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Walker confronts new 'dark money' controversy

A Wisconsin billionaire generously supported Gov. Scott Walker with "dark money" contributions. The investment appears to have paid dividends.
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Fitchburg, Wis.
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Fitchburg, Wis.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's (R) career in public office has not been without controversy. The "John Doe" investigation has been ongoing for quite a while, and has led to criminal prosecutions of former Walker colleagues, and there's also a series of questions surrounding alleged coordination between the governor's recall campaign and allied groups on the right.
These stories were obviously not serious enough in the minds of Wisconsin voters to derail Walker's career -- he won re-election last fall with relative ease -- but as the governor moves forward with his unannounced presidential plans, he and his team surely realize that the scrutiny is poised to become far more serious.
And with that in mind, investigative reporter Michael Isikoff published a doozy of a report for Yahoo News today raising questions that Walker likely have to answer fairly soon.

John Menard Jr. is widely known as the richest man in Wisconsin. A tough-minded, staunchly conservative 75-year-old billionaire, he owns a highly profitable chain of hardware stores throughout the Midwest. He's also famously publicity-shy -- rarely speaking in public or giving interviews. So a little more than three years ago, when Menard wanted to back Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- and help advance his pro-business agenda -- he found the perfect way to do so without attracting any attention: He wrote more than $1.5 million in checks to a pro-Walker political advocacy group that pledged to keep its donors secret, three sources directly familiar with the transactions told Yahoo News.

That, in itself, seems rather routine. There are plenty of very wealthy, politically active Americans writing generous checks to various groups, and many of these contributions are not subjected to disclosure laws. It's called "dark money" for a reason -- these political transactions, which are legal, are shielded from the glare of public scrutiny.
But in this case, the fact that a billionaire directed $1.5 million to the Wisconsin Club for Growth to indirectly help Walker isn't the problem. It's how the billionaire benefited soon after that matters.
Isikoff's report is well worth reading for the details and analysis, but note that in the wake of Menard's generous campaign support, Menard's company was awarded "up to $1.8 million in special tax credits from a state economic development corporation that Walker chairs."

{i]n his five years in office, Walker's appointees have sharply scaled back enforcement actions by the state Department of Natural Resources -- a top Menard priority. The agency had repeatedly clashed with Menard and his company under previous governors over citations for violating state environmental laws and had levied a $1.7 million fine against Menard personally, as well as his company, for illegally dumping hazardous wastes. "This, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with the dark-money world we live in," said Bill Allison, senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based based nonprofit group that tracks the influence of money in politics. "Here's somebody who obviously has issues before the state, and he's able to make a backdoor contribution that nobody ever sees. My sense is [political] insiders know about these contributions. It's only the public that has no idea."

The governor's office strongly denies anything untoward, though  there's a limit as to how much Team Walker can say -- the governor's alleged coordination with the Wisconsin Club for Growth is already the subject of an ongoing probe, so Walker's aides can't answer some of the questions involving the far-right group and it's connections to the governor's office. 
We'll have more on this on tonight's show.