Election 2016

GOP-Appointed Judge Tries To Save Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker By Stopping Anti-Corruption Probe

An anti-democratic ruling more extreme than the U.S. Supreme Court.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock

A surprise ruling by a Republican-appointed federal judge in Wisconsin stopped an anti-corruption investigation that was closing in on Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday, sending shockwaves across national political circles where it was seen as one of the most brazen attacks on a state’s efforts to rein in campaign finance abuses in recent memory.

U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa, who has a long GOP pedigree, issued a 26-page ruling ordering prosecutors to immediately stop a years-long investigation into illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign, the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth, and other right-wing Walker allies during the state’s 2011-2012 recall elections. Those elections, which did not unseat Walker, came after he led a union-busting effort that stripped most state workers of collective bargaining rights.

Randa’s ruling drew heavily—but also went far beyond—a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, McCutcheon v. FEC, where the court’s conservatives overturned limits on how much money a person can donate to political parties. Randa said that the Club for Growth found ways to get around other election laws intended to try to stop political corruption—and praised them for it.

“The (Wisconsin Club for Growth and its treasurer) have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted,” he wrote. “Instead it should be recognized as promoting free speech, an activity that is ‘ingrained in our culture,’” he said, quoting McCutcheon

Randa ordered the investigation cease, all potential evidence be returned, and any materials gathered in the investigation destroyed. He also told the Wisconsin Club for Growth it did not have to cooperate with state prosecutors in any way—and said any pressure to do so “is grounds for a contempt finding by this Court.”

Progressives often say that American democracy is dying a slow death by 1,000 cuts due to the corruption caused by big money and anonymous attacks in elections. But Randa’s ruling, which was quickly appealed, shows how powerful the judiciary can be—making snap decisions that may take years to unwind or reverse.

“To quote my father, this ruling was pure chutzpah,” said Josh Ortin, political director and counsel as ProgressivesUnited, a Wisconsin-based PAC founded by Sen. Russ Feingold. “I certainly understand the unbridled glee coming from the dereg[ulation] people, but let’s face facts: they’re forwarding an argument that it’s basically impossible to corrupt the process with outside money.”

Late Tuesday, a three-judge federal appeal court stayed, or froze, the ruling, until it could hear a full appeal.

The political corruption investigation in Wisconsin is a perfect microcosm of everything that’s unbalanced in American elections and politics. The state prosecutor’s office in Milwaukee has a public integrity unit, which focuses on political corruption—such as trying to ensure that office-holders don’t run their re-election campaigns from their public offices while supposedly working on the taxpayers’ dime.

That blurring of civil service duties and electioneering efforts was the first campaign finance scandal to tar Scott Walker, from his days as Milwaukee County executive, or its top elected official. Several top Walker aides pleaded guity to campaigning for Walker from the county’s offices. But the anything-goes, whatever-it-takes mentality of running to win did not stop there. Walker became governor and then surprised the state by aggressively going after unions. That led to protests bringing thousands of people to the Capitol, a long Statehouse sit-in, Democratic senators leaving Wisconsin to deprive the governor of a quorum, and then the recall election.

As those battles were unfolding, Wisconsin’s rightwingers—who have always had a dark streak dating back to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades in the 1950s—coalesced around defending Walker and the GOP's agenda. The Club for Growth was part of this—and their efforts weren’t in a vaccum. At the national level, Karl Rove was creating groups pretending to be social welfare non-profits to launder multi-millions in cash for campaigns to defeat Democrats—all while hiding donors’ identities. And at the more local level, that same kind of campaign finance sleight of hand was happening in Walker’s circles over Wisconsin’s political battles.

The Milwaukee prosecutors launched their so-called “John Doe investigation” into the coordination between Walker’s allies—essentially for paying for and running political ads whose pro-Walker intentions were clear, but whose wording allowed their political lawyers to argue that they fell outside the campaign finance regulatory world. These tactics of negative campaigning and evading accountability to voters is where the democratic process breaks down.

Right-wingers argue there can be no limits on political speech of any kind, and the U.S.  Supreme Court majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts champions that view. The Club for Growth in Wisconsin made the same augument in court, but they also kept illegally leaking details about the state’s investigation to The Wall Street Journal editorial page. They complained that the state’s evidence-gathering was akin to fascists breaking down their doors and invading their homes—while never considering that their ugly, negative, deceitful and anonymous campaign ads were doing exactly that to Wisconsin’s airwaves and monopolizing the political debate.            

As a result, the John Doe investigation eventually made almost every major player in Wisconsin politics take sides. The state's non-partisan Government Accountability Board, which is made up of retired judges and oversees elections and recounts, joined the investigation at a late stage—because the legal evasions were that brazen.

What makes Judge Randa’s so striking is that it is an enthusiastic attack on any effort to regulate campaign finances to try to stop political corruption. Randa, as he will surely be lionized by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, said that these anti-corruption laws “may result in corruption of the First Amendment itself… As other histories tell us, attempts to purify the public square lead to places like the Guillotine and the Gulag.”  

That analogy is nauseating. The streets of Madison are not eastern Ukraine. If anything, Randa is now the latest member of Scott Walker’s thuggish cabal, abusing the power of his office to step on the few fragile protections in law that attempt to keep elections and political debate more balanced and democratic.  

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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