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Realtors gave $1M to state Club for Growth

By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The Wisconsin Realtors Association funneled more than $1 million to a conservative group engaged in political advocacy, against the wishes of some members whose dues paid for the contribution.

Newly filed federal tax forms show that the Wisconsin Homeowners Alliance, a WRA offshoot billed as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization devoted to representing homeowners and property owners,” gave $1,059,367 to Club for Growth Wisconsin in the fiscal year between Oct. 1, 2010 and Sept. 30, 2011. This accounted for most of the Alliance’s expenditures that year.

Mike Theo, WRA’s president and CEO, defended this spending as “consistent with the purpose and mission of the organization.” Messages left with Club for Growth Wisconsin, whose listed address is a mailbox at a UPS store in Sun Prairie, were not promptly returned. Some WRA members bristled last year when it was revealed that the Alliance had given $260,000 to advocacy groups, including $100,000 to Club for Growth Wisconsin. The latest report represents a dramatic increase in this support.

Club for Growth Wisconsin is affiliated with the national Club for Growth, but purports to operate independently and has distanced itself from the national group’s effort to oppose the U.S. Senate candidacy of former Gov. Tommy Thompson. (The national group favored a rival GOP candidate, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann.)

The state group has run issue ads intended to benefit Republican candidates for state office, often by attacking their opponents. Issue ads are unregulated in Wisconsin, meaning there is no mandatory disclosure of money sources or expenditures.

“It’s a Republican front group that engages in electioneering,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog.

McCabe’s group has estimated, based on records of media ad buys, that Club for Growth Wisconsin spent $9 million in 2011 during the nine state Senate recall elections, all in support of GOP candidates. The group spent $100,000 during the effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. McCabe said it’s not usual for different advocacy groups to take the lead in different elections.

McCabe said his group never has been able to identify where Club for Growth Wisconsin gets its money, but “we presume it’s big business interests.”

“Focused only on issues”

The WRA is a trade group representing more than 13,000 state real-estate professionals. The Homeowners Alliance runs on mandatory dues by WRA members, which were increased last year from $40 to $70.

On its website, the Alliance says it’s “focused only on ISSUES — NOT on candidates or political campaigns. The Alliance won’t engage in partisan elections.”

Theo, in an email, denied that giving money to Club for Growth Wisconsin violates this pledge, saying issue advocacy communications “do not advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate” and are instead “focused on public policy and are part of an effort to educate the general public in a timely manner on important issues.”

Among the educational efforts waged by Club for Growth Wisconsin last summer were ads accusing Reps. Sandy Pasch and Fred Clark, both Democrats challenging GOP Senate incumbents, of favoring “illegal aliens” over Wisconsin vets.

Last year, besides the $1 million it gave Club for Growth Wisconsin, the Alliance reported spending $149,000 on lobbying and gave $25,000 to the Greater Wisconsin Committee, an advocacy group aligned with Democratic candidates.

These expenditures dwarf WRA’s outlays through its political action committee, RPAC – Wisconsin. Since Jan. 1, 2011, RPAC has given $114,759 to political candidates and parties, both Democrat and Republican. A good share of this amount — $49,650 — went to Walker.

Member contributions to RPAC, at a recommended level of $35 a year, are voluntary; dues collected for the Alliance are not.

That’s a sore spot for WRA members who disagree with the group’s political agenda but say they can’t resign because they rely on the professional services it provides, including access to its Multiple Listing Service, a critical industry tool.

“I feel totally violated in that I was forced to pay these dues,” said Darcy Haber, a Madison Realtor. “This is exactly what we feared — that WRA was turning into a front group to support Walker’s policies.” She believes these policies are “hurting the quality of life in Wisconsin” and hence are contrary to WRA members’ best interests.

Theo said there “may be a few members who disagree” with the Alliance’s spending, adding that they are “entitled to their own opinion.” But he said that the group’s members and board “have driven all of these decisions,” including the use of WRA dues to pay the Alliance.

Half a million added to pot

The Alliance’s most recent tax filings, dated Aug. 13, were provided to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism upon request, as federal law requires. The reports originally were due March 15, but the group obtained two extensions.

The Alliance filing lists $1.1 million in total revenue for the latest reporting period. This includes $560,000 in dues from WRA members, about the same as for the year before, $350,000 in revenue from “Related organizations” and another $150,000 from other sources.

Theo declined to provide additional disclosure, but said the group’s filing lists just one “related organization”: the WRA.

Last year’s $30 increase in dues from WRA members to the Alliance should have generated another $400,000 in revenue. Theo declined to say how the group is spending its money in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That will be disclosed in the next mandatory tax filing, sometime next year.

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