MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A leading lead manufacturer was among a host of corporate leaders who donated to a conservative group that helped Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators fend off recall challenges, a newspaper reported Wednesday.
The Guardian (http://bit.ly/2cqWE6r ) obtained more than 1,000 pages of leaked documents from a secret investigation into whether Walker's recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups. That investigation was halted in 2015 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The documents show Walker was interested in getting Harold Simmons, the billionaire owner of NL Industries, which was a major producer of lead that was used in paint before such practices were banned, to donate to the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth. Simmons gave the group $750,000 in 2011 and 2012, the height of the recalls.
Walker and his fundraisers also solicited money from hedge-fund billionaire Stephen Cohen, who gave the club $1 million; Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who gave $25,000; and hedge-fund manager and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Chairman Paul Singer, who gave $250,000.
Such donations are legal under the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which said restrictions on corporations' political spending were unconstitutional.
Prosecutors had alleged Walker and his fundraising team asked potential contributors to donate to Wisconsin Club for Growth and other groups so they could run ads supporting him in the recalls, which stemmed from Walker's signature law that stripped public unions of nearly all of their bargaining rights. But the state's high court said Walker had done nothing illegal because coordination between candidates and outside groups on so-called issue advertising — ads that don't expressly call for a candidate's election or defeat — is permissible.
Prosecutors have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let them re-start the investigation. Justices will consider that request on Sept. 26.
Walker campaign spokesman Joe Fadness issued a statement Wednesday calling the investigation "baseless" and that there is "no evidence of any wrongdoing. He didn't comment on the documents.
Club For Growth attorney David Rivkin said in an email that prosecutors made up crimes that don't exist and called their appeal "legally frivolous and just another publicity stunt intended to tarnish their targets' reputations and salvage their own."
Walker signed a measure in January 2011, before Simmons made his donations, that made lead paint manufacturers immune from lead-poisoning liability lawsuits going forward. The recalls took place later that year. And after Simmons' last donation, the Wisconsin Legislature's finance committee tucked language into the 2013-15 state budget making manufacturers immune from pending lawsuits.
Staff members for three Republicans on that committee who faced recall in 2011 didn't immediately respond to email messages from The Associated Press inquiring about whether the lawsuit immunity was in return for the Club for Growth donations. One of them, Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon, told the Cap Times of Madison it was not.
"I think that's quite a jump," he said. "I voted for something in the budget and somebody else got some money ... that's not pay-to-play."
Previously released documents show iron mining company Gogebic Taconite gave the club $700,000. Walker later signed a bill easing regulations to help clear the path for the company's mine near Lake Superior. The company ultimately gave up plans for the mine, however.
Minority Democrats said during a news conference that the documents raise more questions about what other legislation may have been passed in exchange for donations to outside groups.
"It appears we have more payback than policy," Rep. Dana Wachs of Eau Claire said.
Spokeswomen for Republican Senate and Assembly leaders didn't immediately respond to emails.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said in a statement that whoever leaked the documents committed a crime because the investigation is a John Doe probe — equivalent to a grand jury investigation.