May 17, 2017
When Gov. Scott Walker laid out a plan in his state budget address urging people to take steps to avoid welfare, it mirrored a platform of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has pushed for greater personal responsibility and more stringent welfare requirements.
Documents hacked from the Bradley Foundation’s computer server show the connection is not just philosophical — it’s financial.
A Bradley Foundation staffer sat on the Future of the Family Commission, which came up with Walker’s plan. Two experts who advised the state panel are major Bradley grant recipients, with one running a center that has received $11 million over the years. A key study used by the commission was paid for by Bradley.
The foundation even awarded a $100,000 grant to the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families to underwrite the commission itself — an unusual, if not unique, step in government. Neither the source of the commission’s money nor the foundation’s stake in the outcome was disclosed. The state spent about $62,000 of the grant before making its recommendation to the governor.
In addition, state Children and Families Secretary Eloise Anderson, who chairs a separate Bradley-funded national initiative on welfare reform, met with foundation officials shortly after her appointment to explain her priorities. She later sought the grant for the state commission.
As the deep-pocketed Bradley Foundation takes its Wisconsin template for conservative control of government across the nation, an examination of the effort in Wisconsin provides an unprecedented look at how expansive, coordinated and influential its approach has become.
The foundation actively grades its grant recipients, looks for ways in which they can work together and evaluates progress, focusing often on how they took actions helpful to Walker and other Republicans or harmful to their opponents.
The result: The work of these Bradley Foundation-funded conservative groups often becomes deeply intertwined with that of the Republican governor, even as the foundation tries to avoid crossing the line into partisan politics.
As a tax-exempt charity, Bradley cannot engage directly in political activity. Federal law requires that charitable donations be made to benefit the public good, not a private interest.
In the case of the Bradley-funded state commission on family, state Rep. Amanda Stuck (D-Appleton) argued people should know who was paying for the commission. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett made public announcements when they received Bradley grants for government projects.
“You need to know where it comes from so you can see where the data and information is coming from and whether it’s valid,” said Stuck, an Appleton Democrat and critic of Walker’s welfare proposal.
In an interview, Walker said it saved taxpayer dollars to have the Bradley Foundation pay for the panel, even if it was never announced.
“People bring in speakers on given topics, so instead of the state taxpayers having to pay to bring them in, other organizations are willing to do that,” Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I think that’s legitimate.”
In his two-year spending plan, Walker is forwarding the commission’s recommendations to do away with the so-called marriage penalty for the earned income tax credit, provide in-home training for new fathers and promote the “success sequence”: graduate from high school, get a full-time job, don’t have a child before age 21 and get married before childbearing. Critics maintain these rules are not a “magic formula” and shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for welfare programs for needy families.
Anderson, who headed the commission, said by email that the Bradley Foundation was just one of many groups she met with after returning to Wisconsin to join the Walker cabinet. As for the grant for the family commission, she said, “There was never an attempt to hide this fact.”
Along with being a Walker cabinet member, Anderson — who once said welfare had “outlived its usefulness” — is the head of the Secretaries Innovation Group, which has been awarded $1.5 million by the Bradley Foundation’s board.
Anderson’s group, made up of 20 human services secretaries from states with GOP governors, wants to return welfare decisions to the states and to cut the number of people on welfare, food stamps and Social Security Disability Insurance. It also wants to revise the earned income tax credit, with one option being to make it a subsidy for employers, not a payment to families.
One internal Bradley document showed the group meeting with the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in 2015, when House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was chairman of the panel.
“The current U.S. welfare system is broken and needs to be fixed,” Anderson said in her email to the Journal Sentinel. “I believe that we are in desperate need of Welfare Reform on the federal level that will develop a safety net that does not lock people into a lifetime of poverty and stops robbing them of their dignity.”
The Wisconsin model
Under the Wisconsin model, Bradley-funded groups recruit conservative candidates, propose and defend conservative policy, dig up dirt on liberals, draft conservative legislation and provide legal support throughout the process. These 14 groups, dubbed the “Wisconsin Network,” received more than $13 million from Bradley from 2011 to 2015.
The project was the brainchild of former Bradley Foundation CEO Michael W. Grebe, who stepped down last year after 15 years in the post. Grebe has said he never mixed his dual duties running the conservative philanthropy with his work as campaign chairman for Walker.
“I’m very careful here,” Grebe said in 2011. “I don’t use foundation resources for any of my outside activities. I have a separate email address that I use for politics. I do my political and civic work on my own time.”
But Bradley’s internal records show the line between politics and policy sometimes blurs.
The documents were obtained in a computer hack by a foreign group calling itself Anonymous Poland. The breach occurred shortly before the November 2016 election, but the records were posted online for a short period, downloaded by others and eventually came to the Journal Sentinel’s attention.
Four months after Walker survived a 2012 recall election, Grebe held the foundation’s annual donor retreat at the American Club in Kohler. Part of the cost of the event was underwritten by Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, whose holding company gave the foundation $40,000, the internal records show.
