing Walker of corruption and wrongdoing. That strategy didn't work: Walker handily defeated Barrett. Walker has declined to comment on the new probe. "This is the first I'm hearing of it," an aide to Barrett told the Journal Sentinel.
The new John Doe probe, led by Francis Schmitz, a federal prosecutor with 30 years' experience, is at least a nuisance for the Walker administration, which has seemingly spent as much time dealing with political headaches as actual governing. Expect more revelations to dribble out about whom investigators are targeting and what they allegedly did wrong.
Early one morning in July, former CNN anchor Campbell Brown appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe, pen in hand, notes fanned out in front of her. Viewers might have mistaken her as a fill-in host, but Brown had swung by 30 Rock in her new role as a self-styled education reformer, a crusader against sexual deviants in New York City public schools and the backward unions and bureaucrats getting in the way of firing them. "In many cases, we have teachers who were found guilty of inappropriate touching, sexual banter with kids, who weren't fired from their jobs, who were given very light sentences and sent back to the classroom," Brown, the mother of two young sons, explained.
Brown was there to plug her new venture, the Parents' Transparency Project, a nonprofit "watchdog group" that "favors no party, candidate, or incumbent." Though its larger aim is to "bring transparency" to how contracts are negotiated with teachers' unions, PTP's most prominent campaign is to fix how New York City handles cases of sexual misconduct involving teachers and school employees—namely by giving the city's schools chancellor, a political appointee, ultimate authority in the process.
Shortly after it was launched in June, PTP trained its sights on the New York mayoral race, asking the candidates to pledge to change the firing process for school employees accused of sexual misconduct. When several Democratic candidates declined, perhaps fearing they'd upset organized labor, PTP spent $100,000 on a television attack ad questioning whether six candidates, including Republican Joe Lhota and Democrats Bill de Blasio and Anthony Weiner, had "the guts to stand up to the teachers' unions." The spot stated that there had been 128 cases of sexual misconduct by school employees in the past five years, suggesting that nothing had been done in response. "It's a scandal," the ad's narrator intoned. "And the candidates are silent."
PTP spent $100,000 on an attack ad questioning whether candidates like Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota had "the guts to stand up to the teachers' unions."
Before founding PTP, Brown raised this issue in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in July 2012. But what she failed to disclose was that her husband, Dan Senor, sits on the board of the New York affiliate of StudentsFirst, an education lobbying group founded by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Washington, DC, chancellor. Rhee made a name for herself as public enemy No. 1 of the teachers' unions and has become the torchbearer of the charter school movement. In 2012, her "bipartisan grassroots organization" backed 105 candidates in state races, 88 percent of them Republicans. (Senor was also the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority following the invasion of Iraq and served as a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012.)
Writing in Slate, Brown, a veteran journalist, confessed to being naive about the standards for revealing a potential conflict of interest: "If you live in the overlapping world of politics and media, as I am learning, anything less than full transparency can potentially do you in." She still managed to get in a few digs at the unions. "I failed to disclose," she wrote, "because I stupidly did not connect the teachers' unions' opposition to charter schools to their support for a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct."
But there is much more about PTP that is less than transparent, including its sources of funding and its overall agenda. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, PTP may keep its donors' identities secret and spend money in electoral campaigns, so long as political activity doesn't consume the majority of its time and money.
Despite its nonpartisan billing, Brown's nonprofit used Revolution Agency, a Republican consulting firm, to produce the mayoral attack ad. Its partners include Mike Murphy, a well-known pundit and former Romney strategist; Mark Dion, former chief of staff to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.); and Evan Kozlow, former deputy director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The domain name for PTP's website was registered by two Revolution employees: Jeff Bechdel, Mitt Romney's former Florida spokesman, and Matt Leonardo, who describes himself as "happily in self-imposed exile from advising Republican candidates."
Brown failed to disclose that her husband sits on the board of the New York affiliate of Michelle Rhee's education lobbying group.
Another consulting firm working with Brown's group is Tusk Strategies, which helped launch Rhee's StudentsFirst. Advertising disclosure forms filed by PTP list Tusk's phone number, and a copy of PTP's sexual-misconduct pledge—since scrubbed from its website—identified its author as a Tusk employee. (Tusk and Revolution declined to comment. Brown referred all questions to her PR firm—the same one used by StudentsFirst.)
What about Brown's allegation that the New York schools did nothing about 128 cases of sexual misconduct? It turns out that in 33 of those cases, the employee in question had been fired, the New York Times reported. Many of the others were disciplined.
Brown's group paints the unions as the main obstacles to a crackdown on predators. Yet Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, says that the union's New York City chapter already has a zero-tolerance policy in its contract, and that AFT only protects its members against "false allegations." New York state law also mandates that any teacher convicted of a sex crime be automatically fired. It is the law, not union contracts, that requires that an independent arbitrator hear and mete out punishment in cases of sexual misconduct that fall outside criminal law. The quickest route to changing that policy may be lobbying lawmakers in Albany, not hammering teachers and their unions.
