Ham Sandwiches: Leaked Emails Provide Peek into Fundraising of Dark Money Nonprofit

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September 20, 2016; Washington Post

NPQ’s nonprofit newswire has previously covered a number of stories about hacked emails related to donor activity. Those stories all have to do with politicized nonprofits, but others are certainly guilty of similar cavalier behavior toward donors. Take this piece as both a peek into the world of dark money political fundraising and a cautionary note.

As leaked to The Guardian, lead fundraiser Kate Doner’s email to first-term Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker spells out in blunt terms how money ought to be raised: “Take Koch’s money. Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now. Corporations. Go heavy after them to give. […] Create a list of legislation that passed and benefits whom.”

This story began in September 2011. Walker had just stripped public sector unions of collective bargaining rights by getting the anti-union legislation Act 10 passed. Opposition groups forced him into a recall election. The pressure was on to raise serious money for the 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization Wisconsin Club for Growth, which championed the effort to defeat the recall effort. Walker was fighting for his political life, as his fierce commitment to fundraising indicated. Conveniently, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 made the rise of raising “dark money” possible. This graphic from the Sunlight Foundation helps you understand the nation’s impossibly convoluted campaign finance system that permitted Walker (he survived the 2012 recall election) to keep both his donors and their donations secret—until now.

These 1,500 leaked documents transformed what was meant to remain forever dark into front-page news. These documents are the evidence gathered by Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, who conducted what was called a “John Doe investigation” into suspected campaign finance violations by Walker’s fundraising team. The court overseeing the investigation effectively ended the case in January 2014. Schmitz unsuccessfully appealed his case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and is currently trying to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Schmitz claims that Walker’s team was part of “an illegal scheme to coordinate with independent groups not subject to campaign limits.” Walker called this charge “categorically false.” Walker’s defenders accuse Schmitz as being the source of the leak.

The documents show that Walker promised donors that the Wisconsin Club for Growth would not disclose their names. Corporations are prohibited from giving to candidates or political parties under state law. In one email, Walker asks his fundraising team, “Did I send out thank you notes to all of our (c)(4) donors?”

The leaked documents show that contributors viewed giving to the club as way to benefit Walker. In March 2012, after lunching with the governor, billionaire investor Bruce Kovner made out a check for $50,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth. The memo line read: “501c4 – Walker.”

Some prospective donors were not persuaded by the promise of confidentially.

“We recognize the ability to participate anonymously but, frankly, that’s just not our style,” an adviser to oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens wrote in May 2011. He added that Pickens did not want to get involved in the Wisconsin fight out of concern it could damage his efforts to work with Senate Democrats on a renewable energy plan. Doner forwarded the note to Walker, adding: “Personally I feel it is a cop out that they are not giving due to [Sen.] Harry Reid and his energy policy. When you see Boone on Thursday let’s put the squeeze on him to rethink his decision to stay out of the effort in WI.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, some $2 billion of corporate cash has already been contributed to the 2016 presidential race to date, most of it shrouded in secrecy. In the words of presidential candidate Donald Trump about the presumed control major donors have over elected officials, “When you give to them, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

Here is Kate Doner again, giving more instructions:

  • Get a kickass finance chair who can do peer to peer asks.
  • Once Keith moves to the campaign have him rally the lobby/business community where Walker can’t ask.
  • Invite them all to lunch with you for $25K each and make them ham sandwiches.

—James Schaffer