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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Advocates for Student Achievement Agrees to $5,000 Campaign Finance Fine

Group founded by conservative MPS board member Bruce Thompson gets caught

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Remember Advocates for Student Achievement (ASA), the conservative-backed “reform” group that recruited and trained candidates for the 2009 MPS board elections?

It took almost a year, but the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office charged Advocates for Student Achievement PAC and ASA-MKE Inc. with seven violations in a civil complaint made public on Monday.

The district attorney’s office is accusing ASA-PAC and ASA-MKE Inc. of a series of campaign violations, such as failing to file timely campaign finance statements, violating the ban on domestic corporations making political contributions, and exceeding campaign contribution limits.

It’s expected that the groups will pay around $5,000 in fines.

“My clients have agreed to this settlement in order to put this matter behind them,” said attorney Michael Maistelman, who is representing ASA.

Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, whose complaint sparked the district attorney’s investigation, said repeatedly in an interview that ASA’s actions were “shocking” and “serious.”

Kraig said he was glad that the district attorney’s office took action on the case.

“But there’s something unsatisfying with the result, that they [ASA] got away with something,” Kraig said. “It seems like the crime was worse than the result.” Essentially, they tried to use illegal campaign activities to take over the MPS school board.

E-mails Showed Campaign Strategies

ASA was launched in 2007 to recruit and train candidates for the April 2009 MPS board election. The group had the support of suburban business elites who support privatizing public schools through vouchers and charters. The group specifically opposed the teachers’ union, claiming the board was too sympathetic to it.

ASA-PAC was co-founded by MPS board member Bruce Thompson—who still hosts the group’s Web site—in 2007. Former MPS board member Joe Dannecker is listed as the treasurer of ASA-PAC and the registered agent of ASA-MKE Inc.

Thompson co-founded the group with campaign strategist Eric Hogensen, who then went on to work as a campaign consultant for Annie Woodward and ReDonna Rodgers, two school board candidates recruited by ASA.

Citizen Action filed its complaint last March, during the highly charged campaign for the MPS board. Citizen Action was alarmed by a Feb. 19, 2009, fund-raising e-mail on behalf of ASA’s three handpicked candidates—David Voeltner, Annie Woodward and ReDonna Rodgers. The e-mail was sent by the “ASA Executive Committee,” which was not registered as a PAC or a nonprofit corporation or issue advocacy group.

Strict firewalls exist between candidates and outside, independent organizations. Domestic corporations, like ASA-MKE Inc., may not make direct contributions to candidates. Political action committees, like ASA-PAC, may contribute, but within limits. And advocacy organizations may get involved in elections but not coordinate with candidates’ campaigns. They must, by law, be totally independent.

Citizen Action alleged in its complaint that ASA was “illegally providing contributions” to the three candidates in the form of orientation sessions, fund-raising, express advocacy and providing the favored candidates with a $12,000 poll that their opponents could not access.

Just days later, ASA’s activities were blown into the open when an anonymous blogger was able to access the organization’s Yahoo! Groups account. The hundreds of e-mails revealed the discussions of ASA’s inner circle over the course of a year.

The most active members—including Thompson, former Journal Sentinel business-reporter-turned-PR-pro Anne Curley, and former MPS board candidate Kevin Ronnie—pushed for weekly meetings with candidates, commissioned a $12,000 poll to discredit opposing candidates, and solicited funds for its candidates. That poll was likely paid for by businessman Richard Pieper, who donated $18,000 to the group. They also discussed tapping the resources of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors, which have taken strongly pro-privatization stands on education issues.

Meanwhile, ASA’s political action committee, which can legally donate $800 to and advocate for individual candidates, had not filed campaign finance reports since its inception. After the Shepherd’s scrutiny during the campaign, it did.

Citizen Action’s Kraig said advocacy groups are careful to construct firewalls between their nonpolitical affairs and political work, yet ASA seemed to have no regard for campaign finance laws.

“It’s shocking how gross, overt and serious the violations were,” Kraig said.

Was It Worth It?

Voeltner and Woodward, two of ASA’s favored candidates, distanced themselves from the group during the campaign and won their elections. But Rodgers lost in a landslide to then-MPS board President Peter Blewett, the No. 1 target of privatization supporters like Thompson and the MMAC.

Blewett decided to relinquish his position as board president after the election, and Woodward and Voeltner supported Michael Bonds over Tim Petersons, Thompson’s favored candidate for the board presidency.

So ASA’s dreams of building a conservative, pro-privatization majority on the board were thwarted just days after the election.

ASA-PAC and ASA-MKE Inc. also are stuck with their $5,000 fine and bills for Maistelman’s legal work.

Ironically, Thompson writes frequent op-eds for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which he decries the influence of special interests in MPS board elections and chastises fellow board members for fighting a mayoral takeover and preserving a democratically elected board.

But Kraig said ASA’s potential influence on the April 2009 election was dangerous and serious. He noted, however, that the relatively small fine might not deter other groups from disregarding campaign finance laws.

“The ASA’s ability to influence that election was worse than any voter fraud scenario as envisioned by conservatives,” Kraig said.

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