The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is not simply a conservative, public interest law firm. It is a virtual extension of the political apparatus surrounding Gov. Scott Walker, engaging in ‘issue litigation’ to advance and protect his interests.
Scot Ross, One Wisconsin Now Executive Director
Established in 2011, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit advertising itself as seeking to “advance the public interest in the rule of law… in partnership with like-minded individuals and organizations.”
The right-wing Bradley Foundation has been the almost exclusive underwriter of WILL’s activities.
In reality, the right-wing Bradley Foundation has been the almost exclusive underwriter of WILL’s activities. For the years in which Federal IRS records are available for both the Bradley Foundation and WILL, 2011 and 2012, Bradley funds accounted for over 90 percent of the total money WILL reported raising. (NOTE – WILL has released their 2013 990, however at this time the 2013 990 for the Bradley Foundation has not been released.)
Why is this significant? The President and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, Michael Grebe, has also served as a chair of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign since 2010.
A review of their case filings and other documents reveals that their activities show a remarkably close relationship to the policy and political ambitions of Gov. Scott Walker. In fact, WILL has gone so far as to threaten legal action against the school board on which Gov. Walker’s November election opponent sits.
In sum, Gov. Walker has the benefit of a well-funded “public interest” law firm at the ready to defend and promote his interests in court and in the media.
A review of available records from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reveals that the Bradley Foundation has been the nearly exclusive funder of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.
In 2011, according to their IRS Form 990, WILL disclosed raising $505,000 in contributions and grants. The 2011 IRS Form 990 filed by the Bradley Foundation reports a grant of $500,000 to WILL to “support general operations.” WILL’s 2012 IRS Form 990 reveals that the organization received $653,128 in contributions and grants. A review of the Bradley Foundation’s IRS Form 990 for the same year indicates that they provided or had approved a total of $500,000 to WILL to again support “general operations.”
In total, WILL reported raising $1,158,128 in gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees in tax years 2011 and 2012. The Bradley Foundation reports having provided or approved $1 million in funding for WILL general operations over the same time.
The explanation for the remarkable synergy between WILL and the political interests of Gov. Walker seems to rest with the significant investment by one man in both entities.
Mr. Michael Grebe is the president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, the almost exclusive funder of WILL. With over $620 million in assets, Grebe’s Bradley Foundation is among the largest underwriters of right-wing causes in the United States, spending over $500 million over the last ten plus years to fund a vast right-wing infrastructure to advance their vision of more privatization and less corporate accountability.
The Bradley Foundation’s million-dollar plus investment in WILL is intended to promote its radical privatization agenda and protect the politicians like Gov. Walker that eagerly carry it out.
WILL for Walker in Action
The following is a brief summary of several actions taken by WILL since its inception demonstrating the remarkable, but ultimately unsurprising, confluence of their actions and Gov. Walker’s political interests.
John Doe Investigations
Gov. Walker and his campaign have been under criminal investigation every day of his term in office. And WILL has been there to provide sympathetic legal “analysis” and commentary in the media.
Despite the connections between WILL and the Walker campaign, to date the representatives of WILL attempting to excuse Walker’s behavior are, at best, identified as “conservative.”
Certainly a lawyer whose salary has been almost entirely paid and an organization that is almost entirely funded by the chair of the campaign whose conduct they are defending ought to be identified more accurately.
The messaging of Gov. Walker and WILL have been remarkably similar – the collusion between Walker and groups spending on his behalf is not only legal but constitutionally protected free speech.
WILL is providing legal counsel for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Fellow Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner termed the Johnson/WILL suit a “political stunt”.
And while Rep. Sensenbrenner may take a dim view of these legal shenanigans, WILL’s suit provides useful political cover for a governor that turned his back on federal Medicaid expansion funds, a decision that is costing Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars and stripping almost 77,000 of access to state help affording care.
One Wisconsin Now has filed a formal complaint with the Federal Elections Commission over Sen. Johnson’s failure to disclose how much he was or intends to pay WILL for their legal services on his behalf.
