Friday, March 02, 2007

The Troha Indictment: It's the Institution, Stupid

Allow me to get out of the way up front that I'm not happy about Doyle's acceptance of campaign funds from Dennis Troha's family members. I think the campaign knew all of the money was really from daddy and not any of the kids.

But I don't think there's going to be any evidence to actually convict Doyle or any of his top campaign staffers of wrongdoing. And setting aside that legal question, as Brian Fraley points out, it's the court of public opinion that most politicians need to consider first and foremost when news like this hits.

In many ways, the standard for conviction in the court of public opinion is lower than in a court of law. There are rules and regulations in a courtroom that don't exist in the realm of public discourse. And courts of law are presided over by judges who often have a level of respect for fairness and equity, while the court of public opinion is presided over by the media that is -- more and more, as a recent Frontline series pointed out -- after an eye-catching and, subsequently, money-making headline.

That said, my guess is that this story will have little to no political impact on Governor Doyle. And that has nothing to do with Doyle himself, but rather the Office of Governor in the State of Wisconsin.

After Doyle beat Mark Green in November -- so much so that the GOP didn't even bother using Doyle's cash advantage as an excuse -- many conservatives in the state were at a loss for words to explain why. Indeed, Doyle had been hit and hit hard for months on ethical questions.

I had conservative commenters showing up on nearly all of my election-related posts from last spring on telling me to "just wait until November" when Georgia Thompson and all of the other messes thrown at Doyle would finally hit the fan (and I'm sure I'll get the same about Troha).

And the Journal Sentinel easily has enough coverage of its own to dedicate a special section on its website to all of the front page stories it ran against the governor.

But not only did Doyle greatly expand his margin of victory from 2002 across the state, as Jay pointed out shortly after the election, the governor went from losing the 5-county Milwaukee area to McCallum in 2002 to winning it in 2006. That means in spite of the incessant JS attacks, Doyle actually picked up votes in the area where the paper is most widely read.

And this isn't to say that Wisconsin voters don't care about ethics, as some conservatives assumed after the election. Rather, most simply see it as part and parcel of the institution of governor in the state. For most, ethics was going to be just as questionable under Green as it was under Doyle. In short, ethics was a wash.

To be sure, does anyone think that Troha and others who skirt campaign laws would simply stop donating to the Wisconsin governor in the event that Green won the election? People can talk all day about how Green is a "good guy," and I'm sure he is. After seeing his webmercial where he played basketball with his kids out in the driveway, I thought he seemed like a pretty good guy myself.

But, again, ethical questions are not as much about the person as they are the institution. Green didn't talk at all about how he'd change the institution of governor in Wisconsin, and so voters were left to believe -- and I'd say rightfully so -- that he wouldn't have changed it.

For more evidence, take a look at who Dennis Troha was giving his money to between 1991 and 2000: Tommy G. Thompson.

Of course, ethical bombshells that dominate even TV news -- where most people get their info these days -- can play a role in the outcome of gubernatorial elections, but as riled up as conservatives got over Georgia Thompson and as riled up as they'll get over Dennis Troha, those stories simply don't constitute bombshells in the general public's eye.

To put it bluntly, the bar for what constitutes an ethical bombshell for governors in Wisconsin is so high because the bar for public expectations of gubernatorial ethics is so low.

So where does that leave us? For me, it's about getting back to the point where the ethical expectations for the governor in Wisconsin aren't at the basement level.

Wiggy argues that the issue is about the play side of pay-for-play. He writes:
With the news of the Dennis Troha brouhaha, we have yet another reminder that if we really want clean elections without campaign contributors trying to buy influence, then the surest way would be to remove the power of the state to reward campaign contributors. Putting the governor as the main arbiter in handing out casino licenses is just an invitation for abuse.
I just don't see a solution there. After all, the issue is not simply about the governor's control over casino licenses. Even if stronger checks were given to the legislature on that issue, it may disburse the level of stink by spreading out the donor love to more legislators, but the process as a whole would still stink just as much.

