Twice in the past month I've gotten inquiries -- one from a correspondent in Utah and one from apparently outside Utah -- asking whether or not I thought it's possible that Howie Rich of New York City was channeling rivers of filthy lucre into that state. My first reaction to these inquiries has been surprise, as I would have thought that Howie had absorbed enough of the lessons of 2006 that he'd go back to investing in rental properties and plumbing. Losing upwards of $15 million on unpopular, failed ballot initiatives might do that to a man.
On top of it, he must feel responsible -- mustn't he? -- that many of the unfortunate souls who populated his orbit last year have suffered (and continue to suffer) ignominious fates because of their associations with him. Laird Maxwell left his beloved Idaho for Arizona and may have fallen off the map altogether. Montanan Trevis Butcher is suffering from scrutinitis -- an itchy, chafing condition that results from having state officers poking around in your nefarious affairs to determine whether they rise to the level of criminal activity.
Man, Trevis just can't catch a break. He told Mike Dennison of the Associated Press http://www.missoulian.com/...
"When they're demanding all your personal conversations and plans and strategies for the campaigns, those are First Amendment rights," said Trevis Butcher of Winifred, treasurer for MIA. "They are totally overstepping. We've been forthcoming on everything they really need to make a decision. We feel the federal court will draw the line on what is expected, and what needs to be divulged. We just want this (investigation) done fairly and properly."
Dennison has reported that:
The political group that bankrolled three conservative-leaning ballot measures in Montana last year still wants a federal judge to block investigation of its finances, saying the state's top campaign-law enforcer is engaged in a political vendetta.
Just last week, Montanans in Action filed new allegations in federal court in Billings, saying its free speech rights have been "chilled" by an overly broad and improper investigation by Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth. It's asking U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull to block the investigation, prohibit Unsworth from requiring MIA to disclose its donors and award damages for civil rights violations.
Montanans in Action spent $1.18 million last year to support three ballot measures that ended up getting tossed from the 2006 ballot because of signature-gathering fraud.
And lest we forget,
Butcher has admitted that out-of-state organizations provided most of the $1.18 million for Montanans in Action, but said they don't want to be identified - and that the law doesn't require it. Montanans in Action was formed in early 2006 as a nonprofit group for "educational" and political purposes, Butcher said. Such groups don't have to reveal their supporters - unless they act as an independent political committee that primarily supplies money to political campaigns.
Unsworth said his investigation seeks to establish whether MIA is an independent political committee, and therefore must report who gave it the money routed to the three ballot campaigns.
Unsworth said Wednesday that Butcher's group turned over some documents earlier this year, but has refused to hand over additional information requested by his office.
As Assistant Attorney General Anthony Johnstone says, "Unsworth is just trying to do his job, which is to follow the trail of the $1 million to its source and see if state law requires its disclosure."
"He cannot simply accept at face value the claims by (MIA) that they have properly documented their campaign finances and produced all relevant records," Johnstone wrote. "Financial patrons of ballot initiatives have no free speech right to hide behind sham organizations."
In a separate report http://www.billingsgazette.net/... , Dennison wrote that Trevis's whole campaign strategy for 2007 and 2008 has been disrupted by his "scrutinitis."
An Internet news site chronicling "abuses of state power," an Internet talk radio show and a program to monitor "unethical conduct" by lawyers and judges - such are the long-range plans of a Montana political group formed last year. But those plans never got off the ground because a state investigation of Montanans in Action's finances scared off potential financial supporters, the group says in court documents.
"The investigation has caused MIA's other First Amendment activities to die on the vine," its lawyer wrote in documents filed last week in federal court.
The state commissioner of political practices is investigating whether MIA should reveal who gave it $1.18 million that was distributed to three ballot measures in 2006. The group, based in Winifred, has asked a federal judge to block the investigation, which it says violates the group's First Amendment rights of free speech and political association. At issue is whether Montanans in Action is a conduit for campaign funds, thus requiring it to identify its financial backers, or a political/education group that is not required to reveal its donors.
