This report, “Legal Laundering, Part 2: The Growing Use of Candidate Committees To Mask Special Interest Contributions,” examines the sudden surge in inter-candidate committee contributions.
LEGAL LAUNDERING Part 2
The Growing Use of Candidate Committees To Mask Special Interest Contributions
October 17, 2000
In 1999 the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign issued a report called “Legal Laundering” which revealed how the Republican and Democratic caucuses and legislative campaign committees are used by legislative leaders to attract special interest contributions and how those resources are used to benefit legislative candidates at election time.
These committees contribute to the escalating cost and negative tone of legislative campaigns because they are magnets for nearly unlimited contributions by lobbyists and powerful special interests who curry favor with legislative leaders in order to advance their narrow agendas. In turn, the contributions collected by these committees strengthen the bond of special interest influence over all who subsequently benefit from this money. The committees spent about $2 million on direct contributions to candidates and “aid” to legislative campaigns in the 1996 and 1998 elections, including advertising, consulting, polling and campaign materials.
As election 2000 approaches, a WDC analysis has found yet another method by which special interest money is legally laundered and spread among candidates to fuel the spiraling cost of legislative campaigns and spread special interest influence. This report, “Legal Laundering, Part 2: The Growing Use of Candidate Committees To Mask Special Interest Contributions,” examines the sudden surge in inter-candidate committee contributions. The report’s key points are:
Contributions between legislative candidate committees have increased sharply since the 1996 elections (see chart below). An analysis of contributions from the start of each election cycle through the preprimary reporting period in each cycle (late August) shows that contributions between candidate committees totaled $125,038 in 2000, a 77 percent increase over $70,692 in 1998 and a 306 percent increase over $30,813 in 1996.
The analysis shows that Republican candidates engage in inter-candidate committee contributing more than Democrats. However, Democratic candidates have shown a marked increase in such contributions in the current election cycle. Republican candidate committee contributions from the start of each cycle through the preprimary reporting period in 1996 and 1998 accounted for 73 percent and 87 percent of all such contributions, respectively. In the current cycle, Republican candidate committee contributions made up 58 percent, or $72,903, of the total $125,038.
The increasing use of these committees to collect and redistribute large contributions effectively clouds disclosure and masks the influence that special interests have on the legislature and public policy. Legislators who make contributions to colleagues also are buying loyalty to their personal agendas.
Special election and open seat candidates, challengers and “targeted” incumbents in swing districts receive the bulk of the candidate committee contributions (Table 1). Twenty-two legislative candidates - 11 Republicans and 11 Democrats - received $2,000 or more of their contributions from other legislative candidate committees.
*Represents legislative candidate committees that have received $2,000 or more from other legislative candidate committees
The leading recipient was Republican candidate Ted Nickel, an unsuccessful candidate in the special election for the 35th District Assembly seat in spring 1999. Nickel collected $7,260, or 8 percent, of his total contributions from other legislative candidate committees around the state. Rounding out the top five are Republican challengers Dave Duecker and Donald Friske, incumbent one-term Republican Rep. Joseph Leibham of Sheboygan and Democratic Rep. Mark Meyer of La Crosse who is running as an open seat candidate in the Senate 32nd District.
Only two of the top 22 are incumbents, whose races are targeted - Leibham and Democratic Sen. Alice Clausing of Menomonie.
The table includes at least three candidates who pledged not to take PAC money in order to claim their independence from special interests. They are Duecker, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Robert Wirch of Kenosha; Republican Lisa Nelson, who is challenging Democratic Senate Majority Leader Charles Chvala of Madison; and Clausing. Collectively, these candidates received $11,301 from candidate committees and nothing directly from PACs as of Aug. 28.
However, they are accepting PAC money when they accept contributions from candidate committees that received PAC money.
Duecker’s $5,100 in candidate committee contributions came, in part, from Republican Sens. Mary Panzer, Alberta Darling and Robert Welch, whose candidate committees collected $34,700 in PAC contributions between January 1999 and Aug. 28, 2000 from banking, finance, insurance and other powerful special interests. Clausing’s $3,201 in candidate committee contributions came mostly from four colleagues - Sens. Roger Breske, Gwendolynne Moore, Brian Burke and Moen - who collectively received $27,165 in contributions from PACs representing labor, banking, health professionals, energy and real estate interests, among others. Nelson’s $3,000 in candidate committee contributions came, in part, from Panzer and Darling’s committees.
Most candidate committee contributions were made by incumbents who are not up for reelection or who had no opponents or who resided in politically safe districts. Twenty-one incumbents and three former legislators - 15 Republicans and nine Democrats - gave $2,000 or more to their colleagues (Table 2).
**Represents candidate committees that have contributed at least $2,000 to other legislative candidate committees.
Democratic Sen. Rodney Moen of Whitehall contributed the largest amount to colleagues’ campaigns - $13,000 between January 1999 and Aug. 28, 2000, almost twice as much as the next contributor. The timing of Moen’s contributions is curious because he made $10,000 worth of them - mostly in amounts of $1,000 - in 1999 while he and his colleagues were considering policy and spending items in crafting the Senate Democrats’ version of the 1999-2001 state budget. Most candidate committee contributions occur in the fall of the election year.
Among the budget provisions of interest to Moen and supported by majority Senate Democrats was one allowing Ashley Furniture Industries to fill in part of a wetland in order to expand their Trempealeau County business. Owners and employees of Ashley, which is in Moen’s district, are his second largest group of contributors - when viewed by employer - at $1,800.
Others who made contributions to colleagues through their candidate committees include Republican Rep. John Gard of Peshtigo and Democratic Reps. Jon Richards, Antonio Riley and Peter Bock, all of Milwaukee. Gard is a veteran legislator and co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee who faces only token opposition from a Democratic challenger in this heavily Republican district. Richards and Riley have no general election opponents and represent Democratic strongholds, as does Bock, a veteran legislator who faces only token opposition.
These candidate committee contributions don’t represent a few dollars being donated in order to support the effort of a long time friend or respected colleague who is fighting to keep his or her job. These committees and their contributions are being used to mask special interest money and to shore up loyalties and attract support for a legislator’s own agenda. More times than not, this strategy is used by legislative leaders - through resources from the legislative campaign committees they control and their personal campaign committees - to keep members of their caucus in step on key policy items and other political issues. However, this method of getting narrow, special interest items through the legislative process is also being used by others. Even rank-and-file legislators apply the methods of special interests by using money rather than the merits of good public policy to move items through the legislative process.
Many candidate committees dole out thousands of dollars of their constituent and special interest contributions to other candidates across the state. Even though a voter’s contribution to a candidate becomes the candidate’s money to use, it’s unlikely that many voters know that their candidate can legally contribute thousands of dollars from their campaign coffers to colleagues that the voters may never know or would not support.
Perhaps the most serious result of this use of candidate committee contributions is that it further reduces the confidence and participation of voters in the political process because that individual’s contribution - an expression of support for a candidate’s position on important public policy matters - is being redistributed and used to promote a more narrow special interest agenda.