Confronting the Front Groups Backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

Thursday, 03 March 2011 11:03 By Lisa Graves, PRWatch | Report | name.

A Special Report from the Center for Media Democracy, part one of a new series.

Madison - A gaggle of secretly funded DC groups has launched an expensive PR blitz in Wisconsin in support of Scott Walker's controversial efforts to undermine union rights, part of a national assault on worker rights. A few employee unions have also begun running ads, but their sources (employee dues) are not kept hidden from public view. The total amount of anti-union spending in the works by groups funded by corporations or corporate CEOs or their foundations is unknown. What is known is that many such groups hide behind tax provisions that allow them to keep the identities of their major funders secret, insulating from public scrutiny the wealthy financial interests they are fronting and that are largely bankrolling their general operations.

The Center will be intensifying its spotlight on these groups, many of which CMD has investigated before. The flurry of ads, robo-calls, and astroturfing unleashed this past week echo the expensive PR spin and ad campaigns that have become ubiquitous near elections and that helped propel Walker and other politicians advancing the same agenda into office late last year. These new campaigns also signal the real beginning of the 2012 presidential election efforts in many ways. Today's report is the first in a series on these special interest groups--who they are, what they are doing, and who the groups and their staff are connected to.

A New PR Blitz Does What Walker Wanted in Prank "Koch" Phone Call

The new outside spending blitz comes on the heels of admissions by Walker that he was eager to have the aid of oil billionaire David Koch in support his actions, an eagerness some have contended reveals a comfort with working with wealthy donors and funders of special interest groups in activities to help achieve his objectives. Here is what Walker asked for on the call with the man he thought was Mr. Koch--who chairs "Americans for Prosperity" (AFP), which ran issue ads last fall that buttressed themes from Walker's campaign, and whose billion-dollar company recently opened its own lobby shop in Madison. Here is what Walker said in response to the question of how the billionaire could help:

So the one thing in your question, the more groups that are encouraging people not just to show up but to call lawmakers and tell them to hang firm with the governor, the better. Because the more they get that assurance, the easier it is for them to vote yes. The other thing is more long term, and that is after this, you know the coming days and weeks and months ahead, particularly in some of these more swing areas, a lot of these guys are gonna need, they don't actually need ads for them but they're going to need a message put out reinforcing why this was a good thing to do for the economy and a good thing to do for the state. So the extent that that message is out over and over again is obviously a good thing.

(emphasis added). (The full transcript is available here.) So, Walker told someone he thought was Mr. Koch--who is one of the bankrollers of special interest groups that ran ads or did direct mailing or initiated robo-calling last fall--that he wanted "more groups" getting calls in to legislators in the state and help getting the message out "over and over" in "the coming days, weeks, and months."

The "League of American Voters" Launches Robo-Calls Backing Walker

Seemingly right on cue, a group that has previously refused to name its donors, the self-designated "League of American Voters" (LAV), began robo-calls and ads in Wisconsin late last week. LAV has been the vehicle for other PR campaigns in support of top items on the GOP agenda, including extending the Bush tax cuts which included big breaks for the wealthiest Americans and opposing health insurance reform. LAV is a DC-based group whose address is the exact same as at least one other group that has received Koch-related funding but claims to be merely a tenant.

The Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch.org (a specialized encyclopedia for citizens to help document the PR spin and funders of special interest groups, corporations, and lobbyists) has a profile on LAV. Here is an excerpt from that article:

The League of American Voters (LAV) is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that runs ad campaigns that reinforce key policy objectives of corporations and the right-wing politicians they back in the U.S.  LAV has previously proclaimed that it is "Leading the Fight to Stop the Obama Agenda."

