WDC Files Complaint, Seeks Investigation of Undisclosed Election Spending by School Voucher Advocacy Group

May 7, 2013
Updated May 13, 2013

(Correction: After criminal charges against Scott Jensen were dismissed, Jensen did not plead guilty to a misdemeanor ethics code violation as stated in the fourth paragraph. He pleaded no contest to a civil forfeiture charge.)

Madison - In the aftermath of revelations that a free-spending interest group pushing expansion of Wisconsin’s private school voucher program told its members that it spent over $2 million more to influence state elections in 2012 than it reported to election authorities, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign filed a complaint today with the state Government Accountability Board alleging the group violated campaign finance disclosure rules.

In a document entitled “2012 Election Impact Report,” the American Federation for Children said it spent nearly $2.4 million to elect pro-voucher candidates in Wisconsin.

“They told their funders one thing and state election authorities a totally different story about what all this spending was for,” WDC director Mike McCabe said. “In the report to funders, they said all of their money went to support candidates and win elections. But when it came to filing campaign finance reports, they took the position that all but about $345,000 was spent just raising issues and educating voters rather than supporting candidates and therefore did not need to be publicly disclosed. Judging from the content of this outfit’s ads, they told their funders the truth and lied to election officials.”

American Federation for Children is a Washington, D.C-based organization that has become one of the biggest spenders in Wisconsin elections in recent years. It is a spin-off of All Children Matter, a Michigan-based electioneering group founded by Betsy DeVos, who is chair of American Federation for Children, and her husband Dick, a Michigan billionaire and son of the co-founder of Amway Corporation. Among AFC’s other leaders is Scott Jensen, a former state Republican Assembly leader who was convicted on felony misconduct in office charges. The conviction was later overturned on a technicality and Jensen was granted a new trial, which never happened because Jensen struck a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to a misdemeanor ethics code violation and pay a $5,000 fine. More information about the group can be found in WDC’s April 15 report on election spending by voucher advocates and in the Democracy Campaign’s Hijacking Campaign 2012 online feature.

“This episode exposes what a hoax this ‘issue ad’ charade really is,” McCabe said. “It also illustrates the need for the Government Accountability Board to start enforcing its own disclosure rules.”

In March 2010, the GAB unanimously amended its campaign finance disclosure rules with language taken from a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Despite a clear green light from the nation’s highest court on election spending disclosure, the GAB has not been enforcing the amended rules in their entirety. The unreported spending by the American Federation for Children that the group admits was done to support candidates and win elections is one example of electioneering activity that is falling through the cracks under the GAB’s current enforcement policy.