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Thursday, May 14, 2009

District Attorney Still Investigating Advocates for Student Achievement

Second subpoena issued for MPS “reform” group

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The “reform” group created by MPS board member Bruce Thompson is still under investigation by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. A second subpoena was issued on April 10 for the bank records of Advocates for Student Achievement (ASA), which Thompson and his allies launched in 2007 to recruit candidates for the April 7 election.The subpoena was made public on Monday, May 11.

ASA came under scrutiny during the campaign, when a fund-raising e-mail from the “ASA Executive Committee” surfaced in support of three candidates for the Milwaukee Public Schools board of directors. That e-mail asked for funds for candidates ReDonna Rodgers, Annie Woodward and David Voeltner.

The good government group Citizen Action of Wisconsin filed a complaint with the district attorney’s office, since the fundraising effort seemed to cross the line into illegal activity. Wisconsin campaign finance laws strictly regulate the contact between independent groups such as ASA and candidates.

ASA supporters countered that the organization was divided into two groups: the political action committee ASA-PAC and the nonpolitical ASA-MKE, which was merely interested in identifying strong candidates for the MPS board. ASA-MKE and ASA-PAC’s treasurer, attorney Joe Dannecker, is a former MPS board member.

ASA’s efforts paid off, in a way. Although Rodgers lost in a landslide to Peter Blewett, who was the main target of the group’s ire, two of the candidates ASA supported— Woodward and Voeltner—won their elections and now sit on the MPS board.

But Woodward and Voeltner didn’t return ASA’s favors. On April 28, both voted for Michael Bonds to be the new MPS board president, while the candidate preferred by Thompson—Tim Petersons—only garnered three of nine votes (Thompson, Petersons and Jeff Spence).

Reports from that election indicate that Thompson was not pleased by Woodward’s and Voeltner’s independence. Thompson allegedly “shot daggers” at his former recruits when it became clear that ASA would not have a majority on the board.

ASA’s Close Involvement in Campaigns

The February e-mail that launched the district attorney’s investigation was just the tip of the iceberg. Turns out that ASA hadn’t filed any campaign finance forms with the Milwaukee Election Commission until after the district attorney was put on notice.

Even more damning were the e-mails sent on ASA’s Yahoo! listserv, which were uncovered by an investigative blogger before the election. According to more than 300 e-mails over the course of almost two years, ASA was far more involved in the candidates’ campaigns than it was letting on to the public. ASA had held weekly strategy sessions with its three preferred candidates; made multiple requests for campaign donations; provided walk lists for door-todoor campaigning; paid close to $12,000 for a highly questionable poll, which it shared with its preferred candidates; wrote campaign literature for at least one candidate; and even put candidates in contact with its preferred campaign managers and sympathetic donors.

Some of the most prominent conservatives in town supported ASA, including Tim Sheehy and Steve Baas of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC); businessman Richard Pieper, who contributed $18,000; M&I Bank’s PAC, which donated $3,000; Bradley Foundation titan Michael Grebe; voucher advocate Howard Fuller; and a slew of voucher and religious school supporters.

“Given what the e-mails show, the extent of ASA’s involvement, we’re glad that the D.A. is trying to get to the bottom of this,” said Robert Kraig, director of program for Citizen Action, which filed the initial complaint. “It’s going to take the subpoena power of the district attorney’s office to do that. Because of the surprising revelations in all of those internal e-mails, it’s raised a lot of questions about the legality of what ASA was doing.”

The Second Subpoena

The most recent subpoena, for ASA’s records at National City Bank, was made on April 10; National City provided the requested materials on May 8. The first subpoena—for ASA’s records at Associated Bank—was made on April 1, but not made public until the morning after the election.

In his affidavit supporting the request, investigator Michael Sandvick found that ASA-MKE is registered as a domestic corporation and, as such, is barred from making direct or indirect political contributions. “I think there is probable cause to believe that ASA-MKE, acting as a corporate entity, provided things of value to the campaigns of candidates for the Milwaukee School board in the form of fund-raising, voter lists and poll results,” Sandvick wrote.

Yet ASA’s political wing, which is allowed to become involved in campaigns, showed surprisingly little activity. Its biggest donation came from M&I Bank and its biggest contributions—$600, the maximum that could be given in this election—went to its three candidates.

Bank records should provide clues as to how much money had been raised, whether the nonpolitical ASA-MKE was contributing funds or things of value to the campaigns, and who its donors are.

The Shepherd Express provided ongoing reporting on ASA’s activities and will continue to provide updates on its political blog, the Daily Dose, at www. expressmilwaukee.com.

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