Sunday, January 07, 2007

Selective Outrage Defined

When they're not trying to convince us that Madison, Wisconsin is somehow the rap music capitol of North America, The Isthmus can occasionally do some good reporting.

Take this article from last week, for example. The story describes State Representative Terese Berceau's irritation at the Wisconsin Elections Board for charging more for the voter lists they generate. Berceau has her Capitol staffer, Tom Powell, obtain the lists from the Elections Board (apparently he has extra time when he's not engineering distasteful smear campaigns about city council members.*)

The fourth paragraph of the story says:

Berceau, who uses the list for campaigning and to target newsletter mailings, says the additional cost is “no big deal” for her and other incumbents. But “if somebody is trying to run for office, that’s a big whopping amount of money they have to put out immediately.”
Yes, you read that right. Berceau uses her taxpayer funded capitol staffer to obtain lists from the taxpayer funded Elections Board, which she then uses for campaigning. Surely, the media is outraged at such a blatant use of taxpayer dollars for political gain. I'm certain newsrooms around the state are burning the midnight oil trying to figure out why Berceau uses the same list to campaign that she uses for sending out her official state newsletter.

Of course everyone remembers former Speaker of the Assembly Scott Jensen, who is likely on his way to prison for ordering staff to use state resources to do campaign work. Since there is no statute that explicitly prohibits using state resources for political gain (which was one of Jensen's defenses), one has to go to the statutory footnotes to find out what he did broke the law. They say:

946.12 - ANNOT.
Sub. (3) is not unconstitutionally vague. It does not fail to give notice that hiring and directing staff to work on political campaigns on state time with state resources is a violation...Legislators or their employees are not prohibited from doing or saying anything related to participation in political campaigns so long as they do not use state resources for that purpose.

When you read the Appeals Court decision in the Jensen case, it lays out specifically what Jensen did to break the law on page 35 (my emphasis): **

All the allegations of the criminal complaint describe campaign activity of the most basic type: the preparation and dissemination of campaign literature, political fundraising on behalf of a number of candidates for the Wisconsin Assembly, the delivery and receipt of campaign funds in state offices by lobbyists and state employees, campaign data management on state computers, daily monitoring of campaign progress by all three defendants, development and implementation of campaign strategy and debriefing of an election cycle on state time in state offices. The result:public financing of private campaigns without the public's permission. There is no reasonable argument that this alleged activity serves any legitimate legislative duty or purpose. No statute, rule or policy sanctions this behavior.
This decision was affirmed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, so all of the above transgressions are now apparently prohibited by law (even though the law doesn't explicitly say so, and the Court came to this decision based on a couple e-mails sent to Assembly employees - which now apparently have the force of law. One wonders if it is now legal to solicit dates from HoRnY HoUsEwIveS.)

So according to this new standard of what is legal and illegal in politics, it appears that Berceau has admitted to breaking the law. If she has been using her taxpayer funded staff to obtain taxpayer produced voter lists to campaign, that would certainly appear not to have any "legitimate legislative duty or purpose."

But here's the problem - I don't have any problem with what Berceau did. Nor do I have any problem with much of what Jensen did. Jensen, however, has been killed in the media for using taxpayer resources for campaigning - and here we have a Democrat who admits as much, and it won't even elicit a yawn.

If you concede that there is a line between politics and legitimate government business, then I do believe Jensen crossed it by condoning the employment of a full time fundraiser on a state payroll. You just can't have people dialing for dollars from a Capitol office.

Furthermore, no reasonable person would try to equate the actions of Berceau and Jensen - Jensen was the Speaker of the Assembly, and if you believe that politics is inherently wrong (I don't), then what he did was on a much grander scale.

But to somehow think that Scott Jensen was the only one engaged in politics at the Capitol is ludicrous. Whether anyone actually cares seems wholly dependent on what party you belong to, and whether you support full taxpayer financing of elections. And yes, I know Chuck Chvala went to jail, but I believe there actually was a statute that explicitly prohibited extortion.

*SIDE NOTE: If former Speaker John Gard had hired a staff member who had been caught posting distasteful doctored internet pictures of city council members, how do you think he would have been treated by the media? Do I even need to ask?

**DOUBLE SIDE NOTE: Actually reading the Jensen decision was enlightening. It essentially boils down to the court saying "there's really no statute saying he couldn't do this, but the chief clerk sent out an e-mail saying he shouldn't do it, and 'common sense' says it is wrong, so therefore he's guilty." Needless to say, there are plenty of things that I think are "common sense" with which the court would likely disagree.