Here's the scoop on the campaign strategy that would-have-been, if not for all the do-gooders in state government asking so many questions:
Trevis Butcher, the group's treasurer, said the investigation and ensuing legal battle have prevented MIA from carrying out the plans that would show it's more than just a campaign-fund conduit.
"We're building a plan for six to eight years," he said. "We're excited about the opportunity to bring some life to policies that need to be considered. We're in a great position to do that now, because we have great contacts with people who are serious about those issues."
Those plans would cost about $1 million a year, the group said in court documents filed last week. They include the talk radio show, investigative reporting on "limited government and property rights issues," gathering information on "abuses of eminent-domain and private-property rights" in Montana, and comparing the cost of government services to private-sector providers.
Butcher said a nonprofit foundation, which he declined to name, is helping pay the legal fees for MIA's lawsuit against the state. A Kansas City law firm with Republican Party connections is helping with MIA's lawsuit. One of the firm's lawyers working on the suit is Todd Graves, a former U.S. attorney from Missouri who was among the half-dozen federal prosecutors dismissed by the Bush administration in 2006.
And, of course, Jay Stevens at Left in the West -- the blog that highlighted ol' Trevis's labors last year -- has a perspective on his present tribulations http://www.leftinthewest.com/... .
Remember, these initiatives and their zombie brethren sprung up all across the country and were funded by a single man - libertarian Howie Rich - through front organizations (like Butcher's), who hired professional signature gatherers to fill petitions. Only the process was marked by "pervasive fraud" -- the gatherers lied about the content in the petitions, and the initiatives were thrown out.
Only thing is, antipathy for Butcher and his methods are bipartisan. It was the terrible trio of initiatives that inspired Senate Bill 96, a bipartisan effort to curtail the kind of wild, mercenary signature gathering so pervasive under Butcher's organization. (SB 96 passed with overwhelming support, and was signed into law by Governor Schweitzer.) Meanwhile, Daddy Butcher's initiative reform bill - which would have punished the groups who brought action against Baby Butcher's bills and made it harder for initiatives to be thrown out - died in a Republican-majority House committee.
There's no doubt Butcher's activities were suspiciously in alignment with Howie Rich's. More than one investigative journalist tied the money here in Montana to Rich. And Rich himself admitted that he financially supported the efforts here to make the terrible trio of initiatives law. Butcher has no case here, and should hand over the requested documents. Montana has a right to know who's sponsoring political activity in the state.
But Trevis isn't alone -- and he hasn't suffered the worst from his affiliation with Howie.
That honor goes to Howie's brother-in-law, Paul Jacob. You may recall that Jacob jumped ship with Eric O'Keefe and others when Howie's Americans for Limited Government sank at the polls in Maine, Nebraska and Oregon. If memory serves, the press releases were circulating even before the polls closed on the West Coast, announcing the launch of the new "Sam Adams Alliance" and installing Howie's heretofore right-hand-men, including poison-pensman Jacob, at its bow.
Well, Jacob has found himself lashed still to that ship at the bottom of the sea, as indictments were handed down this week in Oklahoma -- including one with his name on it -- alleging bonafide criminal activity in violation of Okie state law. Another one went to Susan Johnson, another long-time associate of Howie Rich, and president of National Voter Outreach, the petition-circulating company that did much of Howie's dirty work in recent years. And third went to Rick Carpenter, the Oklahoma-based tool identified by Howie's team to run the ground operation -- badly.
For a perfectly surreal experience, dear reader, it behooves you to click here http://www.tulsaworld.com/... and see the trio of indicted co-conspirators in handcuffs. And to read the article, if you like!
And KOTV has its take on the proceeding here: http://www.kotv.com/...
O, the outrage is palpable. Oklahoma Senator Randy Brogdon, one of the chief sponsors of the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights there last year, blamed politics here http://wwwtmrcom.blogspot.com/... Funny he should do that, since it was politics that led him to push Howie's initiative in the first place.
