Paul Ryan donations from a now-convicted Wis. businessman could draw fire

August 12, 2012

Democrats have wasted little time blasting Republican vice presidential pick Paul Ryan over his federal budget plan, but a more obscure part of his record could also draw attention: his relationship with a convicted Wisconsin businessman.

Ryan accepted nearly $60,000 in contributions from businessman Dennis Troha and his family, records show. Troha was later indicted on campaign finance charges over an Indian casino he sought to open. During the casino application process, Troha said, the Republican congressman called federal regulators at his request.

Ryan (Wis.) also supported a bill in Congress that benefited Troha and his trucking company, legislation that drew the interest of federal prosecutors because of the contributions Ryan and other congressmen had accepted from Troha and his family.

Ryan was not found to have violated any laws, nor was he a target or key figure in the federal investigation, people familiar with the inquiry said. He was among more than 20 politicians of both parties who benefited from Troha’s largess. Troha was convicted of funneling illegal donations to other politicians, not Ryan, and Ryan donated Troha’s contributions to youth programs when the businessman was indicted.

When a Troha associate pleaded guilty in the campaign finance scheme, the only political figure specifically named in court documents for receiving contributions from the associate was Ryan.

The Romney campaign looked into the Troha matter “and concluded it was a complete non-issue,” a campaign official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not an authorized spokesman.

In an interview Saturday, Troha said Ryan “is a very bright, energetic and talented young man. My family was blessed financially, and I thought, ‘My goodness, this is someone, if he wins, we should support him.’ ”

Between 1999 and 2005, Troha and his family members contributed $58,102 to Ryan’s campaigns, according to campaign finance records. At the time, Troha was seeking support for his proposal to open an $808 million Indian casino in Ryan’s district.

Although state officials had final approval, Ryan agreed to call the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was reviewing environmental impact studies. “He stated that his constituents are in favor of the application,” according to an e-mail written by a bureau staffer and obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which wrote extensively about the Ryan-Troha relationship.

In a 2006 interview with the newspaper, Ryan described the call as a routine inquiry on behalf of a constituent and said he was “neutral” on the casino project. But Troha said Ryan “made it very clear to me” that he opposed the project and felt it was “not appropriate” for the district. “I just asked him to make contact to see where things stood,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Ryan’s congressional office, Smythe Anderson, said Saturday that Ryan, “just as he has done for tens of thousands of constituents in southern Wisconsin, placed an inquiry with a federal agency. It is a simple example of casework, and there was never any allegation of impropriety.”

In March 2007, a federal grand jury indicted Troha on charges that he funneled contributions in violation of campaign limits through family members to Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, in an effort to win approval for the casino. Ryan immediately announced that he would donate all contributions from Troha and his family to the Kenosha Boys and Girls Club. Troha pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges four months later and was sentenced to probation.

While Troha was under indictment, the Journal Sentinel revealed that Congress had two years earlier passed a measure that allowed his trucking firm, JHT, to haul more trucks on each route. The paper obtained bank records showing that JHT had paid a consulting firm owned by Troha $107,238 and that such fees would continue until 2010 because Congress had passed the legislation.

The paper reported that Ryan had been one of several congressmen pushing for the legislation and had signed a letter in support.

Troha, in the interview, said the bill benefited the entire hauling industry, and his former attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, said Ryan’s help was appropriate. “I’d like to think that every person can call their congressman and say, ‘I’ve got a bill that I’d like your help with,’ and if it doesn’t have any illegalities or immoralities connected with it, of course they’re going to help a constituent,” Gimbel said.

Ryan said he supported the measure because he thought it was good public policy and told the Milwaukee paper that he was unaware that Troha stood to gain financially, calling it “extremely inappropriate.”

The then-U.S. attorney in Milwaukee, Steven Biskupic, issued a statement at the time saying federal investigators were looking into the legislation, along with donations from Troha and his family to Ryan and two other congressmen. Biskupic declined to comment Saturday.

It is unclear how far that part of the federal probe progressed, but people familiar with it said there was no indication Ryan was aware that he was receiving problematic contributions.

When John W. Erickson, a top Troha associate, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in September 2007, court documents said he, Troha and other alleged conspirators had directed illegal contributions to more than 20 politicians. Troha and others had “identified public officials who supported Indian gaming and/or the relaxation of restrictions on interstate trucking,” prosecutors wrote.

The only politician identified by name in the documents as having received contributions from Erickson was Ryan.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Jerry Markon is a political accountability reporter for the Post’s National Desk, focusing on short-term investigative stories about the Affordable Care Act, lobbying and other topics. He also serves as lead Web writer for major breaking national news.
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