Dark money is a stain on our democracy that fuels corruption. In the wake of Citizens United, Wisconsin provides a tragic example of how a state with one of the proudest traditions of clean and transparent government in the entire nation descended into a cesspool of corruption under the leadership of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature.
In 2011, some of the greedy corporations that manufactured and promoted toxic lead paint pigments while knowing the harm it would cause to innocent children used dark campaign money to, in effect, buy retroactive immunity legislation from lawsuits. The story of how this happened is a case study of why the U.S. Senate should pass HR 1, a reform package introduced by the Senate on March 28, that would clean up our ineffective campaign finance laws.
Yasmine Clark, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was poisoned by lead paint. At age two, she was hospitalized. At age five, she was poisoned again and hospitalized again and subsequently diagnosed with irreversible brain damage.
I represented Yasmine and over 170 other Wisconsin children in lawsuits against the lead paint companies that had severely and permanently poisoned them.
Dark money nearly deprived them of their day in court.
The incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Milwaukee is very high and it disproportionately affects children of color. The predominant cause is the widespread presence of the lead paint in low-income Milwaukee homes.
My clients filed their lawsuits against lead paint manufacturers between 2006 and 2011. NL Industries (formerly the “National Lead Company”) and other lead paint manufacturers spent six figures lobbying in support of a 2011 law that blocked future lead paint lawsuits. But that didn’t get rid of the pending lawsuits by people like my clients.
So, in 2013, Wisconsin state politicians quietly slipped a provision into a 532-page budget bill retroactively blocking the lawsuits already filed by these lead-poisoned children. At the time, all the public knew was the result: the budget passed, and Governor Scott Walker signed it, despite wide public opposition to this measure.
Years later, leaked documents revealed that Harold Simmons, the billionaire Texas CEO of a former lead paint company facing liability in these lawsuits, had secretly given $750,000 to a dark money group supporting Walker and Republican legislators. Walker had been raising money for the group, called “Wisconsin Club for Growth” (WICFG) and his top campaign advisors had been running it.
Simmons’ dark money donation to WiCFG was no accident. Emails show that Walker was warned about “what you might need to defend in terms of contributions from donors when these are disclosed,” and told that Simmons would be controversial because he owned NL Industries, a “leading maker of lead pigment paint.”
Weeks later, a company owned by Simmons gave $100,000 to WiCFG, where the donation would remain secret, instead of Walker’s own campaign, where it would be publicly disclosed. That was followed by another $150, 000 within a couple of weeks from Simmons himself bringing the total to $750,000.
In fact, Walker raised money for WiCFG with the explicit promise that donor identities would remain hidden from the public. In one set of leaked talking points, Walker was advised to “Stress the donations to WiCFG are not disclosed and can accept Corporate donations without limits.” In another email, a Walker advisor stressed, “The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth” which “can accept corporate and personal donations without limitations and no donor disclosure.”
These rare glimpses behind the dark money curtain illustrate why transparency is essential for truly representative democracy. The hundreds of millions spent on dark money each election cycle likely disguises countless other similarly tragic stories.
At the federal level, dark money spending recently crossed the $1 billion threshold.
At the federal level, dark money spending recently crossed the $1 billion threshold, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But voters remain in the dark about the sources behind that spending—and what those secret donors might be getting in return.
My clients – lead poisoned children – were not wealthy. They couldn’t possibly afford to match the money from this Texas billionaire. And because the money was given in secret, we couldn’t even call out this apparent pay-to-play.
To ensure that our democracy lives up to the promise of self-government, voters must have the information they need to hold elected officials accountable, which includes knowing who is funding those representatives.
By requiring groups spending in elections to disclose donors that contribute over $10,000, HR 1, the “For the People Act”, would go a long way toward bringing such money into the light. Now the Senate must act.
Piece written by Wisconsin trial attorney Peter Earle, who testified in support of HR 1 before the Committee on House Administration on February 14, 2019