Executive Summary

LAV appears primarily to run PR campaigns to try to persuade the public in favor of key priorities of corporations and reactionary politicians they fund. It does not disclose its funders. LAV shares the same street address and suite number as "Americans for Tax Reform" (ATR), a group that has received funding from the Charles R. Lambe Foundation, which is one of a group of foundations that were created from the family fortune of David and Charles Koch, the brothers who lead Koch Industries. That group is called "Americans for Tax Reform," and its leader Grover Norquist has said that his goal is to reduce government "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in a bathtub." Shortly after LAV was created and housed in ATR's suite, it told Huffington Post it had no affiliation with ATR, and its space there is "a little smaller than a cubicle." Political operative Dick Morris helped create LAV and write its ads and, in turn, LAV promotes Morris' books and published screeds and Morris promotes LAV on Newsmax.com.

LAV is involved in using ad campaigns and polling techniques against employee rights, for extending the Bush tax cuts, and against health insurance reforms.

Its website contains a banner of photos of 26 unidentified people of all ages and races, giving an impression of a wide and diverse membership. There is no independent evidence of the organization's real membership size. In late 2009, the Huffington Post reported that LAV's "executive director, its only employee, declined to identify its founders or donors but claims that in less than two months of existence it has built a membership of 16,000 and raised about $1.7 million in donations." Which CEOs, corporations, foundations, or other major donors provided the bulk of that funding and in what amounts has not been disclosed. (LAV's annual tax filing from 2009 is not available on Guidestar.)

Who Staffs LAV?

As of February 2011, LAV listed one employee and three other people who are either identified as consultants or who work for or with other organizations in the right-wing constellation.

LAV's Executive Director is Bob Adams; he worked in the George W. Bush Administration (and his wife was given an ambassadorship to Switzerland). Adams previously served as a senior leader in the "public affairs" office of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is funded by contributions from corporations and CEOs and which has received Koch-related funding. A recent detailed report, "ALEC: Ghostwriting the Law for Corporate America," notes that over 80% of ALEC's funding comes from corporate contributions. ALEC churns out proposed legislation and indoctrination desired by global corporations and other big companies. It is critical of public employees and the right to collectively bargaining, and it supports destroying unions through so-called "right to work" laws. Such provisions provide a blueprint for the kind of controversial legislation Walker introduced in Wisconsin, and that other new governors introduced elsewhere, that has provoked wide-spread public outrage. Adams worked for ALEC for about a decade.

Adams, who served in the Navy and also started a party rental company--called "Great Inflates"-- used rhetoric in his failed 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination to be West Virginia's governor that is similar to Scott Walker's. For example, Adams asserted that under the Democratic governor the state was not really "open for business" and that "We need to remove the government shackles that restrain the free market engine from running at full speed." He did not win the primary and did not win his attempt to become a state senator serving West Virginia's 16th district. He previously ran and lost races to be state treasurer in 2004, and a state delegate in 2006.

He began his political career during the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, serving as a Press Assistant to Congressman J.C. Watts, Jr., (R-Okla.). He also served as the Communications Director of Pat Buchanan's campaign in the 2000 presidential primaries. During the 2000 election and Bush v. Gore recount, he worked on the communications team of the Republican National Committee for Jim Nicholson. He has also worked as a lobbyist for the "Alliance for Marriage Foundation," was on the board of the local anti-choice group, Birthright, and worked with a U.S. Chamber of Commerce affilliate.

LAV's Consultants and Affiliates

Among the three other people beyond Adams listed as "staff" of LAV is Alexandra Preate, who is described as "an independent business and public relations consultant"--she is New York PR rep whose firm, CapitalHQ, is connected to the health insurance industry. As noted by Ben Protess and Lagan Sebert, Preate's website links to "The Galen Institute," which describes itself as "a research organization focusing on free-market health care reform." The Galen Institute is a "partner" organization of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

Another person listed on LAV's site is Phil Brennan, who is identified elsewhere as a writer for NewsMax.com. Brennan lives in Florida and, among other things, previously wrote for the reactionary National Review and also worked on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon's campaigns.  Brennan has likened President Obama to Hitler
in Newsmax.com columns.

