By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
A week before the Nov. 6 election, Americans for Prosperity tried to pump up support for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The conservative advocacy group offered $1.84 per gallon gas to motorists in Rib Mountain, a town near Wausau, by paying the $1.70 per gallon difference. The line was so long that the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department came out to control traffic.
“We’re out here reminding folks what it was like to fill their tanks before President Obama took office,” Luke Hilgemann, AFP’s state director, told a local television station, referring to the brief price plunge that followed the nation’s economic collapse. The group, founded and funded by oil billionaire David Koch, staged similar gas giveaways across the nation. It also spent more than $4 million on anti-Obama ads in Wisconsin, according to the National Journal.
Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, says the Rib Mountain promotion drew a complaint to her group. Chapter 12 of the state statutes, “Prohibited Election Practices,” includes a section against giving anything of value “to induce any elector to … vote or refrain from voting for or against a particular person.”
Of course, people could get an anti-Obama gas discount and still vote for him. Some probably did.
Reid Magney, spokesman for the state Government Accountability Board, believes any complaint over this promotion would have to be filed with federal authorities, as it concerns an independent expenditure made under federal law to a federal candidate. An FEC spokesperson said the agency cannot comment on pending investigations, if any.
Welcome to the byzantine world of elections law, where accusations always exceed enforcement.
State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, made national news for saying Romney might have won Wisconsin had the state’s Voter ID law not been struck down. The liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, noting that Obama won Wisconsin by more than 200,000 votes, demanded to know whether Darling was alleging fraud on this scale or just saying this many legitimate Obama voters would have been disenfranchised. The group says it’s gotten no response.
Another alleged election shenanigan concerns Mike White, chairman and owner of Rite-Hite, a Milwaukee-based manufacturer. Last month White stated in an email that “Every Rite-Hite employee in America should understand the personal consequences to them of having our tax rates increase dramatically if President Obama is re-elected.”
Besides “having your personal taxes increase dramatically,” the email warned, the possibility of an Obama win meant “your (Retirement Savings Plan) and healthy retirement are also at risk.” White, a significant donor to state and federal GOP candidates, Romney included, added that he and Rite-Hite “totally respect your right to vote as you choose.”
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office has expressed interest in this communication and the liberal advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin has filed a complaint with the GAB. It cites a section of Chapter 12 barring employers from distributing printed matter containing “threats intended to influence the political opinions or actions of the employees.”
White and Rite-Hite have declined to comment on his email. But after the election a company official told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, for now, “no decisions have been made to drop the company insurance plan or lay off employees.”
Magney confirms the GAB has gotten a complaint but otherwise can’t comment. The GAB has no enforcement authority, but could make a referral to the district attorney. The board’s next meeting is Dec. 18.
One complicating factor is the right of individuals and companies to engage in protected free speech, a category that has proven expansive. Consider another section of Chapter 12, which has arguably not been subject to aggressive enforcement.
The section states: “No person may knowingly make or publish, or cause to be made or published, a false representation pertaining to a candidate or referendum which is intended or tends to affect voting at an election.”
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.