Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Exclusive: DA Issues Third Subpoena for ASA's Bank Records

By Lisa Kaiser
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The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office is continuing to investigate Advocates for Student Achievement (ASA), a reform group that may have been improperly involved in three candidates’ campaigns for the MPS board election in April.

The DA’s Public Integrity Unit has issued its third subpoena in the investigation. This time, the DA wants to see ASA’s bank records prior to August 2008 from National City Bank.

The DA has already obtained ASA’s more recent National City records, as well as records from Associated Bank.

The latest subpoena, dated May 12, provides some clues about the operations of ASA, which was co-founded by MPS board member Bruce Thompson (he hosted regular meetings at his East Side home) and supported by conservatives in the business community.

There’s always been some confusion about whether ASA was simply a nonpolitical “good government group” that wanted to recruit solid candidates for the MPS election, or whether it was a front group for pro-voucher, pro-business candidates who couldn’t admit that they were being supported by conservatives.

Even ASA itself was confused. According to internal e-mails dug up by an anonymous investigative blogger, ASA “members” weren’t sure who was involved in their nonpolitical social welfare corporation (dubbed ASA-MKE) or its political wing (ASA-PAC). These organizations should be strictly separated. And campaign finance laws limit the coordination or connection these independent groups can have with a candidates’ campaign. But, as first alleged in a complaint filed by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, ASA apparently blurred the lines between a social welfare organization, a PAC and the candidates’ campaigns.

Adding even more fuel to the fire was Investigator Mike Sandvick’s finding that ASA is registered as a corporation in Wisconsin—and corporations can’t donate funds to any campaigns.

Back to the latest subpoena.

Investigator Sandvick found that ASA-MKE’s beginning bank balance in August 2008 was $5,825, and he wants to know where that money came from. That will shed light on ASA-MKE’s activities.

What’s more, “these records will also identify contributors to ASA-MKE and such contributors will be able to speak to the general issue of what they understood they were contributing to and for what purposes their contribution would be utilized.”

Indeed.

I took another look at the 300+ internal e-mails, which go back as far as late July 2008.

The earliest mention of fundraising was ASA’s August 19 fundraiser, held at retired Manpower exec Bob Elsner and his wife Barbara’s Frank Lloyd Wright home. The fundraiser netted $700--but for ASA-MKE or ASA-PAC? In September, ASA-MKE reported having $6,325 on hand.

Later e-mails show that businessman Richard Pieper coughed up $18,000 to fund an opinion poll—some would say push poll. Investigator Sandvick may be referring to that contribution when he stated the following in the May 12 subpoena:

“For example, one contributor to ASA-MKE, Inc., gave over $15,000 to the corporation. Those funds, in substantial part, were used to pay for an opinion poll that was shared with several candidates … The funds were also used to pay persons who would go on to serve as the campaign managers for two of the school board candidates, Eric Hogensen and Sherwin Hughes. As such, these disbursements can reasonably be viewed as political contributions.”

Hogensen has a long, sordid history with ASA. Heck—Hogensen co-founded it with Bruce Thompson, then managed the ASA’s handpicked candidates’ campaigns. So he was getting paid by ASA and his candidates? That doesn’t sound kosher to me. But what do I know?

Sandvick goes on to note that “a political contribution of $15,000 exceeds (by $5,000) all limits for campaign contributions by any one person in any one calendar year to any combination of candidates and/or political action committees.”

I have no idea if Pieper had a clue about how his contribution would be used, or if he thought he was donating to a nonpolitical education group or a political action committee. But I’m pretty sure that Sandvick will find out!


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