The third person listed is octogenarian Barry Farber, a well known conservative talk show host.  LAV has also previously been affiliated with Morton Pomerantz who wrote a piece in Newsmax that blamed President Obama for the murder of a guard at the Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist. Pomerantz absurdly claimed that the president was "creating a climate of hate" against the Jews. He also asserted that if his "views are not vigorously opposed they will help create a danger as great as that posed by the Nazis to the Jewish people."

LAV and Dick Morris

Through Brennan and through political strategist Dick Morris, LAV has strong connections to the for-profit entity Newsmax.com, an outlet initiated in 1998 with money from right-wing funder Richard Mellon Scaife (who also funds ALEC) and which Forbes has called the "great right hope" of the GOP. As Terry Krepel has documented, LAV "makes regular use of Newsmax's mailing list to send out email missives with subject lines like"Obama Wants Nuclear Option to Ram Radical Agenda Through" and "Urgent News: League Ads Are STOPPING Obamacare" and "Obamacare Armageddon Has Arrived."

More writes frequently for Newsmax and appears regularly on FOX.  It is not clear how much income Morris derives from these roles or from the sale of his books. 

LAV hs admitted that at least some of the time, Morris  has "actually crafted our ads and national campaign," referring to LAV ads and campaign against the health insurance reform bill.  Terry Krepel of ConWebWatch has documented the overlap between Morris' columns promoting LAV and LAV's efforts.  Via his NewsMax column, Morris has stated that, as of late 2009, he has "no financial relationship" and he makes "no money" from LAV.  The group does provide copies of whatever book Morris is promoting to its donors as gifts.  

Morris has weighed into the Walker controversy from his perch as a commentator on FOX.  He criticized an RNC ad supporting Walker because it highlighted Obama, saying the ad should have focused on the unions more--like LAV's ad.  As Media Matters has noted, Morris frequently makes fundraising appeals for LAV generally. And, along with Morris' pitch for LAV on FOX, he has penned a fundraising pitch to get people to help pay for TV ads in Wisconsin.

Morris and his wife also have a new book called "Revolt! How the Governors Are Changing American Politics  . . . Permanently."  And, just last week, Morris announced the creation of "The Dick Morris Poll."  His first poll is on the situation in Wisconsin. The poll seems similar what is known as a "push poll," in which voters are asked leading questions that reinforce other messages in the state.  In this case, the poll focused on asking voters if they supported public workers paying more for their benefits (but there is no indication the poll takers revealed that the unions had already conceded those increases and Walker had refused to accept their acceptance of his demands on the increased costs). 

He did note that a majority of those polled oppose Walker's effort to limit collective bargaining rights.  However, his poll also tested the rhetoric of "giving schools flexibility to modify tenure, pay teachers based on merit, discharge bad teachers and promote good ones," and these are the very themes echoed in LAV's radio ads--as discussed below.  Besides advertising, polling on the topics a group wants to know more about is often one of the biggest single expenses a non-profit group can undertake.  So, one of the questions raised by LAV's close relationship with this very experienced pollster is how the benefit of such information is accounted for.  The Morris poll results were publicly announced on February 24th and LAV's robo-calls and radio ads appear to have begun a short time later.    

Who Funds LAV?

As of a little over a year ago, LAV had nearly $2 million in the bank, but there is no public reporting on how much LAV received in the 2010 election year or how much it spent and where. There is also no published information about which CEOs or corporations or foundations, if any, are the major funders of LAV's activities.  It is true that LAV actively seeks out online donations, primarily through Newsmax and Morris' appeals.  It is not clear who Adams confers with in determining what issues LAV will run ads on and where, besides Dick Morris who says he is not paid by LAV but has other income sources. Who pays for Morris' time is unclear.

It is clear that LAV is spending significant money creating and running ads in coordination with Morris. At least one of its ads was produced by Rick Wilson, as HuffPo discovered. Wilson is the guy who created the widely condemned 2002 GOP ad that smeared Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a Purple Heart recipient who lost both of his legs and an arm in Vietnam, and that attempted to link him to Osama bin Laden in the first election after the attacks of September 11th.

