Money in politics: What the secret John Doe files reveal

If any one still has any illusions that we are a nation of equals, this long and detailed expose by the Guardian about the way that wealthy individuals and corporations buy influence will help shatter it. (Thanks to reader Jason for the tip.) The looks at how the current campaign rules were exploited by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker at a time when he and some Republican state senators were facing recall elections. The money was laundered through a group known as the Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCfG).

This story of the role of money in politics was enabled through the leak of emails and documents (called ‘The John Doe files’) that the Republican-majority Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered destroyed.

The John Doe files published today open a door onto how modern US elections operate in the wake of Citizens United, the 2010 US supreme court ruling that unleashed a flood of corporate money into the political process. They speak to the mounting sense of public unease about the cosy relationship between politicians and big business, and to the frustration of millions of Americans who feel disenfranchised by an electoral system that put the needs of corporate donors before ordinary voters.

It is into that dark and obscure post-Citizens United world that the John Doe files leaked to the Guardian land. These are the documents that some of the most powerful judges in the country tried to stop the public from ever seeing.

In July 2015 the state’s highest court, the supreme court of Wisconsin, terminated the John Doe investigation before any charges were brought. The conservative majority of the court ruled that the prosecutors had made a basic misreading of campaign finance law and targeted individuals who were “wholly innocent of any wrongdoing”.

In a contentious twist to the ruling, the justices ordered the prosecutors to “permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials obtained through the investigation”.

This latter-day equivalent of a book burning could have condemned the John Doe investigation into permanent oblivion, leaving voters none the wiser. But at least one copy of the evidence gathered by the prosecutors survived the bonfire, and have now been leaked to the Guardian.

The email trail shows a pattern of behavior developing: Walker meets up with big corporate donors and encourages them to contribute unlimited sums of money through WCfG in secret, then shortly after the checks start to flow.

The role of the Wisconsin supreme court is also deeply problematic.

The Wisconsin supreme court was firm on the issue: in its July 2015 ruling, the court castigated Schmitz for instigating a “perfect storm of wrongs that was visited upon the innocent Unnamed Movants and those who dared to associate with them.”

In colorful language, the state’s highest court praised Walker, WCfG and other movants in the investigation (it didn’t name them, but their identities are self-evident from the John Doe files as “brave individuals”.

That point is certainly clear, unless the US supreme court, which has the final say in any matter of constitutional law, decides otherwise. The nation’s highest court has been asked to take the prosecutors’ petition by an alliance of campaign-finance monitoring groups, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Brennan Center and Common Cause.

The John Doe files obtained by the Guardian give clues as to why the prosecutors have raised doubts about impartiality in the state courts. They suggest that two of the conservative judges on Wisconsin’s top court who voted to halt the John Doe investigation may have themselves been intimately connected to the same campaigning network of rightwing politicians, lobbyists and major donors that the prosecutors were investigating

The article also describes how NL Industries, the manufacturer of lead used in paints, tried to use their money to get legislation passed that would give retroactive immunity to them from victim lawsuits.

The question of whether such donations were legal or illegal misses the point. What is a scandal is not what is illegal but what is legal. What is deeply problematic are the vast amounts of money that are allowed to flow secretly through all these channels without anyone knowing who is giving it and where it is going.

While some attention is focused on money in national politics, much of the action has shifted to the state level where it is cheaper and easier to buy politicians and judges in secret. It seems like it is only the hackers who can break through the screen behind which this collusion takes place.


  1. Midwest Humanist says

    This is in fact deeply troubling. The odd thing is that the Republican voting base, which in the age of Trump is mostly made up of white males, considers their party to be the “straight shooters” of politics when the evidence seems to show that they are, in fact, the most corrupt and duplicitous party. It will be interesting to see if this information penetrates that voting base, or if, as in the past, confirmation bias will rule.

  2. says

    It’s also ironic that, if Russia is actually behind it, Russia is teaching Americans more about their “democracy” by leaking its dirty underwear than the entire US media apparatus could.

  3. rhebel says

    Why are so few commenting? I have the unfortunate distinction of being a member of the Wisconsin Retirement System and am beholden to it. I and my spouse are both part of it and trapped in this hellhole of Wisconsonssippi until said retirement (it is the best funded system in the US until Walker and company guts it). The majority of the electorate refuse to be educated and refuse to listen to facts such as this. It is a sad state of affairs when avoidance of truth and misspeak are more acceptable than actual facts. Many of my colleagues in education are suffering from high levels of depression and anxiety, and there are not enough young people entering the profession to replace us. Little interest in the media is being given to either of these areas. The education system is set to implode due to the right wing’s moves to destroy so many facets of education and every tenet of humanism.

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