Suing to Undo Campaign Finance Limits
On behalf of a wealthy GOP donor, WILL sued to have the state’s $10,000 aggregate limit on campaign contributions thrown out. More recently, they have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Citizens for Responsible Government, the group behind Walker’s election as Milwaukee County Executive, to undo aggregate limits on political action committee (PAC) donations under state law.
Walker, who has raised significant amounts of campaign cash from large individual donors and PACs, would clearly benefit if his donors no longer had to limit their giving to political candidates because of aggregate contribution limits.
Act 10 Legal Action
Gov. Walker’s signature “accomplishment” in an administration wracked by cronyism, corruption and incompetence has been dividing Wisconsin as never before by stripping over 175,000 public employees of their workplace rights.
WILL has aggressively threatened or actually filed lawsuits against public employers with the temerity to show their workers respect and negotiate with them over the conditions of their employment.
In a dramatic illustration of just how far WILL would go, they filed legal action alleging the Milwaukee Area Technical College broke the law in negotiating a contract with their employees that would have saved taxpayers an estimated $14 million in its first year, and $150 million over the term of the agreement.
Walker Administration Power Grab
Among the first acts of Gov. Walker upon taking office was to try to grab more power for himself by giving himself veto power over administrative rules promulgated by state agencies to implement state laws (2011 WI Act 21).
Legal action was undertaken to prevent this power grab from diminishing the authority of the state constitutional office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. On behalf of representatives of the private voucher school industry, WILL filed a court brief arguing on behalf of Walker’s power grab.
Threatening Political Opponents
Gov. Walker’s election opponent Mary Burke serves on the Madison Metropolitan School Board. When it was reported that the school board was poised to extend the existing contract of teachers, WILL issued a blustery threat declaring their action illegal and threatening litigation.
Protecting Private Voucher Schools from Scrutiny
The privatization of public education is a top priority of the Bradley Foundation. So it was no surprise to see Gov. Walker push through a massive expansion of the program – while also making record cuts to public education and refusing to push for more accountability for public tax dollars going to private schools.
The lack of accountability of voucher schools has raised serious concerns about possible discrimination against students with disabilities, in possible violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Department of Justice, via the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has requested information from voucher schools as part of their inquiry.
WILL quickly issued a “public comment” seeking to quash any transparency and accountability for the voucher program. They advised voucher schools to not cooperate with the state Department of Public Instruction and federal investigators and deny requests for information.
Defending Voter Suppression
The rights of workers were not the only ones under attack by Gov. Walker. Voters have suffered too, and among the most visible assaults on access to the franchise has been a racist voter ID law that could prevent an estimated 300,000 otherwise legal voters from casting a ballot.
WILL has filed a legal brief in state court in support of the law, as part of the effort to uphold Gov. Walker’s voter ID law.
Hobby Lobby Decision Defense
Mr. Esenberg has opined in defense of the recent Hobby Lobby U.S. Supreme Court decision to grant certain corporations the right to deny women’s contraceptive coverage as part of their employer provided health insurance.
No doubt this is a position shared by Gov. Walker and a convenient defense in light of his own policies like attempting to repeal the state contraceptive equity requirement for health insurance plans and shuttering health clinics delivering comprehensive care – including birth control – to women.
Time and again the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has sued, offered legal advice or opined as “experts” in support of or defense of Gov. Walker and his actions and agenda.
One could chalk-up the amazing synergy between them to a shared, far-right conservative ideology. But the fact is they have a much more fundamental bond.
The Bradley Foundation has provided over 90 percent of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty funds for two years. And the man in charge of the Bradley Foundation, Michael Grebe, has served as chair Gov. Walker’s campaign since 2009 and was co-chair of his gubernatorial transition team in 2010.
With over $620 million in assets and having spent in the neighborhood of $500 million over the last ten plus years to achieve their mission of radical privatization and less corporate accountability, the Bradley Foundation spends money to get their way. To date they have invested at least $1 million in WILL, and the return on that investment is an organization that protects and promotes the political prospects of Gov. Scott Walker.