And this issue isn't just about casinos. It's a problem that pervades public policymaking. Unless the plan is to stop elected officials from setting public policy -- in other words, doing their job -- then no amount of futzing with the legislative process in relation to the campaign donation process is going to change the fact that elected officials are accountable first and foremost to those who help their chances at re-election the most. That is, those who give them the most amount of money.

The solution, rather, is to focus on the pay side of pay-for-play. If politicians are going to be accountable first and foremost to their donors and the goal is to make them accountable first and foremost to the public, then you need to make the public their donors, plain and simple.

Elections and the representatives that are created by them are public entities, and they should be funded that way.

UPDATE: The Recess Supervisor nails it, as usual.

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17 Comments:

Blogger M.Z. Forrest said...

One of things you ommited - I'm confident accidentally, because it doesn't benefit either political party - is the effect of the caucus scandal in the Legislature. To a certain degree, the scandal made any allegation against Doyle appear relatively less bad, because his actions were compared to what others had done. More importantly, I believe the willingness to hold hearings and issue judgements was largely absent, because the Republicans didn't want to interfere with the Federal investigation and they were afraid of Blanchard issuing his own indictments of GOP members. While a federal indictment would have been more damning for Doyle (Marcotta I think was mentioned often), I think in hindsite there would have been more political damage if these things had been explored in hearings, even at the risk of endangering indictments.

March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reality is that IF Doyle committed any indiscretions in return for the Troha money it WOULD have occurred months from now. How can there be any illegality from Doyle when he has not ruled on the casino project...YET. From where I'm sitting, if the prosecution wanted to get Doyle they would have waited until a "hey thanks for the money Dennis here's your casino" deal was worked out.

What do they have now? A wealthy business man who was working MANY politicians. Not the smoking gun Doyle haters really are wishing for. (Although they will certainly try their best!)

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

M.Z.,

I don't think there's any evidence the caucus scandal played a role in tempering the ethical charges leveled against Doyle by the GOP and the media during the election season. What may have had an impact was the fact that the caucus scandal was another log for the fire in terms of the public's already negative perceptions of political ethics in general, although my feeling is that impact is negligible.

My point here is that the public generally accepts the fact that elected officials operate on behalf of their big donors rather than the people they actually represent (especially those politicians who are at the top, like the governor and legislative leaders, who have the power to draw attention from the really big players); and that acceptance is not driven by the fact that they approve of that set-up, but because of an "all politicians are dirty" type attitude combined with a "what are you going to do?" type passiveness. And that acceptance wasn't born through the caucus scandal; in fact, my guess is that a majority of Wisconsin voters know little to nothing about the caucus scandal.

Also, the GOP did hold a hearing last June where they dragged Marotta before the legislative budget committee to grill him on the Adelman contract. It created a few stories in the paper and on TV along with a ton of noise in the blogosphere -- like everything else -- but, in the end, it really didn't do anything for the election. Green saw no significant bump in the polls, even when the Thompson case was at its height over the early summer months.

That's the real issue here. The public sees these ethical question marks and, for the most part, figures, like it or not, it's just the way the game is played. The question then becomes, what do you do about it? As I said in the post, for a party to put out a candidate who simply says "I'm not Jim Doyle" or "I'm not Tommy Thompson" is pointless, as is continuing to play with our already overly-complex campaign finance system because loopholes will always exist, as will plausible deniability for most politicians who are on the top -- like the governor -- due to their vast networks. Real change comes from ensuring the only constituency top elected officials can rely on for staying in power is the public.

Anon,

I thought about that "why now?" question, too, and the best I can come up with is that when Biskupic saw Troha resign from his post with the casinos last week, before a decision came down from the Doyle administration, that link between the pay and any play was only going to get tougher to make as time went by. But that's just a guess. You're right, though, the curious thing about this case is that you can show the pay, but there isn't any play. Makes you wonder if this case will start and stop with Troha just as the Thompson case started and stopped with Georgia.

