ASA: Is This Election Fraud?
That said, I’m becoming increasingly worried about Tuesday’s elections because of the newly revealed involvement of Advocates for Student Achievement (ASA) in the campaigns of three candidates for the MPS board—ReDonna Rodgers, Annie Woodward and David Voeltner.
This isn’t voter fraud. This could be election fraud, or the coordinated manipulation of an election through unethical or perhaps unlawful means of people in power. Sure, ASA is not stuffing ballot boxes or tinkering with voting machines. But ASA seems to be disregarding campaign finance laws for its own benefit and the benefit of the campaigns it's aiding. This definitely warrants the attention of the District Attorney’s office, and hopefully the DA is seriously considering the complaint that was filed by Citizen Action of Wisconsin against ASA and the three candidates.
Overstepping Legal Boundaries
This is pretty complicated stuff, so let me take a step back.
I had a long talk with Mike McCabe of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and I’ve also spoken with attorneys and other political types who are fully versed in campaign finance law. There are tons of caveats and exceptions to these laws, but here are the general, very simplified outlines of what candidates and political groups are allowed to do:
Candidates are independent entities. Activities are supposed to be disclosed for the public’s inspection. Candidates set up separate campaign bank accounts, hire treasurers, keep invoices, and report expenditures and contributions—even if what they accept is not monetary, but has some value. All of this gets reported to the government and are public documents. MPS candidates make filings with the City Election Commission.
Organizations, obviously, can be involved in elections. But campaign finance laws regulate how they can be involved in elections and with candidates.
Political action committees, or PACs, can endorse candidates, donate money up to set limits (in MPS races it’s $600), and contribute non-monetary resources (but they have to attach a value to them, report them and not go over that $600 limit). Everything must be documented for public scrutiny, and materials must say “Paid for by XYZ PAC.”
While PACs can have some contact with a candidate—for example, to interview a candidate for a potential endorsement—PACs cannot coordinate activities with that candidate. They can’t say, “We’ll do doors in this part of the district, while you cover the rest of it,” or “Here’s some of our literature you can hand out,” or “We’ll advertise on radio with this specific message.” PACs can make independent expenditures—for example, pay for a radio ad or flyer—but that has to be documented and made public.
OK. So PACs are utterly political entities. The tradeoff is that their activities are documented and made public.
A different kind of entity is a 501(c)4, which is an issues group. A 501(c)4 can be involved in elections, but it can only discuss the issues that it was set up to advocate for—say, health care or property tax relief or a smoking ban.
Again, there’s a strict wall between candidates and 501(c)4s. They can’t coordinate. They can’t share information. They can’t divvy up responsibilities. The tradeoff is that the 501(c)4 doesn’t have to disclose as much information to the public as a PAC.
OK. That’s it for the wonky stuff.
ASA Disregarded Campaign Finance Rules
What makes me so concerned about ASA is that it seems to have disregarded these rules. Here are some potential violations I’ve dug up:
ASA-MKE and ASA-PAC aren’t clearly defined:
ASA, which was formed in 2007, says that it’s split into ASA-MKE, a nonpolitical 501(c)4, and ASA-PAC, its political wing.
But as recently as Feb. 2, members of ASA didn’t even know who was part of which organization.
In an e-mail sent on that date, ASA Executive Committee member Anne Curley asks: “So I guess that begs the question, who’s on the ASA-PAC board?”
One day before, ASA mastermind Bruce Thompson, an MPS board member, was equally unclear about the division between ASA-MKE and ASA-PAC:
Thanks. Somewhere in the presentation we need to make it very clear that ASA-MKE does not endorse candidates. Lena as an individual is free to support anyone she wants.
Also at the meeting we need to make a definitive list of who is on the board for:
* The ASA PAC (what is the name)
Also I would like to have a list of who is on the distribution list for these emails. Is there more than one list? Joe says he has not been getting these emails.
I’ve contacted ASA to find out who is involved in their PAC and 501(c)4. I’ll let you know what their response is.
ASA Is Involved in Three Candidates’ Campaigns
Since ASA-MKE and ASA-PAC are so fuzzy, I’ll just refer to the organization as ASA—just as its members do.
ASA’s stated mission is to identify and recruit strong candidates for the MPS board election in April. But its internal e-mails show that the group was way more involved than that. Now, I’m not a legal expert, but it seems as if ASA was more or less acting as campaign managers or coordinators for "their" candidates.
