Corrupt Capitol Needs Housecleaning

It seems as soon as one top Wisconsin politician’s conviction on corruption charges slipped off page one, another disgraced Wisconsin lawmaker pleaded guilty to felony misconduct in public office. Corrupt Capitol Needs Housecleaning

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

October 19, 2005

It seems as soon as one top Wisconsin politician’s conviction on corruption charges slipped off page one, another disgraced Wisconsin lawmaker pleaded guilty to felony misconduct in public office.

First it was Gary George, sentenced to four years in federal prison for fraud related to a kickback scheme. Now Brian Burke is a convicted felon and is headed to jail. Four more wait their turn. They represent a who’s who of Capitol bosses.

All this speaks volumes about how ethically pathological politics has become in our state. The corruption scandal is not the product of a few bad apples, it is the result of a system that is rotten to the core. The state’s political system is breeding corruption and will continue to breed corruption as long as taking out a second mortgage on your soul is pretty much a prerequisite for making a serious bid for public office.

More scandals are inevitable unless Wisconsin adopts reforms that root out the ethical pathology that plagues the Capitol. But the new bosses who replaced the indicted bosses continue to resist a thorough housecleaning.

The felony convictions and prison terms have sent them scurrying for cover, but deep down they seem as devoted as their predecessors to preserving the corrupt status quo. They remain cool to campaign finance reform that puts an end to the campaign arms race and the pay-to-play criminality it spawns.

There are three major campaign reform bills currently before the Legislature. One of them is modeled after the highly successful "clean money" systems in Arizona and Maine. The second is identical to last session’s Ellis-Erpenbach bill, which was sponsored by seven Republicans and 16 Democrats. The third is a disfigured version of Ellis-Erpenbach that now allows unlimited corporate campaign contributions and no longer requires full disclosure of special interest campaign ads.

Legislative leaders are ignoring the two stronger reform measures altogether and are busily working to further weaken the weakest bill. There is a cancer growing in Wisconsin government and it is spreading daily, and the best they can do is prescribe the political equivalent of acne cream.

To make matters worse, we have two useless enforcement agencies – the Elections Board and Ethics Board – both of which refused to investigate even when Capitol corruption started making headlines. Even as jail sentences are handed down, they remain paralyzed.

Burke is about to lose his freedom and most likely his law license, but not his lobbying credentials. The Ethics Board says Burke can remain a licensed lobbyist. Apparently, the Ethics Board is OK with him calling clients and lawmakers from a prison cell.

Adding insult to the injury already done to Wisconsin’s reputation for clean government, the Elections Board says it has no problem with Burke paying restitution to the state’s taxpayers for money he stole from the public treasury with campaign funds he collected by shaking down special interest donors.

Lawmakers evidently remain entirely comfortable with these two foxes guarding the chicken coop. For 21 months now, there has been no debate and no vote on Senate Bill 1, aggressive ethics enforcement legislation that replaces the hapless Elections Board and Ethics Board with a beefed-up, politically independent Government Accountability Board.

It is up to the people of Wisconsin to take matters into their own hands. The powers-that-be are proving themselves no less oblivious to the growing cancer in state government than the indicted powers-that-were. The political malpractice will continue until us ordinary folks take the bull by the horns and insist on a cure in keeping with the disease. That’s starting to happen, as evidenced by the large crowds the grassroots citizen movement known as the People’s Legislature is attracting to its assemblies around the state.

This unique multi-partisan movement now is fixing to take the next step. The People’s Legislature is going to meet the lobbyists’ Legislature on Thursday, October 27. Plan to come to the Capitol that day. Your democracy needs you.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that there always have been and always will be forces intent on subverting democracy and corrupting government. So there always must be vigilant citizens willing to fight those forces. Here’s hoping that spirit of vigilance will be on prominent display October 27.

Bring a broom.