March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: the "why now" question. Seth, you make the point that the indictment came now vs. later because Troha stepped down. That makes sense, if you simply look at the public timeline of all this, but that would be far too naive.

When I read a couple days before the indictment that Troha stepped down, the first thing I thought of was that he, a relative or someone in his company was about to get in some big trouble, and they didn't want to jeopardize the deal. Troha HAD to know about the indictment - or at least the possibility of one - ahead of time, and that's why he stepped down.

In short, the "why now" remains unanswered, but we can very safely rule out the resignation as the cause.

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

As I said, I'm guessing on the "why now" question. And, to be honest, why the indictment came now isn't all that interesting to me at this point. Others will surely be interested in that question, and it is a very worthwhile one in the scope of this case, but my real interest is beyond the scope of this case. I'm more interested in what to do about the fact that the general public views cases like this as par for the course.

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Dad29 said...

"Why now" may have to do with the OTHER part of the indictment--that it was also a violation of IRS rules.

They've got Troha (and at least one other family-member) on a tax scam, and they're going to nail him/them.

Of course, while squeezing that orange, they may also get some additional juice...

The question Wiggy raises--that of limiting Gummint--should not be dismissed out-of-hand. Some "limits" are impractical, yes--but to give the Gov virtually total control of gaming is simply putting the Guv in an impossible situation (e.g.)

That goes to the "checks and balances" thing.

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

As I write in the post: "Even if stronger checks were given to the legislature on that issue, it may disburse the level of stink by spreading out the donor love to more legislators, but the process as a whole would still stink just as much."

In fact, one name you find pop up quite a bit in Troha's list of donations is Dale Schultz, and the former Senate majority leader is there for a reason.

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Russ said...

Seth
I've watched politicians in Wisconsin accept bribes for years. Make no mistake, that's what large campaign contributions are, bribes. In comes Doyle, he takes huge sums from Indian gaming in exchange for handing out gambling rights. He can, he is the gambing dictator. He takes huge sums from WEAC in exchange for lifting the QEO and doing everything he can to prevent expansion of vouchers. He takes huge sums from trial lawyers in exchange for protecting endless frivolous law suits and perpetuating Wisconsin's litigation orientation.
And you want to protect this guy?
I can only respond by saying I'm glad Steven Biskupic is adjudicating Doyle and his cronies. Biskupic reminds me of Rudy Giuliani.

March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

russ,

By your own admission "politicians in Wisconsin accept bribes for years." The reality is that Doyle is just the latest in a long list of politicians who have sucked from the payoff teat. I’ll admit, Doyle has taken it to new levels. HOWEVER, the system as we know it is broke. Once Doyle is gone, there’ll be a new “sucker”. It does not matter what the party affiliation! These people suck and suck and suck. On top of all that…they suck too!

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Russ said...

Seth

I agree completely. The majority, but not all, Wisconsin politicians suck.

They are not going to willing change however. Either the voters are going to have to demand honest politicians or a guy like Biskupic will force change by sending a governor to jail.

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Russ,

That last comment wasn't by me, although I agree with what Anon said (except the part about Doyle taking it to new levels -- I'd argue Thompson took it to new levels and Doyle is matching him).

But simply electing "honest politicians" is immaterial. As I said in the post, it's about the institution, not the person. What needs to be changed is the institution.

And Doyle isn't going to jail, and neither is anyone from his administration over this. And nor should they -- they're simply playing the cards they were handed by our state's campaign finance laws. Top politicians in the state -- I'm talking mostly about the gov and legislative leaders, but others could be included -- don't even need to do anything illegal and, in fact, could be completely honest while simultaneously abusing the public trust. And therein lies the institutional problem.

