Voucher Backers Illegally Funnel Money

A suit by the State Elections Board of Wisconsin has accused voucher supporters of illegally funneling money into the Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign of Justice Jon Wilcox.

By Barbara Miner

The Wisconsin State Journal newspaper has called the illegal donations “one of the largest political-corruption cases in state history.”

Wilcox was elected in the spring of 1997 and in the summer of 1998 voted with the majority to uphold the Milwaukee voucher program providing public dollars to private schools.

During the election campaign, Wilcox’s vote was considered crucial to the outcome of the voucher case. His opponent, Walt Kelly, was known as a strong supporter of public schools and of the separation of church and state.

Days before the election, a group known as the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation engaged in a massive, $200,000 pro-Wilcox postcard and phone-calling campaign. In order to not violate state campaign finance laws, the group denied it had any ties to the Wilcox campaign.

Following an extensive investigation, this spring the State Elections Board filed suit accusing the Wilcox campaign and the Coalition with illegally coordinating their activities to circumvent state election laws.

The Wisconsin State Journal noted in an April 20 story that Wilcox “probably would have had to withdraw from the case if the contributions from school-choice supporters had been made public.”

Only two of the donors to the postcard and phone-calling campaign came from Wisconsin. The others were described by The Wisconsin State Journal as a “nationwide collection of Republican school-choice supporters.” Donors included nationally known voucher advocates such as John Walton of WalMart and Patrick Rooney of Golden Rule Insurance in Indiana, who each kicked in $25,000 to the campaign.

“It’s pretty obvious what was going on here,” State Superintendent of Schools John Benson said in an April 21 press release. “To ensure that vouchers continued in Wisconsin, voucher supporters felt the need to guarantee the re-election of Justice Wilcox – they sought to influence the Supreme Court.”

“If we knew then what we know now,” Benson said, “Justice Wilcox surely would have been obligated to withdraw from the case.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the state’s voucher program on a 4-2 vote. Benson also argued that Justice Janine Geske’s participation in the case was also questionable because her husband served on the board of a voucher school.

“If Justices Geske and Wilcox had stepped down, as I believe they should have, the vote would have been 2-2. The law would have been declared unconstitutional based on the Court of Appeals Decision.”

“Recusing himself would have been the moral, ethical thing for Justice Wilcox to do,” Benson said. “What happened here should bother every single citizen, no matter their political persuasion.”

Following its investigation, the Election Board filed civil charges this spring against the Wilcox campaign and its manager, Mark Block, and the Coalition and its leaders, Brent Pickens and James Wigderson. The suit charges that both the Wilcox campaign and the Coalition illegally coordinated their efforts and failed to file required reports. It also claims that the Wilcox campaign filed false campaign finance reports. If convicted, the Wilcox campaign and the Coalition could be fined more than $2.6 million, according to The Wisconsin State Journal.


Pickens and Wigderson have argued that the Coalition’s campaign was a neutral effort to get out the vote. But Terry Kohler, a well-known GOP activist in Wisconsin whose company contributed $30,000 to the effort, told Justice Department investigators the purpose of the Coalition’s campaign was to help elect Wilcox.

Out-of-state donations accounted for 85% of the cash used to finance 345,000 postcards and 250,000 phone calls on the Supreme Court election.

The single largest contribution, $34,500, came from the American Education Reform Foundation, a nationwide pro-voucher group based in Milwaukee.

According to The Wisconsin State Journal, contributors to the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation included:

American Education Reform Foundation (AERF): $34,500

Windway Capital Corp. (owned by Wisconsin GOP activist Terry Kohler): $30,000

William J. Hume Trust: $25,000

Pat Rooney (president emeritus of Golden Rule and board member of the AERF): $25,000

Barre Seid (Chicago contributor to the GOP and voucher efforts): $25,000

John Walton (Wal-Mart heir and AERF board member): $25,000

PMA Foundation (funds voucher efforts and is headed by longtime GOP fund-raiser Frederick Anton III): $17,500

Bob Thompson (AERF board member, Washington lobbyist and GOP contributor): $15,000

Pete du Pont (former Delaware Governor and unsuccessful GOP presidential candidate): $1,000

William E. Lamothe Trust: $1,000

John M. and Kathleen S. MacDonough (former Miller Brewing Co. executive and his wife, Kathleen): $1,000

Robert Schoolfield (founder of a school-choice group in Austin, TX): $500.