Before Brown left CNN three years ago, her evening news show carried a memorable tagline: "No bias. No bull." She can't say the same for her foray into the education wars.
The American Council on Science and Health bills itself as an independent research and advocacy organization devoted to debunking "junk science." It's a controversial outfit—a "group of scientists…concerned that many important public policies related to health and the environment did not have a sound scientific basis," it says—that often does battle with environmentalists and consumer safety advocates, wading into public health debates to defend fracking, to fight New York City's attempt to ban big sugary sodas, and to dismiss concerns about the potential harms of the chemical bisphenol-A (better known at BPA) and the pesticide atrazine. The group insists that its conclusions are driven purely by science. It acknowledges that it receives some financial support from corporations and industry groups, but ACSH, which reportedly stopped disclosing its corporate donors two decades ago, maintains that these contributions don't influence its work and agenda.
Yet internal financial documents (read them here) provided to Mother Jones show that ACSH depends heavily on funding from corporations that have a financial stake in the scientific debates it aims to shape. The group also directly solicits donations from these industry sources around specific issues. ACSH's financial links to corporations involved in hot-button health and safety controversies have been highlighted in the past, but these documents offer a more extensive accounting of ACSH's reliance on industry money—giving a rare window into the operations of a prominent and frequent defender of industry in the science wars.
On Thursday, the California attorney general and the state's top election watchdog named the "Koch brothers network" of donors and dark-money nonprofits as the true source of $15 million in secret donations made last year to influence two bitterly fought ballot propositions in California. State officials unmasked the Kochs' network as part of a settlement deal that ends a nearly year-long investigation into the source of the secret donations that flowed in California last fall.
As part of the deal, two Arizona-based nonprofits, the Koch-linked Center to Protect Patients Rights and Americans for Responsible Leadership, admitted violating state election law. The settlement mandates that the two nonprofits pay a $1 million fine to California's general fund, and the committees who received the secret donations at the heart of the case must also cut a check to the state for the amount of those donations, which totaled $15.08 million.
It was the Friday before Memorial Day, and nearly 50 of Minnesota's most powerful businessmen and Republican operatives met for lunch at the Town and Country Club, overlooking the Mississippi River in western St. Paul. They had gathered at the invitation of Tom Rosen, who runs the nation's fifth-largest beef-processing company, and Stan Hubbard, the billionaire media magnate who pioneered satellite television. Over Caesar salad and tomato-basil soup, Rosen, Hubbard, and their friends bemoaned the direction of their state. As one after another rose to speak, the tone was one of outrage and incredulity: "It's time we coordinate." "It's time we stand up and do something." "We're getting chewed up!"
Minnesota's liberal revival may seem like an outlier considering the conservative resurgence in state capitols. Two decades ago, Republicans had one-party control in just three states, while Democrats ran the show in 18. But today 31 states have GOP governors, and in 24 of those, Republicans control both branches of government, compared to 13 for the Democrats. Right next door to Minnesota, Wisconsin is a particularly vivid example: In a onetime bastion of progressivism, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature have targeted unions and public servants, shuttered abortion clinics, and passed a rigid voter ID law. "They're talking about transvaginal ultrasounds and all that shit," says Denise Cardinal, a Minnesota operative who runs the ProgressNow network of liberal advocacy groups. "We're talking about raising taxes on the rich and paying back our school debt." For that Minnesotans can thank—or blame—a small, press-shy circle of operatives, activists, donors, and party leaders who have built a political machine that chugs year-round to elect Democratic candidates and pass progressive policies. It is fueled by big unions and wealthy donors, the best data in the business, and an unusual level of collaboration among organizations that have very different priorities. Their strategy has created a road map for Democrats from Concord to Santa Fe. "The next phase for the progressive movement has to be taking our states back," says Jeff Blodgett, a 30-year veteran of Minnesota politics who was the Obama campaign's state director in 2008 and 2012.
This is the story of how that happened—for now—in Minnesota. And it begins in the worst imaginable way.
2002-04: It Can't End Like This
Blodgett began the longest day of his life feeling like a winner. The date was October 25, 2002. In 12 days, Minnesotans were poised to send Blodgett's boss, Paul Wellstone, to Washington for a third term. No one, save maybe the senator himself, wanted a Wellstone win like Blodgett did.
The two men met at Carleton College in 1979 when Blodgett was a student in Wellstone's Poli Sci 10 course. More than a decade later, after Wellstone had traded the campus for the campaign trail, he hired Blodgett to manage his quixotic, shoestring bid for the US Senate. Against the odds, and thanks in part to an early version of the data-centric, get-out-the-vote-focused campaigning that later took Barack Obama to the White House, Wellstone won. The organizer-turned-senator became a liberal icon; Blodgett was his flinty, soft-spoken protégé, a wunderkind later nicknamed the "Yoda of Minnesota politics."
