MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A lead manufacturer was among a host of corporate leaders who donated to a conservative group that helped Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators fend off recall challenges, a newspaper reported Wednesday.
The Guardian obtained 1,500 pages of leaked documents from a secret investigation into whether Walker’s recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups. That investigation was halted in 2015 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The documents show Walker was interested in getting Harold Simmons, the billionaire owner of NL Industries, which was a major producer of lead that was used in paint before such practices were banned, to give money to the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth. Simmons gave the group $750,000 in 2011 and 2012, amid the height of the recall elections.
Walker and his fundraisers also solicited money from the hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Cohen, who gave the club $1 million; the Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who gave $25,000; and the hedge-fund manager and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Chairman Paul Singer, who gave $250,000.
Such donations are legal under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which said restrictions on corporations’ political spending were unconstitutional.
Prosecutors had alleged Walker and his fundraising team asked potential contributors to donate to Wisconsin Club for Growth and other groups so they could run ads supporting him in the recalls, which stemmed from Walker’s signature law that stripped public unions of nearly all of their bargaining rights. But the state’s high court said Walker had done nothing illegal because coordination between candidates and outside groups on so-called issue advertising — ads that don’t expressly call for a candidate’s election or defeat — is permissible.
Prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let them re-start the investigation. Justices will consider that request on Sept. 26.
Walker campaign spokesman Joe Fadness issued a statement Wednesday calling the investigation “baseless.”
“There is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing,” Fadness wrote.
David Rivkin, a lawyer representing the Club For Growth, said in an email that prosecutors made up crimes that don’t exist and called their appeal “legally frivolous and just another publicity stunt intended to tarnish their targets’ reputations and salvage their own.”
After Simmons’ donations, the Wisconsin Legislature’s finance committee tucked language into the 2013-15 state budget seeking to protect certain lead-paint manufacturers from liability in lead-poisoning cases. In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the case of Thomas v. Mallett making it clear that plaintiffs in lead-paint cases could be successful in court without having to prove their injuries stemmed from a product made by a particular manufacturer.
They instead could merely show that a manufacturer had a share of the market for lead paint in the place where the plaintiff was living when the harmful exposure occurred. This “risk-contribution theory” was later specifically disallowed by a law that Walker and Republican lawmakers passed early in 2011, shortly after the governor had been elected.
But there were still about 170 lead-paint cases that had been filed when the risk-contribution theory was in effect and that were still pending in court. Lawmakers used a provision tucked into the 2013-15 budget to try to make the 2011 law rolling risk-contribution theory apply retroactively to those cases.
Staff members for three Republicans who were on the state’s finance committee when that language was added and who faced recall elections in 2011 didn’t immediately respond to email messages asking about whether the immunity was in return for the Club for Growth donations.
Previously released documents show the iron-mining company Gogebic Taconite gave the club $700,000. Walker later signed a bill easing regulations to help clear the path for the company’s mine near Lake Superior. The company ultimately gave up plans for the mine, however.