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Fat Cats Fishing: Wisc Governor’s 'United Sportsmen' Scandal Reveals Crony Grants with Koch Ties

A new scandal has been brewing in Wisconsin that shows the brazen nature of the state’s GOP under Governor Scott Walker. The latest incident, being called the “United Sportsmen” scandal, involves the Republican caucus writing language into the two-year budget that all but guaranteed a Department of Natural Resources fund went to a politically active organization connected to Americans for Prosperity. These same legislators lobbied hard for the $500,000 Sporting Heritage grant which was awarded to the United Sportsman of Wisconsin Foundation and has since been rescinded.  

Now, one of the controversy’s major players, former Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, has resigned from the position of division administrator for Water Compliance and Consumer Affairs in the states’ Public Service Commission. It may be the first card to fall in the house of cards du jour that could further expose Wisconsin’s deep-seeded culture of corruption.

Via the Wisconsin State Journal:

Lobbying by Republican lawmakers on behalf of a politically connected sportsmen’s group that received a $500,000 state grant was far greater than previously known, state records show.

Eighteen lawmakers signed on to an Aug. 22 letter urging the state Department of Natural Resources to award the grant to the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation, according to the records obtained by the State Journal under the state open records law.

The records also show that when hundreds of emails poured in to the agency in late August and early September opposing the grant amid questions about United Sportsmen’s tax status and qualifications, top DNR officials plowed ahead with the award, saying they had no choice but to follow the budget language inserted by lawmakers. The grant was later rescinded.

And three hours before the grant was awarded on Sept. 3, United Sportsmen’s president acknowledged to DNR executive assistant Scott Gunderson that he incorrectly told the committee considering the grant that the group received tax-exempt status from the IRS as a charitable organization.

The documents also show that Deputy DNR Secretary Matt Moroney spoke at United Sportsmen’s annual banquet and fundraiser May 9 in Madison.

Weeks later, language requiring the agency to award $500,000 to a group to recruit and train people to hunt, fish and trap was inserted by lawmakers into the state’s two-year budget. After the budget was passed, critics charged the criteria were narrowly drawn to exclude every group except United Sportsmen, which ended up being the only bidder.

Among the records was an Aug. 22 letter from 18 GOP members of the Assembly and Senate urging the DNR to award the grant to the group, which had close ties to then-Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization that spent an estimated $3.7 million on behalf of Walker to help him beat back his 2012 recall.

Hypocrisy and favoritism are nothing new to Walker’s Wisconsin. A quick glance at the makeup of the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation shows the newly formed organization has little-to-no training in the field in which it received this grant. As noted by Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel, the group has “done lobbying work for a mine and political work for state Republicans, but it hasn’t ever run a class on hunting or fishing — exactly the skills required by the grant.” Yet, days before language was written into the state budget, United Sportsman officials with extensive conservative lobbying ties took then Assembley Leader Suder on a fishing excursion:

The lobbyist for a self-described sportsmen group offered free fishing excursions to then-Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder just days before an affiliate of the group secured a now-canceled $500,000 grant from the state, newly released records show.

Suder, an Abbotsford Republican, went on the Lake Michigan outing with the head of the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin in August, about 2-1/2 months after he engineered money for the grant into the state budget. Also scheduled to be on the Aug. 22-23 trip were a lobbyist and a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. The former NRA lobbyist, Darren LaSorte, is also a board member of the foundation affiliated with United Sportsmen.

Suder said he paid his own way on the trip. But a set of emails released by Suder under the state’s open records law make plain the close ties between Suder, United Sportsmen, the National Rifle Association and the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.

Scott Meyer, United Sportsmen’s executive director and lobbyist, sent an email Aug. 16 to Suder and two others detailing plans for three outings over two days.

“Both (Thursday) evening and Friday evening are no charge,” Meyer wrote, referring to a charter fishing trip and an outing on a boat owned by a United Sportsmen board member.

Rep. Nick Milroy, the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee, told the Journal-Sentinel that “he was concerned that Suder took the “expensive fishing trip with special interest groups and registered lobbyists.” He added, “public officials are held to a higher standard…the people who elect us expect more of us than this.”

When the media caught wind of the situation, Walker was forced to veto the language which would have given the grant to United Sportsmen. Part of that was due to the fact that the state of Wisconsin would have lost $28 million in federal funding if the grant went through. The reaction to the news reveals that even Republicans were left in the dark concerning United Sportsmen:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent two sharply worded letters to the state Department of Natural Resources after lawmakers on the budget committee hastily slipped the grant into the state budget. The letters said the proposal would cost the state $28 million in annual federal money because the DNR would not have adequate control of how the grant funds were used.

Lawmakers worked on the budget for more than two weeks after the state received the first letter, but didn’t fix the provision to guard the federal money. Some legislators had no idea anything needed fixing because some leaders apparently kept the problem to themselves.

Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), who sits on the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, learned of the letters from a reporter Wednesday. He said he was stunned that the administration didn’t tell him about them.

“I’m relatively speechless,” Olsen said.

The senator said the DNR should have told him about the letters. “I’ve got to believe if that would have happened, (lawmakers) would have taken care of that immediately,” he said.

Attorney General J.P. Van Hollen has not investigated the situation causing Democrat Peter Barca, Assembly Leader, to openly question the AG’s office.  In a recent press release, Barca states:

The fact that the Republicans are engaged in a game of musical chairs indicates they know there are serious problems with the $500,000 grant Republicans directed to political allies under the guise of a hunting education grant and further proves Republicans knew that their budget measure would fleece taxpayers.

This does not resolve the many questions swirling around the broad, scandalous betrayal of hunters and taxpayers. And this should be a huge red flag to the public and hunters that there is very likely far more fire behind all this smoke.

These claims of “musical chairs” reflect a general distrust of Wisconsin politics under Walker. A handful of selected politicians are moving from job to job to help ensure an agenda is passed. A tangled web of political front groups funded by the Koch Brothers has entrenched itself deep into every level of the state’s government. In the case of United Sportsmen, this grand experiment in the dairyland’s petri dish nearly snuck by the public microscope.

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