“The meeting will be closed to the media,” Grebe wrote in an invitation. “It will be private, and fully confidential.”
In all, about 85 major Wisconsin donors showed up for the Kohler conference, held Oct. 7 and 8. Of that number, 76 — or nearly 90% — have given a total of $2.1 million directly to Walker’s campaign since he first ran for governor, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis of the records and campaign contributions.
“If you got 85 people in a room that you identified as conservative donors who live in Wisconsin, should it surprise you that a significant majority of them contribute to Walker? Or to (U.S. Sen.) Ron Johnson?” Grebe asked in a recent interview. “I don’t know why you would find that surprising.”
Walker agreed to give a short talk at the Kohler event and then mingle with attendees during a cocktail reception on the conference’s first day.
The next day, R.J. Johnson, Walker’s chief campaign strategist, and then-Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes spoke to the private group, Grebe said. The presentation — titled Recalling the Recalls — occurred after the formal conference, but all donors were invited to attend.
In retrospect, Grebe said there was nothing wrong by adding a political event at the end of the conference. But he said he did regret that it went so poorly. Only 10 people came.
“We never did it again,” Grebe said.
Connections between groups
The records show the Bradley Foundation praised and appeared to reward conservative groups for helping to blunt the second John Doe investigation of Walker started by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.
In 2012, Chisholm began looking into whether Walker’s campaign had illegally coordinated fundraising and campaign advertising with other conservative groups around the state during the recall election. The crux of the investigation centered around whether campaign contribution limits were being skirted.
The probe was eventually closed with no charges.
When recommending renewal of grant money for several Wisconsin organizations, Bradley staffers cited the groups’ work in undercutting and criticizing Chisholm and the investigation. An earlier John Doe probe of Walker and his aides, focused on Walker’s time as Milwaukee County executive, had met with little resistance from conservative groups. Six individuals were charged with crimes in that first investigation.
“Media Trackers rocketed to national attention when it exposed and undermined the partisan nature of the John Doe investigation of Governor Scott Walker,” one Bradley Foundation document said.
Media Trackers, which wrote about the political affiliations of Milwaukee County prosecutors, state regulators and their family members, has received more than $1.2 million in grant money from the foundation since 2010. The group is also credited in its grant review for stories critical of Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general.
While reviewing a grant request from the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a Bradley staffer noted the center had set up reporters in statehouses around the country “to exploit the gap in local news reporting that resulted from consolidations, mergers and cutbacks” at daily newspapers. Bradley gave at least $545,500 to Wisconsin Watchdog, its operation in Madison.
“In Wisconsin that model worked,” wrote Janet Riordan, a Bradley staffer who oversaw local projects before leaving recently. “Its editor and primary reporter, Matt Kittle, has made a name for himself for his aggressive investigative reporting — notably on the John Doe investigations and the Tomah Veterans’ Administration scandal — and for his willingness to work with other conservative resources.”
The stories on the Tomah VA are likely to be used prominently against U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in her election next year. Wisconsin Watchdog was called “the leading news outlet for coverage of Wisconsin’s John Doe investigations.”
Kittle, who also is a fill-in for Wisconsin conservative talk radio hosts, wrote nearly 400 stories critical of the John Doe probe. Wisconsin Watchdog shut down earlier this year, and Kittle switched to the MacIver Institute, a Madison think tank financed by the Bradley Foundation.
In recommending approval of a grant for the MacIver Institute, Bradley officials cited its work in support of right-to-work legislation, which bans labor contracts from requiring workers to pay union dues. Walker signed right-to-work legislation into law in 2015.
Bradley has given MacIver more than $1.1 million since it was founded in 2008.
The internal records show MacIver’s agenda for the future includes a push for a 3% flat tax, a change in mandatory sentencing rules for 17-year-olds and a study on how to cut $1 billion in state spending.
These groups were also there to help lend support to Act 10, the governor’s signature piece of legislation to curtail collective bargaining for public employees.
One of the most aggressive was the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative litigation center. In Bradley’s review of its grants, the law center is credited with helping Walker by defending the law against challenges from state unions and suing the Kenosha Unified School Board for violating the new law in a new contract. The conservative law center also represented U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in his unsuccessful lawsuit over health care coverage for federal lawmakers under the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare.
The Bradley Foundation encouraged the Milwaukee-based law center to continue to work with other conservative nonprofits in the state. The institute has been awarded more than $3 million from the foundation since 2011.
“If the Wisconsin Network had an MVP, it would be Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL),” a Bradley staffer wrote in 2015. “It is, as founder Rick Esenberg likes to say, counsel to the movement. Nearly all of the organizations of the conservative infrastructure come to WILL for advice.”
Matt Rothschild, head of the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the Bradley Foundation and similar groups have been key players in helping turn the Wisconsin a deep shade of red.
“The Republican officials they helped elect understand what side their bread is buttered on, so they deliver the policies that these groups want,” he said. “And then the officials get the support, either direct or indirect, for their re-election efforts because they were good little water boys for their paymasters.
“And around and around it goes.”
Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.