LAV's Robo-Calls and Ads to Support the Controversial Walker Plan to Undermine Unions

On February 25, 2011, LAV launched a robo-call campaign to aid Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a divisive politician whose election was supported by the Koch Industries' PAC and aided by a multi-million dollar ad campaign and other spending by special interest groups, some of which received general funding from David Koch and other billionaires and millionaires. In a prank call from someone impersonating Mr. Koch, Walker asked for the billionaire's help getting his message out and heard "over and over" in key districts in the state in his efforts to break the rights of public employees to unionize.

The same week this controversy broke, groups like "Americans for Prosperity," which David Koch chairs and financially supports, also launched a $325,000 ad campaign in Wisconsin to support Walker. Speaking for the Kochs, the executive vice president of Koch Industries, Richard Fink, told the National Review Online that the Kochs "will not step back at all" from the funding of "free-enterprise" initiatives. According to the NRO, "Americans for Prosperity, a political-advocacy group founded by Fink, the Koch brothers, and Jay Humphries, has been actively involved in Madison and supportive of Walker's efforts. 'We are not directing that,' Fink says. 'They are staff-driven. They are out there trying to bring fiscal responsibility back to Wisconsin. Do we support them? Yes, we do, but we are not involved with their day-to-day activities. They are out there doing their best trying to make a difference. It is good to have them on the ground, in the battle, trying to help out.'"

Along with the LAV robo-calls, groups like the Republican Governors Association--which received a million dollar check from David Koch to support its national electoral efforts and which spent $5 million in the Wisconsin governor's race in 2010 to get Walker elected--also launched PR campaigns to support Walker's union-busting effort.

LAV Ads and Robo-Calls Omit Key Fact that Unions Agreed to the Pension Changes

Here is the text of LAV's radio ad:

"The people of Wisconsin are fed up. High taxes, high unemployment and public employee unions getting more than their fair share with their high salaries and lavish health and pension benefits. Governor Scott Walker wants to stop this. Today Wisconsin faces a massive $3.6 billion deficit. Public employees should share in the sacrifices we all have to make. So say no to the big unions and no to President Obama's meddling in Wisconsin's business. We urge you to call Governor Walker and your legislator. Tell them to stand firm and to stop the public employee unions with their outrageous demands because we can't afford them anymore. Call Governor Walker and your legislator today and let your voice be heard."

Thus, LAV's ad adopts Walker's budget claims, echoes his rhetoric about shared "sacrifice" and fairnes, and it also has the audacity to assert that public employees have "lavish" benefits. And, as Walker requested of the Koch impersonator, the ad asks listeners to support the Governor and call their legislator.

Here is a paraphrase of the script of the LAV robo-calls, according to one of the recipients:

This is an important Legislative alert. The League of American Voters strongly supports the limits on public employee unions Gov. Walker is proposing. Wisconsin and other states need to balance budgets and cut spending. It is only fair to ask workers to pay more for pension and health insurance; we all have to make sacrifices. If Gov. Walker can limit bargaining to just wages and benefits, we can be free to implement key reforms in our schools. We need to reform teacher tenure, replace seniority-based pay with merit pay so we can reward good teachers and hold the others accountable, and we need to let parents send their children to school of their choice. If we need layoffs we have to be sure that our best teachers can be protected and principals can make layoffs on the basis of merit, not seniority. The union agreement expressly prohibits these key reforms. So Gov. Walker's plan will make it possible to put our children first.

Again, like LAV's ad, this script repeats the "sacrifice" and "fairness" talking points (which have likely been the subject of focus group analysis by LAV or its allies), and it begins making the case for the layoffs that Walker announced this week.

These scripts also reinforce the PR spin that the protests are about pensions and they mislead by omission by not acknowledging whatsoever that the public employee unions have agreed to the pension and insurance increases Walker demanded. They do not acknowledge that Walker has refused to accept their concession of increased financial costs to these working Americans, unless they agree to provisions that would undermine their right to organize. The scripts also omit information about the true state of the Wisconsin public employee pensions. As Zach Carter has documented, Wisconsin's public pensions are among the nation's healthiest, and the Pew Center for the States found Wisconsin to be a "national leader in managing its long-term liabilities for both pension and retiree health care."

