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Meet the Lobbyists Who Got a $250 Million Subsidy for a Milwaukee...

Meet the Lobbyists Who Got a $250 Million Subsidy for a Milwaukee NBA Arena

| News Investigation
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After an undercover New York detective and a biker were caught on video ruthlessly beating a motorist, the two were convicted on Tuesday of second-degree assault, coercion and riot. Their sentencing is set for August.

Wisconsin Governor, and Republican Party presidential candidate, Scott Walker is notorious for his cuts to the public sector and his strict adherence to conservative tax policy. So it’s little surprise that his plan to score the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks a new arena with $250 million in taxpayer money (a number that will rise to $400 million as a result of interest) has raised eyebrows nationwide.

The Bucks owners are billionaires, yet through fuzzy math and mysterious debt, the poster-child for the GOP’s supposed war against government spending has argued that citizens fund a massive hunk of corporate welfare. Meanwhile, Walker has remained consistent when it comes the areas he loves to savage: teachers, public employees, and low-income residents. Walker’s most recent budget hacks a huge amount of cash from public education. How much money? You guessed it, the same $250 million amount offered to the arena.

Though media outlets have made the connection between the fact Walker is cutting social services while doling out corporate welfare to the Bucks’ owners, little talk has ensued regarding the army of lobbyists who peddled influence and landed an arena subsidy bill.

Until now, that is. Meet some of the lobbyists who won Walker’s advocacy for the bill, which he will sign into law on August 12 at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee.

The Firm

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-Ryan Murray is the former Deputy Secretary and CEO of the scandal-ridden Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). Murray is also the former deputy chief of staff to Walker and the former policy director for Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial run. Murray is now part of the WI-based PR and lobbying group, The Firm. Murray also previously worked as communications director for Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a key point man for the Bucks arena effort.

Murray is not officially registered to lobby for the Bucks. But the contact person listed on a June 9 press release for a pro-arena subsidy rally called for by a coalition called Play it Forward Wisconsin (perhaps a play on Walker’s initial “Pay Their Way” PR meme generated to garner public support for bankrolling the proposed arena) is The Firm’s Buddy Julius, who co-runs the firm with Murray, a registered lobbyist also not registered to do so for the Bucks.

MMAC

-Andrew Davis is a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), registered to lobby on behalf of the arena, also creating and funding the aforementioned “Play it Forward” campaign. MMAC, a local member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has spent 45-percent of its total time lobbying in 2015 doing so for the arena, raking in $23,400 in billable hours for arena-related lobbying.

Davis formerly worked as director of external relations for Walker before getting the job at MMAC. Documents obtained via Wisconsin’s Public Records Law by TruthDig show that MMAC has been the main driving force behind the pro-arena talking points, statistics presented by Walker on his “Cheaper to Keep Them” website and by other politicians pushing for a taxpayer-subsidized downtown Milwaukee arena.

-Steve Baas also lobbies for MMAC and formerly worked for Republican Assembly Speakers Scott Jensen and John Gard (who also lobbies for the arena for Marquette University and for whom Jensen formerly served as campaign chair).

Jensen, who also now works as a lobbyist, was charged with a felony by the State of Wisconsin and sentenced to 15 months in prison for using the Wisconsin Assembly’s Republican caucus office as a campaign office for GOP candidates, known as the “caucus scandal” in the Badger State. He eventually settled the case with the then-District Attorney of Waukesha County, Brad Schimel, who now sits as Wisconsin’s Attorney General.

Metadata reviewed for the June 9 “Play It Forward” press release shows it was actually authored by Steve Baas, one of the two MMAC registered lobbyists for the arena subsidy.

Beyond the lobbyists themselves, MMAC also has a key tie to Walker: its Board member and real estate tycoon Jon Hammes serves as campaign finance co-chair for Walker’s presidential run. Hammes, International Business Times reported, will likely land the real estate development contract for the new arena.

The Bucks

-Jeff Fitzgerald is the former Wisconsin Speaker of the House who now lobbies for the Bucks. Fitzgerald and his brother (the aforementioned Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald) pushed Walker’s infamous anti-union bill through the the Wisconsin legislature, earning the state the name “FitzWalkerstan” by former Democratic Representative Marc Pocan, who now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

-Robert Cook is the Bucks VP of Government Relations and formerly served as a legislative director for US Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), a man well-known for introducing the USA PATRIOT ACT to the House in the days after the September 11th attacks.

