Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a lot of wealthy targets to hit in Palm Beach, Fla., on an April afternoon in 2011. There was a possible call with casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson. There was a private meeting with a clutch of high-level donors at the home of oil executive William “Lee” Hanley and his wife, Alice. And there was a car ride with two top advisers to hedge fund executive Paul Singer.
“Billionaire who writes large checks,” a fundraising consultant bluntly reminded Walker (R) in a briefing memo on Singer, adding: “You would like Paul Singer to donate $1m and help get the word out to his peers.”
Such heavy-handed attempts to extract huge contributions dominate email exchanges between Walker and his aides that were released in a trove of state investigative documents leaked to the Guardian last week. The documents, produced as part of a now-halted “John Doe” probe into suspected illegal campaign coordination, reveal in stark terms how the chase for big money by politicians has largely become a frantic pursuit of billionaires and corporate executives.
“Take Koch’s [sic] money,” Kate Doner, Walker’s fundraising consultant, urged him in September 2011. “Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now. Corporations. Go heavy after them to give . . . Create a list of legislation that passed and benefits whom.”
The emails were written in 2011 and 2012 when Walker was raising funds to combat the attempted recall of a group of Republican state senators and then the governor himself. The documents expose how he played a leading role in securing big checks, making personal pleas to rich conservatives across the country.
“Good talk,” Walker reported to his aides of a June 2011 conversation with former senate majority leader Bill Frist, whose wealthy family started a for-profit hospital. “He asked us to contact his office and get him names of all of our leads and he will help us raise money . . . Also, I got $1 million from John Menard today,” referring to the billionaire owner of a home-improvement chain.
Among the donors Walker personally hit up: now-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who signed a check for $15,000 the day the Wisconsin governor visited him at Trump Tower in April 2012. (During the GOP primaries, Trump claimed that he had given Walker “fifty or a hundred thousand dollars.”)
The documents show how Walker solicited the money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative nonprofit that is not required to reveal its contributors. He tapped the group to coordinate the recall response under the leadership of one of his top advisers, R.J. Johnson, multiple emails show.
“RJ was the chief advisor to my campaign (I always called him my Karl Rove),” Walker wrote in May 2011 to Rove, the Republican strategist and co-founder of the American Crossroads super PAC.
“As mentioned, any and all help would be great (i.e. email list, names to call, million or two from American Crossroads),” the governor added. “I appreciate your interest and look forward to reading your column in the WSJ tomorrow.”
Before their investigation was stopped by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Wisconsin prosecutors were examining whether Walker’s efforts were part of an illegal scheme to coordinate with independent groups not subject to campaign limits, a charge the governor called “categorically false.” Prosecutors have appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Walker maintained last week that the 1,500 pages of investigative documents, which include court transcripts and exhibits, do not provide a fair picture.
“They’re trying to leak bits and pieces of it in the court of public opinion, without people knowing all the facts,” he told a Milwaukee radio station. “And the things people should focus in on are the fact this has been shut down, because they couldn’t provide a basis for showing that anything was illegal.”
David B. Rivkin Jr., an attorney for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, said Walker’s fundraising was similar to what President Obama has done for his aligned nonprofit, Organizing for Action.
“What is the concern here?” he said.“Politicians at the national level and the state level all the time raise money for organizations that pursue policy agendas that they find agreeable.”
It is unknown how the Guardian obtained the cache of sealed court documents, the vast majority of which had never been publicly released. The state’s high court initially ordered all the investigative material destroyed, but then reversed that and said the material must remained sealed.
The emails provide numerous examples of how Walker’s aides carved out time for him to meet with wealthy benefactors such as Barry MacLean, the chief executive of the private manufacturing company MacLean-Fogg.
“Barry McLean [sic] is interested in meeting with Governor Walker when he might be in Milwaukee or Pleasant Prairie,” a fundraiser wrote in September 2011, adding: “I’m told the meeting would be a minimum of $25K to support the efforts if we can make it happen.”
“We should do this — I will work toward pulling together options for such a meeting,” responded Keith Gilkes, Walker’s campaign manager.
MacLean-Fogg ended up giving at least $100,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth.
A few months later, Gilkes told Walker that the governor needed to squeeze in a meeting with a “group of young millionaires” during a swing through Los Angeles. “This is a huge prospecting meeting and could be a foothold for the campaign for the future,” he wrote.
Walker approached elite contributors as a supplicant, the emails show, counseled by aides on how to ingratiate himself.
“Thank Lee for opening his home,” Doner instructed the governor before his meeting with Hanley in Palm Beach. “His grandkids are still in town for break so this is very generous.” (Doner did not respond to requests for comment.)
On another trip, Walker was reminded before meeting with Carl Icahn that the New York investor’s “net worth is $14 billion, making him the 21st richest American and 61st richest man in the world.”
A major pitch part of the pitch to donors: that the Wisconsin Club for Growth, set up under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, would not disclose their names, and that they could contribute corporate funds to the group. Corporations are banned from giving to candidates or political parties under state law.
The leaked documents show that contributors viewed giving to the club as way to benefit Walker. In March 2012, after lunching with the governor, billionaire investor Bruce Kovner made out a check for $50,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth. The memo line read: “501c4 - Walker.” Another donor wrote in the memo line of his check, “Because Scott Walker asked,” as the Guardian noted.
After the state senators successfully fended off the recall attempts, Walker emailed his aides: “Did I send out thank you notes to all of our c( 4) donors?”
Brendan Fischer, associate counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said the leaked material illustrates how politicians are often in the debt of donors invisible to the public. “These documents show that dark money is only dark to the public — not to the politicians who benefit from it,” he said.
Walker’s spokesman did not respond to a question about whether he was trying to hide the identity of those financing the effort.
Pitching the secrecy of contributions did not always clinch the deal.
“We recognize the ability to participate anonymously but, frankly, that’s just not our style,” an adviser to oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens wrote in May 2011. He added that Pickens did not want to get involved in the Wisconsin fight out of concern it could damage his efforts to work with Senate Democrats on a renewable energy plan.
Doner forwarded the note to Walker, adding: “Personally I feel it is a cop out that they are not giving due to [Sen.] Harry Reid and his energy policy. When you see Boone on Thursday let’s put the squeeze on him to rethink his decision to stay out of the effort in WI.”
But plenty of contributors stepped up, including Illinois shipping magnate Richard Uihlein, one of the country’s biggest political donors.
“He said that he had a great evening with you and throughly enjoyed your company and appreciates all that you do,” a fundraising aide wrote to Walker in May 2011, the day after the governor visited Uihlein’s shipping company and dined at his Lake Forest, Ill., home.
She noting that Uihlein had “pen in hand,” adding: “Sorry gang, wasn’t so bold to as what his pen had in mind.”
Uihlein’s ultimate contribution, the documents show: at least $50,000.