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