March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the why now...Troha may have well stepped down because he knew he would be indicted. It's pretty much routine in white collar cases of this type that the feds will tell a defendant when they are going to the grand jury for an indictment. It doesn't come as a big surprise.

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Russ said...

Seth
You are 100% correct. The problem is INSTITUTIONAL. You're also correct in saying Tommy Thompson used the "institution" to his advantage. But Doyle has taken pay for play (bribery) to a new level.
Thompson at least did a few good things like welfare reform and school choice. In Doyle's case everything the man stands for involves expansion of government and of course increasing taxes to pay for it. His latest, giving the green light for local government entities to raise property taxes 4% when median household income has been stagnant for so many years is unconscienable. Nothing hammers the little guy more than prop. tax increases when his income is flat.
Campaign finance reform. Only small donations from individuals should be allowed. Can you imagine the pleasure of not having to put up with political ads on TV. The media will be glad to host debates, which are usefull. at little or no charge to the candidates.

March 02, 2007  
Blogger Russ said...

Seth
You are 100% correct. The problem is INSTITUTIONAL. You're also correct in saying Tommy Thompson used the "institution" to his advantage. But Doyle has taken pay for play (bribery) to a new level.
Thompson at least did a few good things like welfare reform and school choice. In Doyle's case everything the man stands for involves expansion of government and of course increasing taxes to pay for it. His latest, giving the green light for local government entities to raise property taxes 4% when median household income has been stagnant for so many years is unconscienable. Nothing hammers the little guy more than prop. tax increases when his income is flat.
Campaign finance reform. Only small donations from individuals should be allowed. Can you imagine the pleasure of not having to put up with political ads on TV. The media will be glad to host debates, which are usefull. at little or no charge to the candidates.

March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am amazed at how this seems to be turning into a "We want to get at Doyle" effort. In the end we are talking about the life of someone that has been a strong community leader for the city of Kenosha. The Troha family has donated large amounts of money to more causes than most can probably count. To drag the family through the mud trying to get at Doyle is disgusting. It really shows the ugly head of politics lately in this country. I guess "politics as usual" no matter who gets in the way.

In regards to the comment: "They've got Troha (and at least one other family-member) on a tax scam, and they're going to nail him/them."

That sounds like a subjective comment to me. Something that I definately would not agree with. However I would love to hear the rest of that story as well as who exactly is being accused?

Whether you agree with how the Troha family donates money or not is not the case. I think when the facts are presented Troha will be cleared.

Whatever happened to innocent until proven... again that is proven ... guilty. I guess that just doesn't apply anymore.

I would hope that people do not believe what the news always reports and can think a little for themselves. The campaign donations have been available at a few online sources for years now. There is plenty of information out there to make an informed decision and not just take what is fed to us as gospel.

Let me leave everyone with this thought:

- Remember the other Wisconsin tribe operating out of Milwaukee. They are probably the largest anti-Kenosha casino faction around. We talk about Doyle corruption but what about our own local FBI offices? Any ties to that tribe? This seems like a pretty convenient time to throw accustation at the primary planner for the Kenosha casino. I still don't think I have seen this even mentioned.

March 03, 2007  
Blogger Dad29 said...

For the last Anony:

The newspaper reported that it was a JOINT investigation involving both the US Attorney and the IRS.

That means that it's (at least) a tax-matter. If I were to guess, I'd guess a couple of possibilities:

1) Troha gave $5K to an employee after the employee gave $5K to a campaign. Possible that the employee in question mis-reported the income from Troha.

2) Troha claims that his Company "loaned" money to his children after they wrote checks to Doyle's campaign. Likely that IRS doesn't agree that these were "loans" and that they were taxable events instead.

Now as to Seth:

You may say that "it's the institution, not the office-holder" all you like.

The fact remains that someone with lousy morals or ethics can make ANY institution stink (does the Milwaukee Public Museum ring a bell?)

So your implicit exclusion of the individual moral actor is simply invalid.

