“This is the week from hell.”
“It’s a complete nightmare.”
“It’s ugly. It’s not a pretty picture.”
That’s how government watchdogs described to ThinkProgress the series of votes the Wisconsin state legislature has lined up this week on bills designed to deregulate state campaign finance law, dissolve the state ethics and elections board, and take away a key tool prosecutors use to investigate political crimes.
Gov. Scott Walker (R) — home from his expensive, short-lived bid for president — has indicated he will sign all three measures into law, should they reach his desk.
If they are enacted, critics warn the bills would dramatically remake how elections are run in a state that used to be one of the most progressive and ethically strict in the nation.
“I see them as a package,” Mary Bottari with the Center for Media & Democracy told ThinkProgress. “Together, it’s about letting unlimited, secret money into Wisconsin campaigns, then dismantling the two main avenues for investigating political corruption.”
One bill, passed by the Republican-controlled state Senate and Assembly on Tuesday, limits the tools available to investigate corrupt officials on the city, county, and state level. For more than 100 years, using Wisconsin’s unique process called a “John Doe” investigation, prosecutors have been able to subpoena witnesses and gather evidence to present to a judge without having to convene a grand jury.
In the early 2000s, this investigative system helped prosecutors gather evidence necessary to expose and convict several Democrats and Republicans who committed a host of felonies and misdemeanors while in office, ranging from campaigning while on the clock as state employees to extortion and abuse of power.
If Walker signs the new bill as expected, such investigations will be severely limited.
“This will destroy the tool by which you can investigate corruption,” said Jay Heck with Common Cause Wisconsin. “This is a whole carve-out for political crimes, but it will be detrimental beyond the political scope. Anything to do with ethics, lobbying law, campaign finance, or elections will now be extremely curtailed from the John Doe process.”
The bill also bars prosecutors from using the John Doe law to look into identity theft, mortgage fraud, dealing small amounts of heroin and cocaine, and theft reaching into the millions of dollars.
Republicans in Wisconsin set their sights on reforming the John Doe process after it was used against Walker and his staff — six of whom were convicted for embezzlement and other charges. A second John Doe investigation targeting Walker himself — for illegally coordinating with outside conservative groups during the 2012 recall election — was ended earlier this year by the state Supreme Court, which also ordered all evidence destroyed. Several judges on that court were elected with the help of the same outside advocacy groups under investigation.
During debate on the bill on Tuesday, Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) complained that his Republican colleagues, by voting to roll back the John Doe system, want to put themselves “on a pedestal.”
“I wish some of the people who are advocating the gutting of the John Doe process would admit that what they’re trying to do is put us above everybody else, just because we’re in political office,” he said. “I see a pattern here of people who have come to power and now use it every way possible to make sure they’re in power forever. I think these changes are going to come back to haunt the people who support it.”
“If we do something wrong, we should be investigated,” added Sen. John Erpenbach (D-Middleton), his voice rising with emotion. “I don’t want any part of this bill. People are cynical enough already. Let’s not give them another reason to hate politicians.”
Erpenbach proposed an amendment to the bill, saying that if any John Doe investigation happens to uncover evidence that a public official is committing misconduct in office, then prosecutors can investigate further. The Republican majority voted it down.
On Wednesday and later this week, the legislature will debate a bill to make several changes to Wisconsin’s campaign finance law — doubling the amount that can be donated directly to candidates, and allowing outside groups that can anonymously collect unlimited funds to coordinate with those candidates in advertising and campaigning.
“That makes the doubling of the contribution limit meaningless,” Heck said. “Now you can give $20,000 to Scott Walker but $2 million to the outside groups that can coordinate with him. Why would you even bother giving the $20,000 and disclosing who you are when you could give all the money you want to the outside group secretly?”
The bill also waters down the disclosure requirements for donations to candidates. Going forward, donors would only have to disclose their occupation, not their specific employer. For example, a group of attorneys for fossil fuel companies who donate to a candidate promising to get rid of environmental regulations would only have to identify themselves as lawyers.
Additionally, the bill will allow outside groups, if they claim “express advocacy” is not their major purpose, to run ads up until 60 days before the election without disclosing their spending. Within 60 days of an election, they have to disclose how much they’re shelling out, but not who their donors are.
“It’s going to be a free-for-all,” warned Bottari. “It’s going to be a wild, wild, West.”
“This will allow corruption to flourish,” added Heck. “We used to be the shining model state for elections, campaign finance reform, ethics, all that stuff. Now we’re somewhere between Texas and Mississippi in the state of our ethics, and anything goes and the money flows.”
Democratic lawmakers in the state capitol, who unanimously oppose the bill, echoed this rhetoric.
“This is the desecration of good governance in Wisconsin,” said Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) at a press conference earlier this week. “We need to stand up for our citizens and for ourselves.”
Elections and Ethics Board
Finally, Wisconsin Republicans are pushing a bill to take the state’s non-partisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) and split it into two partisan agencies: One to oversee elections and one to investigate and enforce ethics law. Each would have three Democrat and three Republican members, yet the agencies could only act if a majority of the board members vote together. The change would take place just four months before the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s a prescription for inactivity,” said Heck, noting that the new version would function much like the Federal Elections Commission, whose chair has publicly stated she can’t enforce campaign finance law because of partisan gridlock.
Statehouse Republicans say the bill is necessary, calling the Accountability Board a “failed experiment” and claiming it tilts to the political left because it participated in the investigation into the Walker campaign.
If all three bills pass, Walker could sign them in the coming weeks.