ASA reached out to potential candidates. OK, not so bad, perhaps, as long as they treated all potential candidates equally. But it also sort of shooed away candidates that it wasn’t interested in. For example, it had recruited ReDonna Rodgers to run against MPS Board President Peter Blewett. But when another potential candidate expressed some interest in that race, ASA-ers didn’t know how to handle it. They eventually dissuaded her from running and creating competition for their hand-selected candidate.
Then there are the candidate roundtables. Once ASA recruited their candidates, they held weekly strategy sessions with the candidates up through mid-March or so. ASA appears to have had a boilerplate campaign plan and sample budget. As far as I can tell they discussed finances, schedules, messaging and “moral support” during these strategy sessions. And, obviously, ASA wasn’t having strategy sessions with the candidates it wanted to defeat.
Once again, Anne Curley spelled it out for members of the ASA Executive Committee on Oct. 10:
> As we prepare to move into Phase 2, in which ASA becomes active in
> helping candidates to raise funds and volunteers, we want to gain
> a clearer understanding of the issues candidates are focusing on,
> their views on these and other key issues, and how they plan to
> run their campaigns. ...
Ummm... Is a 501(c)4 supposed to "help candidates to raise funds and volunteers"? Where's the bright line between candidates and outside interest groups?
ASA didn't stop there. ASA sent out numerous emails asking for donations and volunteers for these candidates. Anne Curley wrote ReDonna Rodgers’ campaign literature, even though that hasn’t been documented on any campaign finance forms. ASA set up a meeting with the candidates and the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors PAC, and there are loads of links between ASA, the candidates and MMAC. They even discussed contacting MMAC’s Steve Baas to obtain that organization’s walk lists for door-to-door campaigning.
What’s more, from what I can tell, ASA hand-picked Eric Hogensen to be the campaign manager for at least one candidate, Annie Woodward.
From an e-mail sent by Wendell Willis on Nov. 8, 2008:
...I spoke to Annie at some length the other day. She is quite committed to this and would love the position papers and learning more about what working with Eric would look like. So far, she's been the best on follow through and accessibility.
Why is this interesting? Because Hogensen co-founded ASA with Bruce Thompson, then claims to have parted ways with him. Yet Hogensen has been involved in all of ASA’s candidates’ campaigns. And is ASA allowed to set up a candidate with a campaign manager in the first place?
Now here’s the big Kahuna—lack of disclosure.
Incredibly, ASA-PAC did not file any campaign finance reports with the city until after Citizen Action filed its complaint with the DA and I pressed ASA on it. They missed multiple reporting periods. The forms they did file, belatedly, are pretty sparse.
I have a hard time believing that they didn’t know that they had to do submit these forms—ASA-PAC’s treasurer is Joe Dannecker, a former MPS board member, and its founder is Bruce Thompson, a current MPS board member. Surely these two understand the basics of running a campaign. Even I know about reporting deadlines, and I’ve never worked for a campaign or a PAC.
Based on the financial forms the PAC eventually filed, I would wager to guess that most of ASA’s activities are being flowed through ASA-MKE.
Why would they flow it through ASA-MKE? Because ASA-MKE, as a 501(c)4, is less transparent than a PAC. But remember that ASA-MKE, as a 501(c)4, can’t be in contact with candidates.
ASA seems to be in trouble either way—if the PAC aided the candidates, it didn’t make public the extent of its contributions and likely went over the $600 limit; if the 501(c)4 aided the candidates, it probably violated regulations that separate candidates from independent issue groups.
Why did ASA try to obscure its role in these campaigns? Quite simply, ASA wants to plant its candidates on the MPS board of directors. ASA and its supporters—business community types, charter and voucher school backers—want to see Blewett lose on April 7 and have an ASA majority, or ASA-sympathetic majority, on the board.
ASA mastermind Bruce Thompson wants to be board president once again. Having the hooks in three fellow board members would certainly help his case.
Why is this so important? Thompson is close to the business community and education privateers, to put it mildly, and the JS treats him and his allies with kid gloves. And MPS is at a critical juncture. The new board will select the next superintendent, since Andrekopoulos has announced he’ll retire. MPS will receive millions of federal stimulus dollars, money the board will have to allocate or at least sign off on. And there’s been a ton of buzz about either abolishing the elected board or splitting it into smaller districts, ideas that have been backed by ASA supporters.
If Thompson becomes MPS board president he’ll be responsible for these decisions. And it looks like Thompson and his ASA allies are trying to make this happen by installing his own candidates on the board but not revealing to the public the extent of their involvement. Whether it's legal, illegal, or pushing the boundaries of what's legal, is a question the DA can figure out. All I can say is that it doesn't smell right.