March 03, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Russ,

I certainly want you to feel free to share your thoughts, but I have to say your oversimplifications of Dem positions is starting to get a little tiresome. Whenever the details arise, the crux of your argument falls flat, just like our last conversation when you stormed in with the claim that public sector compensation was sucking the private sector dry. And when I cited figures showing that private sector compensation has increased at least as much as public sector compensation in Wisconsin since 2001 – and a lot more if you look just at private professions that mirror most public sector work – you didn’t have anything to say about it. I want to ask you honestly – and I’m serious when I say correct me if I’m wrong – but did seeing those actual figures on total compensation change at all your stance that public sector workers are getting rich at the expense of private sector workers?

On your latest point, to simply look at total property tax levies – and mistakenly assume along the way that even a majority of local units would actually increase their levies to the full 4 percent level -- in relation to median household income and call it a day doesn’t even start to tell the whole story. The fact is personal income per capita in Wisconsin has been increasing, on average, at over 3 percent per year, so any median household income stagnation or reduction is being driven by a growing income disparity between the haves and the have nots, which this Journal Sentinel graph shows is happening in Wisconsin, not an overall lack of income growth in the state. And, what’s more, while liberals have been trying to address the income disparity for years, the response of many conservatives to the growing disparity has been “so what?

And, in case that’s not enough to convince you, here are figures (see page 62) showing that total state and local taxes in Wisconsin relative to personal income are lower today under Doyle than any of the Thompson years.

I’m happy to say, though, we actually agree on the issue of campaign finance, Russ. Although I would prefer complete public financing of elections, as a realist I’d be happy to just get stricter limitations on donations ($100 for an individual and maybe $1000 for a PAC) along with heightened regulations and rules on disclosure for 527s.

Anon (the last one),

I obviously can’t speak for everyone in this comment thread, but I don’t have anything against Troha personally. In fact, I’m sure he has done some great things for the Kenosha community (at least from the perspective of some significant portion of the population). To me, the real issue is about the effects on our democracy of allowing wealthy individuals like Troha – legally or illegally – to have greater access to and influence on elected officials than the vast majority of the constituency those officials are elected to equally represent. In short, this indictment, to me, is a symptom of something larger, not a disease itself.

That said, I’m sure Troha knew what he was getting into when he became a major political player in the state. Partisanship is nothing new, and Troha had to know he’d get entangled in those partisan battles when he started spreading hundreds of thousands of dollars around, even if a portion of it was bipartisan. That certainly doesn’t excuse personal and unsubstantiated attacks on Troha as a means for getting at Doyle, but I will say that I have a lot less sympathy for Troha than others who have been yanked into partisan battles through little to no fault of their own (e.g., Georgia Thompson, who’s now in the midst of an 18 month prison sentence while legislators in schemes like the caucus scandal are let off with probation or a few measly months in work release).

Dad29,

I’m not saying we should simply alter the institution of governor in Wisconsin as it pertains to campaign financing, I’m saying we should dismantle it. If the governor and other top elected officials in the state are completely reliant on the public to stay in power, in terms of both votes and funding, then they need to be fully accountable to the public. Right now, the public at large only provides one side of what it takes to get elected to big time office – that is, votes. The wealthiest segments of the public provides the money that helps do all of the things necessary to get those votes.

Sure, corrupt people could always be elected to office under a system like public financing, just as good people could act corruptly when elected to an institution that has graft built into it. But the point with public financing is that corruption won’t be able to be hidden in the maze of campaign finance laws, nor would there be nearly as much incentive to be corrupt as there is in the current system because remaining in public power would be vastly more reliant upon the public at large. Any incentives that would be offered above and beyond votes and campaign money would come through promises made outside the purview of public office, such as getting a seat on a corporate board after leaving an elected position (which most top politicians do nowadays, anyway) in exchange for favorable consideration of that corporation’s positions while in office. The point is to keep the ability to remain in public power as much in the control of the public at large as possible.

March 03, 2007  

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