Campaign Cash From Voucher Backers At Issue in Wisconsin

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In Wisconsin, it is known as the Case of the Mystery Postcards.

In 1997, Justice Jon Wilcox of the state supreme court was up for election to a full term on the bench, when late in his campaign, some 354,000 postcards flooded mailboxes urging citizens to vote.

The postcards were a bit oblique. They compared Justice Wilcox's qualifications—five years on the supreme court and 17 years as a judge—with those of Milwaukee lawyer Walt Kelly, his opponent: "25 years as a trial lawyer; ACLU special recognition award recipient." Of course, many observers interpreted the reference to the American Civil Liberties Union as a suggestion that Mr. Kelly was too liberal for the state high court.

As it turns out, the postcards were being financed largely by contributions from supporters of private school vouchers from across the country, who viewed the Wisconsin high court race as a crucial battleground.

Justice Jon Wilcox

That revelation, coming after a two-year investigation, has led to a recent lawsuit against Justice Wilcox's campaign organization and a statewide debate over the ethics of judicial contributions from groups interested in a specific case.

Because of the voucher factor, the 1997 Wisconsin Supreme Court race had attracted an unusual amount of national attention and was one of the most expensive in state history.

Elsewhere, the stakes in the debate over private school vouchers are so high that both sides haven't hesitated to seek an extra edge in court.

In Florida, where a statewide voucher program has been challenged by teachers' unions, voucher advocates earlier this year asked the trial judge to disqualify himself on the grounds that his son was engaged to be married to the daughter of a high-ranking teachers' union official. The young woman denied they were engaged, but the Institute for Justice, the Washington-based pro-voucher group, went so far as to obtain sworn affidavits from two of her hairstyling clients who said they had heard her discuss the impending marriage.

Nevertheless, the organization dropped its request that the judge remove himself from the case. His ruling against the state voucher program is being appealed.

Cash Contributions

Three years ago in Wisconsin, everyone realized the lawsuit over the expansion of Milwaukee's pioneering voucher program to include students in religious schools was eventually headed back to the state supreme court. The court had heard arguments in the case in 1996, but deadlocked 3-3. The suit went back to a trial court, but Justice Wilcox was on record with his opinion that the expanded voucher program did not violate the state or federal constitution.

Mr. Kelly, meanwhile, was strongly backed by teachers' unions in the state and was perceived as someone who would be likely to strike down the expansion of vouchers to religious school students.

Justice Wilcox's strategists became worried in late 1996 and early 1997 as Mr. Kelly's campaign appeared to gain momentum. That's when, according to the state election board, they began soliciting contributions from voucher supporters, both to the justice's campaign organization and to an independent group that sponsored the postcard drive and a related telephone effort.

After two years of investigation, the election board recently sued Justice Wilcox's campaign organization, claiming that it had accepted $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions in the form of the postcards and telephone calls for the get-out-the-vote effort.

An investigative report submitted to the board concludes that Justice Wilcox's campaign manager worked closely with the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation, the independent group behind the postcards. The coalition received 12 major cash contributions, and "most if not all of the contributors are known to be active supporters of the school choice movement," the report says.

Among the contributors were the American Education Reform Foundation, which in 1997 was an Indianapolis-based organization that promoted vouchers nationwide. Its chairman was J. Patrick Rooney, the chairman emeritus of the Golden Rule Insurance Co. and the founder of a privately financed voucher program in Indianapolis. The organization contributed $34,500 to the coalition.

Kevin Teasley, who was the executive director of the foundation at the time, said last week that the state report was "pretty accurate."

"We were simply a contributor to a campaign," he said. "We had no knowledge of any other activities."Other contributions included $25,000 from Barre Seld, a Chicago business executive who has been a supporter of school choice and the Republican Party; $17,500 from the PMA Foundation, a Philadelphia-based trust that also supports private school vouchers; and $1,000 from Pierre S. du Pont, the former governor of Delaware who advocated vouchers during his brief 1988 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

State Chief Alarmed

John T. Benson, Wisconsin's elected superintendent of public instruction, said he was troubled by the election board's revelations.

"It is obvious that the people who made contributions to this justice's campaign had one thing in mind, and that was to elect someone who would be an advocate for the voucher system," he said last week. Mr. Benson's department oversees the state-enacted program, but he has never hidden his disagreement with it.

Because of his campaign contributions from voucher supporters, Justice Wilcox should have disqualified himself from hearing the voucher case when the issue returned to the state high court in 1998, Mr. Benson argued.

By that time, a justice who had voted against the expanded voucher program in 1996 had retired and was replaced by one who voted to uphold it. The high court voted 4-2 to uphold the program on state and federal constitutional grounds, with Justice Wilcox in the majority.

Thus, the outcome would not have been altered if Justice Wilcox had chosen to sit out the case. But his electoral victory proved significant. If Mr. Kelly had won and voted against religious school vouchers, the resulting 3-3 deadlock would have meant an end to voucher expansion. A state appeals court's judgment against the program would have prevailed.

The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to review the Wisconsin high court ruling, and the expanded Milwaukee program this year benefits about 8,000 students in 91 private schools, many of which are religiously affiliated.

Justice Wilcox did not return a phone call to his chambers last week. He told investigators that he had kept at arm's length from the independent get-out-the-vote effort and didn't know about the postcards until after they were mailed. Whether aided by the effort or not, the justice defeated Mr. Kelly handily, with 62 percent of the vote.

The state election board passed a motion in March declaring that Justice Wilcox had done nothing illegal himself and "was not personally responsible for any illegal activities of his campaign."

But the board last week rejected an offer from his campaign organization to settle the lawsuit for $10,000. One board member said there were too many outstanding questions to settle the case at this point.

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Pages 21, 28

Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as Campaign Cash From Voucher Backers At Issue in Wisconsin
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