Unfair Attacks on Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

Most citizens probably haven’t heard of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, but it is a powerful electoral watchdog. To consider its impact, flash back as recently as the mid-1990s, when there was no way to easily check the campaign contributions for state politicians. Oh sure, they were required to file disclosure statements, but for a politician with thousands upon thousands of donors, like former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the entire stack of (sometimes barely legible) handwritten documents would be several feet high, and could take many days of work by a reporter to go through all the donations. The result: little scrutiny…

Most citizens probably haven’t heard of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, but it is a powerful electoral watchdog.


To consider its impact, flash back as recently as the mid-1990s, when there was no way to easily check the campaign contributions for state politicians. Oh sure, they were required to file disclosure statements, but for a politician with thousands upon thousands of donors, like former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the entire stack of (sometimes barely legible) handwritten documents would be several feet high, and could take many days of work by a reporter to go through all the donations. The result: little scrutiny by the media of connections between donations and government policy.


The nonprofit Wisconsin Democracy Campaign changed all that, creating the state’s first computerized database of contributors to politicians. Years later, legislation was passed to require electronic filings, but to this day, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign remains the source for reporters doing a quick check of donations to politicians. The WDC, in short, made the political system far more transparent while operating as a tough critic of sleazy politics and a proponent of campaign finance reform.


Last week, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice did a column questioning whether WDC leader Mike McCabe had an ethical conflict for not legally pursuing two Democratic legislators, Judy Robson and Jon Erpenbach, for a complicated situation. The legislators got early access to a poll on universal heath care that they, along with some special interest groups, helped fund. This arguably gave the lawmakers something of strategic political value that they didn’t fully pay for. Bice quoted Republicans suggesting the WDC was biased for not filing a complaint against the two legislators with the state elections board.


Bice’s story, in turn, prompted bloggers John McAdams, Kathy Carpenter and Rick Esenberg to blast the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign as liberally biased, hypocritical, etc.


What happened here is Bice allowed himself to be used by Republicans and provided the fodder for some partisan nonsense by bloggers. Bice’s column is factual, but simply doesn’t tell all the reasons why the claim about McCabe is unfair.


Bice and every political reporter in the state knows McCabe is someone you can always count on for quotes blasting Democrats and Republicans for any questionable campaign financing. Indeed, many stories where the JS has gone after politicians could not have been written without quotes from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause, because they are the only groups who will go on record and are nonpartisan. The WDC has been a relentless critic of Gov. Jim Doyle, generating bitter criticism from Democratic operatives like Bill Christofferson. If anything, McCabe is too quick on the trigger against both parties’ politicians.


McCabe, by the way, got his start as an aide to three Republican legislators, something Bice doesn’t mention (though McCabe once ran as a Democrat for the assembly). Nor does Bice tell readers that when the JS did a piece on the Robson/Erpenbach situation last August, McCabe was quoted saying the state elections board should look into the situation because it could open the door to questionable money flowing into campaigns in the future. In short, McCabe didn’t approve of the deal.


So why didn’t he file a complaint with the state elections board? “I can’t find anything about it that violates the law,” McCabe tells me. Indeed, if the deal is so illegal, why hasn’t the state Republican Party filed a complaint with the elections board?


McCabe says his group has filed a dozen or less complaints over the years, which certainly doesn’t include every time he has criticized some problem with donations.


Bice notes that a few groups that contributed to the health care poll are also affiliate members of the WDC. But some 40 groups are affiliate members and most of them had no involvement with the poll. The WDC has long had board members from both parties and gets most of its money from private foundations.


Even a straight news story should have mentioned some of this background to provide some context about the Republican complaint. But Bice is a columnist who we read for his in-depth, interpretative take on these issues. Why leave out everything you know so that a good government group gets unfairly maligned?


The Return of Marilyn Figueroa


It was back in May 2002 that then-Mayor John Norquist paid $375,000 to Marilyn Figueroa to make her complaint of sexual harassment go away. A big chunk of that money doubtless went to her lawyer Victor Arellano. Whatever Figueroa got, it’s been 5 1/2 years since then, so who knows how much of it is left?


Well, Figueroa is now accusing Arellano of professional misconduct for having an affair with her. The complaint was leaked to The Capital Times, which ran a long story  filled with lurid accusations in which Figueroa is joined by two other women claiming Arellano had affairs with them. The Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers bar them from having a sexual relationship with a current client.


So it’s three against one, which certainly makes Arellano look bad. I don’t know anything about the other two women involved, but I was dubious about Figueroa’s claim against Norquist and wonder about this one as well.


Figueroa has a history of making such allegations. Before working for the Norquist administration, she was employed by the Social Development Commission in the early 1990s. Robert Odom, former executive director of SDC, once told me Figueroa accused a supervisor of sexual harassment, a story confirmed for me by another former SDC executive. The supervisor resigned rather than fight the allegation, Odom said.


Having once charged a supervisor with sexual harassment, Figueroa was certainly familiar with this kind of charge, yet waited until nine months after being terminated by Norquist to file a claim against the city. Even then, when she first contacted attorney John Fuchs, she asked him to file a complaint of racial discrimination, Fuchs once told me. Only later did her claim change to sexual harassment. Later still, she added sexual assault to her list of charges.


Figueroa never wanted money from the mayor. That’s what she told Milwaukee Magazine in the only interview she ever granted the press on this issue. In fact, Figueroa went through three different lawyers and all three demanded money, with one attorney asking for a $5 million settlement from Norquist.


Figueroa also said she simply wanted to go to court and tell her story to a judge and jury. She could have charged Norquist with felonious sexual assault, which she claims the mayor committed more than once, and, if proven, could have landed him in jail. Instead, Figueroa went along with a strategy that pursued cash. Figueroa chose not to file a lawsuit, which can result in penalties for a plaintiff who makes false charges. Instead, she filed a claim with the State of Wisconsin Equal Rights Division, where she couldn’t be penalized, but could create lots of bad publicity for Norquist.


Does any of this sound familiar? Figueroa now says her relationship began with Arellano back in 2001, but she is first filing a claim now, six years later. The claim is once again with a state body with no punishment for false accusations.


True, proceedings before the Office of Lawyer Regulation are strictly confidential until the investigation finds a basis to pursue a complaint. The office won’t even acknowledge that a case has been filed. Arellano, in short, could be assured the case would not be aired publicly, and further buoyed by the fact that the office rarely rules against attorneys.


Ah, but what if somebody leaks the confidential filing to the press? That would certainly be helpful to the accusers. The lengthy and lurid story in The Capital Times is very damaging to Arellano’s reputation. Should more bad publicity follow this, as the case continues, it might just be worth it to him to agree to a monetary settlement to make the stink go away. Ironically, that is just what Arellano convinced Norquist to do back in 2002.



Bice or Bias?


Dan Bice wrote to complain about a brief item in my Dec. 11 column suggesting he was biased in writing that U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic’s office “drew national attention for its poor record in voter fraud cases.” Bice points to a New York Times story that noted, “In Wisconsin, prosecutors have lost almost twice as many cases as they won.”


I think Bice has a point. My accusation of bias was unfair. But it’s worth noting that the entire Times story documented, in great detail, that all the claims of voter fraud nationally amounted to almost nothing, including those reported over and over again in the Journal Sentinel. The Times story was pure reporting and certainly offered no direct criticism of Biskupic. If it made him look bad, it was not for a lack of success in court, but for too much zeal in making his indictments. Amid the partisan volleys over this issue, it’s critical to make that distinction clear.


And now for something completely different but pretty darn funny: The Sports Nut.

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