Blodgett steered Wellstone to victory again in 1996, and almost six years later, as the senator, his wife, Sheila, his daughter Marcia, and three campaign staffers boarded a Beechcraft King Air A100 to attend a funeral, Blodgett set his mind to the day ahead—a debate in Duluth, a rally with actor Josh Hartnett in St. Paul. But the Beechcraft never arrived, crashing south of Eveleth and killing everyone on board.
Blodgett was shattered. He pulled himself together enough to recruit former Vice President Walter Mondale to run in Wellstone's place, but Norm Coleman, a onetime campus radical turned Republican rising star and Rove acolyte, eked out a 2-point win. After the election Blodgett was unemployed and adrift. He turned over the same thought in his head: It can't end like this. "If we didn't have Paul and Sheila around," he recalled some years later, "we had to figure out the next best thing."
The next best thing became Wellstone Action, an organization conceived by Blodgett to train candidates, campaign managers, and activists to win elections the "Wellstone way"—promising bold policy ideas, investing heavily in grassroots organizing, and forging diverse coalitions. In May 2003, Wellstone Action held its first Camp Wellstone, a two-and-a-half-day crash course in campaigns and elections, and in the ensuing years 55,000 people would graduate from these trainings. Of the 112 DFL lawmakers elected to the Legislature last year, 40 were Camp Wellstone alums. US Rep. Tim Walz and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie graduated from the same Camp Wellstone class in 2005.
In a way, Blodgett had kept Wellstone's spirit alive, bottling up his teachings and tactics and spreading them far and wide. He didn't know it then, but the groundwork for Minnesota's progressive comeback was being laid.
Breaking down the cadre of organizers, operatives, and politicians nurtured by the late senator's grassroots machine. —Zaineb Mohammed
Josh Syrjamaki, Blodgett's earnest young deputy on the 2002 campaign, was also looking for a way to carry on Wellstone's legacy. Raised by a single mom, he met Wellstone at the state fair and signed up for an internship on the spot, rising to become Wellstone's point man for key supporters, including farmers and veterans. The year after Wellstone's death, he took a job with the United Steelworkers as the union, along with other liberal groups, put all it had into defeating George W. Bush's reelection bid via a $145 million get-out-the-vote operation, America Coming Together. Built outside the Democratic Party apparatus after the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned unlimited soft money contributions to political parties, ACT was envisioned as a full-time machine, a complement to campaign operations that go poof after Election Day. If campaigns were tents—built in a hurry, lived in for a while, then folded up and packed away—ACT was going to be a house.
In the end, ACT, too, folded after failing to send John Kerry to the White House. But Syrjamaki and his boss at the Steelworkers, a taciturn former steel mill worker named David Foster, clung to the idea. The DFL had been bogged down by its grueling nomination process, which often left Democrats battling until the August primaries, while Republicans had all summer to get a head start. And with Wellstone gone, the progressive machine he'd built "just disappeared," Syrjamaki says.
They turned to Jim Farrell, the spokesman on Wellstone's 2002 campaign, who had since gone toe-to-toe with the Terminator—fighting a series of anti-union ballot measures backed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Deploying a fusillade of attack ads and a corps of motivated volunteers, the Alliance for a Better California, where Farrell was a senior adviser, had prevailed over a powerful governor and tons of corporate cash. With an eye on the 2006 governor's race, Syrjamaki and Foster wanted to replicate Farrell's strategy to bloody up Tim Pawlenty while the Democrats hashed out their choice. In late 2005, Foster filed papers creating the Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM).
The message was simple: Conservatives didn't have any special secrets. They just played the game better.
With Foster guiding Minnesota's new progressive attack dog, Syrjamaki took the lead organizing the boots on the ground via the state chapter of America Votes, an umbrella organization through which advocacy groups could share data, plot strategy, and harness their money and grassroots muscle for elections and issue campaigns.
Minnesota progressives had tried teaming up before, forming pop-up groups and loose alliances, but usually those efforts fizzled. "It would end up being more expensive and less effective," says Jon Grebner of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. But America Votes and ABM would end up getting traction—thanks, in good part, to a key new ingredient: money.
When she was five years old, Alida Messinger was told by her father that she needed three piggy banks: one for savings, another for spending, and a third for giving away. John D. Rockefeller III knew a thing or two about money: His grandfather was John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and one of the wealthiest men to ever walk the earth.
Since the age of 21, Messinger has given away millions and millions of dollars to causes ranging from environmental conservation to reproductive health. But as she grew alarmed at the direction of her state under Pawlenty and her country under George W. Bush, Messinger began to see her wealth as a means to fight back.
Around that time, a Democratic operative named Rob Stein was jetting around the country meeting confidentially with wealthy donors and showing them a PowerPoint presentation he'd titled "The Conservative Message Machine and Money Matrix." It laid out the infrastructure of the conservative movement, a web of think tanks, advocacy groups, media watchdogs, candidate recruiting efforts, legal foundations, magazines, and more. The cost to fund such a network: $400 million. "Man, that's all it took to buy the country?" was the reaction of one incredulous donor.