There is no public reporting on how much LAV is spending on this campaign to support union-busting or whose financial contributions are underwriting the bulk of these substantial expenses.

LAV Fights Union Employee Rights and Benefits But Demands Tax Cuts for the Wealthiest Americans

In sharp contrast to LAV's assertion that public workers generally get "lavish" benefits and are paid unduly "high" salaries, LAV spent most of the past six months demanding that the Bush tax cuts, which provide enormous financial benefits for the wealthiest people in the U.S., be extended--via its website, renewthetaxcuts.com.

A few months before the mid-term elections, LAV joined the PR campaign, spearheaded by GOP politicians, to extend the controversial "temporary" Bush tax cuts. LAV's ads featured Fred Thompson and urged people to sign a petition opposing the expiration of the Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. Instead of calling the expiring tax cuts expiring tax cuts, however, the ads attempted to inspire fear by calling it "an automatic tax increase that will begin on Jan. 1, 2011." LAV's ads asserted that letting the temporary Bush tax cuts expire "could have catastrophic consequences for the economy." A web-based appeal asked people to sign a petition and concluded by asking people to help "support the League financially so that it can share this important message with America via TV commercials."

In 2010, LAV's executive director, Adams, claimed that letting the Bush tax cuts expire would be "cataclysmic to our nation's broken economy." In contrast to this hyperbole, CBS News reported that under the Obama administration's plan, the few married Americans making more than $373,650 a year would see their marginal tax rate increase from 35 to 39.6 percent, according to the Tax Policy Center, and the one percent making between $209,251 and $373,650 would see an increase from 33 to 36 percent. Meanwhile, Fox's talking heads repeated the GOP talking point that failing to extend the Bush tax cuts would add $678 billion to the federal deficit within ten years. (After the 2010 mid-term elections, Congress voted to extend the tax cuts at the demand of the incoming majority in the United States House of Representatives.)

Adding additional fuel to the concern raised by the Huffington Post that LAV was little more than a well-financed one-person operation, the LAV press release announcing the tax cut ads did not direct reporters to call LAV but referred them to a PR firm. That firm, Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is a PR shop well connected to GOP and is known in the PR industry for "bucking the latest feel-good lobbying trend, bipartisanship."

There is no public reporting on how much LAV spent on its PR effort to help extend the Bush tax cuts or which person or entities provided the general support or specific funding to cover the bulk of the costs associated with it.

(SourceWatch.org has more in its report on LAV, regarding its role in fighting health insurance reform and includes related articles.)

LAV & Newsmax & Political Strategies

All this begs the question of who is providing the general financial support for LAV to pay for ads and robo-calls like those being run in Wisconsin in aid of Walker's union busting. It also raises questions about the relationship between a for-profit company and its writers and a not-for-profit entity. CMD has seen a growing trend of non-profit groups working closely with people paid by other entities, which raises significant concerns. The people of Wisconsin and other Americans who are being targeted by ads paid for by groups like LAV ought to know who is really footing the bill and who is helping to call the shots. LAV is undoubtedly a "league" of some number of ordinary American voters but it also seems to be closely in league with some not so ordinary voters, like political operative Morris. With a political strategist like Morris at the nexus of three strands of activities--for-profit, not-for-profit, and partisan activities--LAV's big budget in pushing for policy victories prized by the GOP is certainly worthy of closer examination.

Who Is the League of American Voters? is the first in a series raising questions about who is funding the PR campaign to aid Walker's union-busting agenda and the national strategy to roll back worker rights and protections. (Updated.)

Lisa Graves is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which includes PRWatch.org, SourceWatch.org, and BanksterUSA.org. She formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice, as Chief Counsel for Nominations for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and as Deputy Chief of the Article III Judges Division of the U.S. Courts.

Last modified on Thursday, 03 March 2011 13:07