Influence Peddler of the Month - John Menard, Jr.

John Menard Jr., who is the founder and owner of the Menard hardware store chain, has contributed at least $2.8 million mostly to Republican and conservative groups, candidates and committees. Influence Peddler of the Month

John Menard, Jr.

June 1, 2016

John Menard, Jr.
John Menard, Jr.

Menard, 76, is the richest man in Wisconsin with an estimated net worth of about $10.8 billion, according to Forbes. A lifelong resident of Eau Claire, Menard graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and opened his first business – a building supply company called Menards Cashway Lumber – in the early 1960s. He opened his first hardware store in 1972, and today operates about 300 hardware stores in more than a dozen states mostly in the Midwest.

In addition to owning the nation’s third largest hardware store chain, Menard was once the longtime owner of an IndyCar racing team, and one of his six children, Paul, is a NASCAR river.

A 2007 Milwaukee Magazine article described Menard, based on interviews with those who knew or dealt with him, this way: “Even those who know him well describe him in contradictory terms, as both hero and villain; the very model of a successful American entrepreneur; both brilliant and charming, yet also a foul-mouthed micromanager and a perfectionist who can be cruelly demanding with employees.”

Numerous news accounts and profiles have noted Menard’s stinginess, strict employee policies and violations of environmental rules. One long-time Menard’s company policy no longer used threatened steep salary cuts for managers whose stores unionized.

Both Menard and his company have made headlines for labor and environmental violations and fines that have cost Menard about $3.9 million, including:

  • In April, Menard’s settled a case with the National Labor Relations Board, which found parts of the company’s arbitration and pay raise rules were illegal. Menards agreed to change its rules to let workers join class-action suits and file complaints with the NLRB;
  • In 2011, Menards agreed to $30,000 in fines and court costs for violating state laws against hazardous waste disposal in connection with a 2007 incident in which a pallet of herbicide was dumped on a parking island of a Menard store in Onalaska;
  • In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an administrative order against Menard’s for damaging a Sioux Falls, S.D., stream that ran through its property by filling in nearly 1,400 feet of the stream and replacing it with a 66-inch storm sewer pipe. Menard later agreed to pay a $68,125 penalty to settle the case.
  • In 2005, Menards agreed to a $2 million fine after Department of Natural Resources officials found a floor drain at a company shop that they believe was used to dump paint, solvents, oil and other waste that fed into a tributary of the Chippewa River. The sanction broke the previous record state environmental fine of $1.7 million set by Menard in 1997;
  • In 1997, Menard paid a $1.7 million fine for 21 violations for using his pickup truck to haul plastic bags of chromium and arsenic-laden wood ash to his home to dispose of with the household trash. Menard pleaded no contest to felony and misdemeanor charges involving records violations, unlawful transportation and improper disposal of hazardous waste;
  • In 1994, Wisconsin obtained a civil judgment against Menards for transporting and disposing of ash produced by incinerating CCA-treated lumber without a license. Wood treated with CCA contains carcinogens and is considered hazardous waste that requires disposal in a licensed landfill. The company was fined $160,000.

Like many wealthy political donors, Menard’s largest contributions, totaling $2.5 million, went to so-called dark money special interest groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money with little or no disclosure to the public.

Governor Scott Walker

In 2011 and 2012, the billionaire funneled $1.5 million to a conservative ideological group called Wisconsin Club for Growth that later spent the money to help support GOP Gov. Scott Walker in his bitter 2012 recall election. The information about Menard’s contributions was found among hundreds of emails and internal documents seized by state prosecutors in a criminal probe, dubbed John Doe II, into whether Walker’s campaign committee violated state campaign finance laws by helping raise money for secretive issue advocacy groups, such as the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

Later, in 2013 and 2014, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the state’s lead job creation and economic development agency then chaired by Walker, awarded Menard's hardware store chain up to $1.8 million in tax credits to create jobs at three new and expanded facilities.

In 2011, billionaire Charles Koch cited Menard as one of 32 individuals who contributed more than $1 million to Koch-funded dark money groups, like the more familiar Americans for Prosperity, to help Republican and conservative candidates in the 2012 general elections.

Menard or his company contributed about $176,500 to federal candidates, parties, committees and groups between January 1999 and December 2015. The top recipients of those contributions include:

  • $25,000 in December 2009 to the Republican Governors Association’s 527 group. 527 groups are so-named for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service rules that loosely regulate them. The groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from any source on state and federal elections;
  • $18,900 to various committees that supported former GOP U.S. Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota;
  • $16,100 to Republican U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin;
  • $12,800 to Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin.

Menard contributed about $109,300 to mostly Republican and conservative candidates for statewide office and the legislature between January 1995 and December 2015, including:

  • $20,500 to former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle – the only other Democrat to receive contributions from him;
  • $18,000 to GOP Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch;
  • $14,700 to former Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen;
  • $12,000 to GOP Gov. Scott Walker.