An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed
When billionaire Chris Cline's company bought an option to mine a swath of northern Wisconsin in 2010, the company touted the project's potential to bring up to 700 well-paid jobs to a hard-pressed part of the state.
But the Florida-based company wanted something in return for its estimated $1.5 billion investment — a change to Wisconsin law to speed up the iron mining permit process.
So, Cline officials courted state legislators and hired lobbyists. And, unbeknownst to Wisconsin voters and lawmakers, the company waged a more covert campaign, secretly funding a nonprofit advocacy group that battered opponents of the legislation online and on the airwaves.
Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on politics, hundreds of millions of dollars have flooded into the political system — much of it through nonprofit groups that have no legal obligation to identify their donors.
Usually such efforts remain hidden from view, leaving voters unaware of who's paying for the gush of campaign calls, flyers and attack ads. But a court filing recently made public by a federal appeals court in Chicago provides a rare look at how so-called "dark money" groups helped one company get what it wanted.
Both nonprofits worked to pass the mining bill. One helped to write the measure and launched a radio campaign even before it was introduced. The other tried to pressure a Republican holdout. Together, the two groups played a critical role in defeating a freshman Democratic state senator who'd voted against the bill, paving the way for its passage months later.
After the 2012 elections, some observers downplayed the impact
of dark money groups after most of the candidates supported by the largest one, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, lost. As this year's elections approach, the Cline Group's strategy in Wisconsin reveals the much bigger impact such groups can have in state races. Here their money goes much further, in some cases dwarfing the amount candidates themselves spend on their campaigns.
The nonprofits that pushed for the mining law — the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Issues Mobilization Council (WMC), an arm of the state's largest business lobby, and the Wisconsin Club for Growth — declined to comment for this story. On its website, the WMC states
"we have never disclosed our donors, and never will."
In an interview, James Buchen, a former WMC vice president, said the group's efforts on behalf of the mining bill were no different from its support of other pro-business legislation. "Our interest in this was trying to create an environment where someone was interested in coming and mining in the state," said Buchen, who left in 2012 to start a lobbying practice
A spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, Cline's Wisconsin subsidiary, did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, documents and interviews show that Gogebic's money secretly made its way into the political battle over the mining law — and that the efforts of the WMC and the Wisconsin Club for Growth significantly swayed the results.
With the help of ads funded by the two groups, the GOP retook the state senate in 2012
and passed mining legislation similar to what the company had wanted.
Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, the veteran legislator targeted by one of the groups, said Gogebic's efforts to hide its influence went beyond anything he'd witnessed since his election to the state assembly. "I've never seen anything like this done by special interests in Wisconsin in 32 years," he said.