"Oklahomans should be outraged by the recent political attack by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson on Paul Jacob, Susan Johnson, and Rick Carpenter," said Brogdon, R-Owasso. "These individuals sought nothing more than to participate in their government through the initiative process protected by Oklahoma’s Constitution."
Owasso forgot to mention that Jacob, Johnson and Carpenter arranged to have out-of-state petition circulators come to circulate their petitions in Oklahoma, in clear contravention of state law. But why pay attention to current state law when you're a sitting Senator? You can change the law, if you like. You ARE the law, for all intents and purposes. That's politics, see?
As for Jacob's new home, the Sam Adams Alliance, its leaders are treating his indictment like a Christmas gift, the best public-relations and fundraising strategy that Oklahoma could have given them. They -- or someone else near and dear to Jacob -- has established a "Free Paul Jacob" website here http://www.freepauljacob.com/... . (It's high-larious that the Free-Paul-Jacobites are apparently willing to let Johnson and Carpenter rot near the gallows but want the world to organize behind the banner of Jacob's freedom and liberty!) Indeed, the Sam Adams Alliance has cast Jacob as a modern-day patriot, a "national term limits leader," whose indictment will "chill citizen initiative use."
Yeah, 'cause citizens were beating down the doors of City Hall to win ballot initiatives before Jacob et. al. were caught breaking Oklahoma law. These indictments are likely to send those monstrous mobs back to their day jobs, you think?
By the way, if you want to schedule an interview with Jacob -- not with the Oklahoma Three, but just with Paul Jacob himself, you should call his publicist, Kathleen Nelson, at (501) 912-5882. She can hook you up. And she might even accept your contribution to the Sam Adams Alliance.
Last year, it was Supreme Court decisions declaring pervasive fraud in Howie Rich's ballot initiative operations, and outright defeats at the ballot box. This year, it's statewide investigations into Howie's astroturf ballot committees and felony indictments for his family and friends. So, if I remember the question, it was, Could Howie Rich be channeling big bucks into Utah for another ballot initiative this year?
Not being Mormon myself, I consulted the experts -- bloggers covering this matter in the Beehive State. (The Beehive State? Where did bees come into the picture?) Here are some of the facts.
First, there's a voucher referendum on the ballot in Utah this year. The legislature adopted a universal school voucher plan by one vote, but concerned citizens used a Utah statute to put the law on the ballot before it could be enacted. So voters get to decide whether the law will be enacted or not.
Second, the pro-voucher side is being bankrolled by a group called Parents for Choice in Education, which has -- get this -- not only a political action committee, but a foundation and a corporation. Problem is, hardly anybody inside Utah is giving money to PCE. The big spender there is Patrick Byrne, who owns Overstock.com and who pushed the "65 percent" school funding idea last year and failed. According to the public records there, only a handful of other donors came from Utah, and those were people who founded PCE, or who have family or friends running it. So while the name in the window is Utah-based, the cash paying the bills is coming from somewhere else. Hmm... does this sound like what Howie did last year in Missouri? Or Oregon? Or California? Or Nebraska? Or Idaho? Or, as Paul Jacob may soon regret, in Oklahoma?
So the pro-voucher budget gets only a small share from Utah contributors. That leaves several hundreds of thousands of dollars -- estimates range from a quarter-million to almost $360,000 -- coming from unidentified donors. How's the money getting there without nametags attached? Funny you should ask: It's being channeled through the PCE's foundation and corporation to PCE's PAC. Under Utah law -- you guessed it -- donations from corporations and foundations don't have to have the donor's names identified. Hmm... you think they consulted with Trevis Butcher in Montana before setting up their system?
But wait. This isn't Howie's issue, is it? Howie's all about term limits, and judicial recall, and TABOR. Are vouchers on his agenda?
Well, there's evidence to say so. He did pour a lot of money into the campaigns to re-elect Mark Sanford as South Carolina governor and to elect Karen Floyd as South Carolina superintendent of education last year, both running almost exclusively on pro-voucher platforms. And there's an astroturf organization in that state that won't admit whether or not it's collecting Howie's cash.
