By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
The Capital Times of Madison recently ran an article on Vince Megna, the flamboyant Milwaukee “lemon law” lawyer who plans to run against state Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack this spring.
“I’ve lived through four Supreme Court races in the last four years, and the first three were all controlled by the Koch brothers and out-of-state money,” said Megna, who sues companies that make defective products and stars in Michael Moore-ish YouTube videos lampooning Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans.
Asked what he thought of Roggensack, considered the leader of the court’s conservative majority, Megna replied, “I don’t really view her as my opponent. I view David Koch as my opponent.”
Turns out Megna is himself churning out defective products. Somebody call a lawyer.
In fact, the past four state Supreme Court races have played out over a six-year period and only the last one, which Megna exempted from his critique, had any apparent tie to oil billionaires David and Charles Koch. In that 2011 race between Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, a group affiliated with another group affiliated with the Kochs spent an estimated $985,000 bashing Kloppenburg.
“The Koch brothers were involved in the 2011 state Supreme Court race,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “But if they were involved in other recent Supreme Court races, then they funneled money into those campaigns in a way that escaped our detection.”
That’s possible, since Wisconsin lets groups run “issue ads” that stop short of telling people how to vote without disclosing their funding sources. But Megna — who now says he meant to include each of the past four races in his critique — doesn’t have any evidence of this.
Megna says he’s evoking the Koch brothers “as a general concept,” to illustrate the role of out-of-state money. But he can’t prove recent state’s Supreme Court elections were “controlled” by this either.
An analysis of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign data shows that about $20 million was spent on the last state Supreme Court races. Just $6.7 million came from the candidates’ campaigns, the rest from outside groups. Leading the pack were the conservative Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which spent an estimated $5.1 million, and the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee, which spent an estimated $4.2 million. Both are state-based groups.
As Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up.
Megna is on much firmer ground when he predicts that money will play a “huge” role in the election, which could determine the ideological tilt of the court. He plans to spend some of his own money prior to the Feb. 19 primary, which will narrow the field to two candidates for the April 2 general election. But he won’t be going hog wild.
“I would not put up $3 million to win a $150,000 a year job,” Megna says. “I’m running for the Supreme Court, not trying to be locked up in an insane asylum.”
Marquette law professor Ed Fallone, who has also plans to run, believes he can be competitive in the race but declines to publicly discuss his fundraising strategy. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi is also considering a run. Candidates have until Jan. 2 to file.
Brandon Scholz, Roggensack’s campaign adviser, rips Megna as an attention-seeker who’s careless with facts.
“There’s no evidence that the Koch brothers or the Greater Wisconsin Committee control the court,” Scholz says. He contends that groups on both sides have a right to back candidates and that Roggensack and other justices retain independence of thought. “She is beholden to her philosophy, not somebody else’s.”
Megna shrugs this off, calling Scholz “the former chairman of the state Republican Party” — actually, he was executive director — which “destroyed consumer law in this state.” The Republicans, says Megna, “go ahead without any concern of what they’re talking about.”
Look who’s talking.
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.