A leading 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.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, 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 under a ruling by right-wing justices who received millions of dollars in donations from the same outside groups that were charged in the case.
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 donate to the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth. That group, backed by the Koch brothers, worked in coordination with Walker’s campaign to fight a 2012 attempt to recall the governor. Simmons gave the group $750,000 in 2011 and 2012, at the height of recall efforts.
After Simmons’ donations, the Wisconsin Legislature’s finance committee tucked language into the 2013–15 state budget granting immunity to lead manufacturers from lead paint poisoning lawsuits. Staff members for three Republicans on that committee who were recalled in 2011 didn’t immediately respond to email messages inquiring about whether the immunity was in return for the Club for Growth donations.
Walker and the state’s majority Republican legislators also used the state budget to loosen the regulation of lead paint. In addition to the producers of lead paint, the real estate and construction industries strongly oppose any regulation on lead, despite its potential deadliness. Like NL Industries, construction and real-estate companies are major donors to Walker and Wisconsin Republicans.
On July 23, 2015, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign issued a press statement shedding light on the great length that Walker and the GOP went to protect manufacturers of lead paint. A last-minute budget amendment by GOP legislators changed the legal definition of lead paint “to increase the amount of lead that must be in liquid or dry paint before state regulations kick in,” according to WDC.
The amendment also prevented state administrative rules from being updated to reflect any future statutory definition of lead paint that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might enact to protect public health.
Lead paint is toxic. It can cause a range of health problems, especially in young children, when it’s absorbed into the body. It causes damage to the brain, kidneys, nerves and blood. Lead may also cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities, seizures and even death.
Corrosion of lead pipes damages water supplies. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recently urged everyone living in a home built before 1951 — about 700,000 city residences — to get a filter capable of removing the toxin from water.
The documents leaked by The Guardian also showed that Walker and his fundraisers solicited money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth from hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Cohen, who gave the club $1 million; Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who gave $25,000; and 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. But the right-wing majority on 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.
The justices, however, did not say that campaigns and outside groups could coordinate fundraising activities. Prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let them re-start the investigation, and justices will consider that request on Sept. 26.
Walker campaign spokesman Joe Fadness issued a statement Wednesday calling the investigation “baseless.”
Club For Growth attorney David Rivkin 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.”
Previously released documents show 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.
Minority Democrats said during a news conference that the documents raise more questions about what other legislation Republicans may have passed in exchange for donations to outside groups.
‘It appears we have more payback than policy,” Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire said.
Spokeswomen for Republican Senate and Assembly leaders didn’t immediately respond to email messages.