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Wisconsin governor says he was unaware of donation from mining company

MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said over the weekend that he played no role in soliciting cash from a mining company for the Wisconsin Club for Growth during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, adding that no one should be surprised that the pro-business governor backed legislation helpful to the firm.

Asked if he was aware that Gogebic Taconite secretly donated $700,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth — a pro-business advocacy group directed by the governor’s campaign adviser — Walker said, “Not to my knowledge.”

When asked if the previously undisclosed money and subsequent legislation were part of some pay-to-play scheme, Walker said, “That’s a ridiculous argument.”

Long before the recall elections were launched, he said, he advocated creating jobs in Ashland and Iron counties by permitting the iron ore mine. “Nobody’s shocked … that I supported the mine,” the first-term Republican governor said Saturday after a campaign event in Kenosha.

Later, at a Racine stop, Walker said he helped solicit contributions to Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 primarily to help GOP senators who faced recalls. The court filings suggested, however, that he was involved in raising more than

$1 million for Club for Growth in the months before his own recall election.

Walker said he is not soliciting money for Wisconsin Club for Growth in the current election, stating that his focus now is on raising cash for his personal campaign and the state Republican Party. He also said he doesn’t believe he directed campaign money to the group during his 2010 campaign for governor.

Two separate judges have concluded the secret investigation is without merit, Walker said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, who will face off against Walker in November, said she found it “appalling” that Walker may have been steering donations to a group with which he was closely associated.

The disclosure of the secret fundraising operation occurred in court documents that were unsealed for a short time Friday. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made the documents public as part of ongoing litigation over a probe into Walker’s campaign, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups.

By late Friday, documents could no longer be accessed on the court’s website.

But the disclosure continued to reverberate over the weekend, especially among those who were at the center of the fight over Gogebic Taconite’s efforts to build a massive open-pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin. In 2013, Walker signed a bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature that eased environmental regulations for iron mining.

Donations to nonprofits like Wisconsin Club for Growth generally are not disclosed to the public. Emails obtained by Schmitz’s investigative team suggested that Walker encouraged groups and individuals to give to Club for Growth during the recall in an effort to bypass state rules on disclosure and donation limits.

“I want to throw up that we have a governor that encourages that sort of pay-to-play mentality,” said Democratic state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar. “It is Louisiana-sleaze politics in which big money thinks it can spend enough to get the government it wants.”

GOP state Sen. Dale Schultz, the only Republican senator who voted against the mining legislation, indicated he was not surprised by the donation. Schultz sought to craft a bipartisan mining bill with Jauch and Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen.

“The fact that someone gave a donation in and of itself does not indicate solid evidence that there is pay to play,” Schultz said. “But there just isn’t any question that the quality of public policy making in Wisconsin has suffered since big money has come to this state.”

He said it was “particularly disturbing” that the mining company sought to conceal its activities.

“They have obviously tried to channel their money in places where the public won’t see it,” Schultz said.

“I just think in this state that is going to get a very negative reaction from the public,” Schultz continued. “I guess I’m just saddened. I love this state. I have loved its political traditions, and I just don’t think this is us. I really don’t.”