-Eric Petersen is a long-time Wisconsin lobbyist. At one point he lobbied on behalf of a casino in Kenosha, Wisconsin that would have, due to a contract signed with the casino, lined his pockets and that of his lobbyist colleagues to the tune of $46.5 million. Regulators in Wisconsin opened a line of communication with the FBI when they discovered the business they incorporated to sack the cash, Madison Consultants LLC, and ultimately the deal quickly became a sunk ship.

One of those Madison Consultants LLC colleagues was Bill McCoshen, former chief-of-staff and campaign manager for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who Petersen still works with at the firm Capitol Consultants. McCoshen also headed up Competitive Wisconsin, created by Walker to ensure that Wisconsin remains “Open for Business,” the Governor’s favorite catchphrase. Competitive Wisconsin’s “Be Bold” campaign recommended creation of WEDC.

Bipartisan Affair

While far more lobbyists with Republican ties fight for the arena, Democrats also have skin in the game. This faction is lead by Mayor Tom Barrett — Walker’s losing opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial election and 2012 recall — and it has deployed a team of lobbyists to advocate on behalf of an arena subsidy.

One name not found as a registered lobbyists but actively pushing for the arena is attorney Mike Wittenwyler. On top of helping the Bucks get language for an arena subsidy inserted into first the Budget and then the stand-alone bill as seen in Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau drafting files obtained by TruthDig, Wittenwyler also served as an attorney for the now-disbanded Progressives United PAC, run by former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). Wittenwyler served on Feingold’s first U.S. Senate campaign team in 1992 and served as his 1998 U.S. Senate campaign’s spokesman.

-Bryan Brooks works at the same lobbying firm, Paladin Consulting Group, as Jeff Fitzgerald and he lobbies alongside Fitzgerald for the arena subsidy on behalf of the Bucks. He formerly worked as Chief of Staff and Research Assistant for Wisconsin State Senator Mark Meyer (D-LaCrosse). Though a Democrat, Brooks has given campaign money to Walker and to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, while also giving money to Barrett’s 2010 race against Walker.

-Eric Peterson is a lobbyist for Milwaukee County who has lobbied for the arena on behalf of Democratic Party County Executive Chris Abele. Peterson formerly served chief-of-staff for Wisconsin Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), famous nationally as one of the most outspoken members of the “Wisconsin 14,” which fled the state instead of voting on Walker’s union-busting “budget repair bill” back in 2011 during the Wisconsin Uprising. Taylor voted “aye” for the arena subsidy bill.

Peterson’s colleague John Zapfel, Deputy Chief-of-Staff for Abele, formerly served as a high-ranking staffer for U.S. Sen. Kohl (D-WI) and for Walker’s predecessor, Democratic Governor James Doyle. Doyle now works for Foley and Lardner, the law firm that represented Kohl for his sale of the Bucks.

-Bruce Block is a Milwaukee-area real estate attorney who has lobbied the City of Milwaukee for the arena representing the Bucks, according to lobbying disclosure records. Campaign finance records show Block donated money toward both of Barrett’s gubernatorial runs, has contributed financially to a Barrett mayoral campaign, and he was a significant funder of Doyle’s gubernatorial races.

While the bill Scott Walker will soon sign into law passed through both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature in a bipartisan basis, the Bucks owners are asking for even more taxpayer money from the City of Milwaukee. The City of Milwaukee Common Council will vote in early-September on whether or not to give a $47 million tax subsidy toward the arena and the Bucks hope Block’s lobbying billable hours will pay dividends in the form of a new shovel-ready arena.

Scott Walker might be a polarizing figure on some issues but the push for his arena plan, like most stadium schemes, is a bipartisan affair.




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Steve Horn
Steve Horn is a Madison, WI-based Research Fellow for DeSmogBlog and a freelance investigative journalist. He previously was a reporter and researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. In his free time, Steve is a competitive runner, with a personal best time of 2:43:04 in the 2009 Boston Marathon. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majoring in political science and legal studies, his writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Guardian, Vice News, The Nation, Wisconsin Watch, Truth-Out, AlterNet and elsewhere.

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