Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is under renewed pressure after leaked documents appear to show he accepted campaign donations from a billionaire lead producer, then approved a bill that protected lead paint companies from liability.
The documents were compiled by prosecutors involved in the now-closed "John Doe investigations," which looked into campaign finance violations in Wisconsin. Those documents have been leaked to the Guardian newspaper, which on Wednesday published a lengthy expose into their contents.
The documents highlight the links between Walker's campaign and major corporations. That's where the governor turned in 2011 when he realized he was facing a recall campaign, the documents suggest.
They also reveal three donations totaling $750,000 were made by Harold Simmons – owner of lead producer NL Industries – to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, shortly before a bill benefiting the lead industry was signed into law.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth is among the so called "dark money" organizations that – as nonprofits – can accept unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions to help fund political campaigns, without having to disclose the donors.
In response to Wednesday's revelations, Walker campaign spokesman Joe Fadness told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "As widely reported two years ago, the prosecutor’s attorney stated that Governor Walker was not a target [for investigation]. Several courts shut down the baseless investigation on multiple occasions, and there is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing."
The lead paint issue
The use of lead in household paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978, when it was registered as a peril to public health, according to LeadLawsuits.com. The illnesses caused by lead paint poisoning opened the doors for those afflicted to claim compensation from the companies who produced the paint.
However, Republicans in Wisconsin passed two laws loosening lead paint restrictions, the Journal Sentinel reports, the first in January 2011 and the second in June 2013 – the latter was "inserted in a budget bill in the middle of the night, despite warnings about its constitutionality."
The second law granted retroactive immunity to lead producers from any compensation claims relating to lead paint poisoning.
In between these two dates – which is also when Walker and other Republican senators were facing recall campaigns – Simmons made the $750,000 contributions to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which was backing Walker financially, the Guardian report alleges.
Since then, federal courts have overturned "key elements" of the two laws signed in 2011 and 2013, which has left NL Industries still facing at least 171 legal challenges from people who claim they were poisoned by lead paint when they were children.
Corporations financing recall campaigns
The documents also reveal the Walker administration's preparations ahead of recall procedures in November 2011, just a year after winning the election to become Wisconsin's 46th Governor.
As the Guardian reports, Walker asked Kate Doner – his "main fundraiser" – to write a note on how they could raise enough funds to win the recall elections. Here, the Guardian details her response.
"'Gentlemen,' she began. 'Here are my quick thoughts on raising money for Walker’s possible recall efforts.'
Her advice was bold and to the point. 'Corporations,' she said. 'Go heavy after them to give.' She continued: 'Take Koch’s money. Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.'
Her advice must have hit a sweet spot, because money was soon pouring in from big corporations and mega-wealthy individuals from across the nation. A few months after the memo, Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate who Forbes estimates has a personal fortune of $26bn, was to wire a donation of $200,000 for the cause."
Financier G. Frederick Kasten Jr., in the subject line of a $10,000 check he wrote for the Wisconsin Club for Growth around this time, wrote: "Because Scott Walker asked."
An extensive list of corporate donors have been revealed by the documents, including a $15,000 donation Walker received from GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump, after the pair met in April 2012.
The Guardian says the details it has published "open a door" to modern U.S. politics since the passing of Citizens United – the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling which the newspaper says "unleashed a flood of corporate money into the political process.
What were the John Doe investigations?
As the Journal Sentinel notes, the John Doe investigations started in 2010 and led to the conviction of six Walker aides, associates or appointees on charges "ranging from theft from a veteran's group to misconduct in office."
The scope was widened in 2012 however and looked into links between conservative political organizations, Walker, and other candidates while he was facing recall elections.
But the probe was halted in January of 2014 when the judge overseeing it said the activities were not illegal – a decision backed up by the state's Supreme Court last year.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the special prosecutor in the investigation, Francis Schmitz, appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse this decision last December, saying: "I continue to believe that the investigation was justified. The voters of Wisconsin have a right to know the identity of large donors, corporate and individual, which coordinate with campaign committees."