But probably the most compelling evidence is a little op-ed that Howie authored for his hometown paper, the Wall Street Journal -- home to such illustrious fellow Libertarians as John Fund, a gem of a fellow -- back on June 16. When given some choice space on the editorial page, Howie took as his text not the rationale for TABOR, nor the need for judicial recall nor term limits, but rather an obscure little law adopted by a nondescript little legislature in a quiet Western state: namely, the universal voucher bill in Utah.
Since you can't click through to read Howie's op-ed without a subscription, I'll post more-than-usual of the text for you. Just a little public service from your friendly neighborhood Sandlapper.
After this year's compelling school-choice victory in Utah, the methodology for successfully advancing parental options against the well-funded phalanxes of institutional opposition is crystallizing. Specifically, Utah's success has proven the efficacy of advocating universal choice initiatives as opposed to limited, means-tested pilot programs.
Beyond the obvious quantitative benefits universal plans provide (i.e., more choices for a larger number of parents), consider the following lessons from experience:
-- Scaling back choice plans does nothing to diminish institutional opposition. Too often, supporters of school choice assume that watering down legislation in their states will result in acquiescence from teachers unions and the education-industrial complex. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether it is choice for one child or one million children, the education establishment will fight it tooth and nail. If anything, the rhetorical salvos launched against scaled-back proposals are even more incendiary, with bureaucratic apologists falsely accusing school choice supporters of "sneak attacks" and "end-arounds" in addition to the predictable "anti-public education" harangues.
Moreover, the introduction of "softer" choice bills is often perceived as a political retreat, emboldening opponents and unnecessarily muddying the clear policy and philosophical merits school choice enjoys. Anti-choice forces do not make distinctions nor will they ever stop attacking that freedom once it has been achieved. Even after Utah's decisive school choice victory, supporters of the status quo are already seeking to derail the legislation by using the state's public referendum process -- all this despite the fact that Utah's public schools received more than half a billion dollars in new funding this year.
-- Broader choice plans equal broader support. You don't have to take Grassroots 101 to know that successful coalitions are based on addition, not subtraction. Yet in many instances school choice supporters have been conditioned to believe that confining the parameters of parental choice will lead to a broader base of public support. The opposite is true. As employee stock options and personal savings accounts have shown, nothing motivates individuals quite like becoming personally invested in an issue.
Supporters of school choice cannot afford to leave a single ally on the sidelines -- for Christian school parents, home school parents, parents with special-needs children or parents who for whatever reason aren't satisfied with the public school they are zoned for, universal choice plans offer a much broader base of grassroots support than more narrowly-drawn proposals.
-- Universal school choice plans can ultimately forge winnable political coalitions. Utah adopted the nation's first universal school choice bill this year in spite of a staggering amount of political capital devoted to defeating the legislation and demonizing those who rallied behind it. House Speaker Greg Curtis, who was targeted for defeat by teachers unions last year and came close to losing his seat, is emblematic of courage under fire. Instead of being awed by the onslaught, Mr. Curtis pushed choice aggressively, and was a central figure in the school choice victory.
Like citizens, elected officials are much more inclined to support legislation when they are given a direct stake in it. All politicians respond to pressure in their own backyards, yet absent such pressure, they will invariably bend to the inflexible will of the education establishment.
In spite of enormous resistance, Utah's victory is proof positive that a universal approach -- consistently advanced over time and leveraging every available grassroots and political coalition -- can succeed in securing the educational choices our nation needs to compete in the new millennium. The sooner we apply these lessons to other states, the sooner America can inherit its 21st century Manifest Destiny.
And how did the Journal identify our Howie for the common reader? "Mr. Rich is chairman of the Parents in Charge Foundation," it said. No mention of the discarded hull of Americans for Limited Government, we notice.
Parents in Charge Foundation. Has a ring, doesn't it? Similar to Parents for Choice in Education.
So it appears the scion of SoHo does love a school voucher. And given his habit of throwing bags of money into astroturf organs in faraway places, my answer to my correspondents of the past month is: I would not be surprised to learn that your mystery donor lives at 73 Spring Street in New York City.