Scott Walker’s Pay-to-Play Culture: Remembering the United Sportsmen Scandal

Aug 05, 2014

On the heels of Democratic candidate for Governor Mary Burke launching Sportsmen for Burke, Wisconsin Democrats are launching a new recurring feature that will highlight some of the worst pay-to-play scandals under Scott Walker.

Kicking off the new series is a recap of the United Sportsmen scandal, which involved a controversial $500,000 grant that the Journal Sentinel editorial staff criticized as “politically-tainted” and said smelled “to high heaven.”

The scandal went like this: a group calling itself United Sportsmen of Wisconsin was the lone applicant and ultimate recipient of a $500,000 grant inserted by then-Rep. Scott Suder into the state budget for the purpose of promoting hunting, fishing and trapping in Wisconsin.

The Tea Party group was headed Suder’s former chief of staff, Luke Hilgemann, who in recent years ran Wisconsin’s chapter of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and had close ties to both Suder and Walker.

At the time, Suder said the grant would promote the state’s “sporting heritage” and help avert a “looming crisis” for hunting and fishing to ensure the future of those pastimes in the state. Wisconsin’s rich sporting history is a key aspect of our culture and our economy, so a bill aimed at preserving those traditions looked pure on its face; but Suder and his colleagues included language so specific that it excluded a host of organizations from being eligible to receive the funds.

For instance, if your organization was a chapter of a larger, national organization, you were not eligible for the grant – excluding groups like the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which has operated in the state for 60 years. In addition to tailored language in the bill, there was short notice for groups to apply for the grant, and many organizations didn’t know the grant existed until after application deadline passed.

Skepticism that Suder had rigged the grant for United Sportsmen was affirmed when the scandal grew deeper. United Sportsmen was found to have no history of outdoors training; their record more closely mirrored a lobbying organization for Republican interests and several prominent board members were found to have donated to Republican candidates and causes.

During the 2011 senate recalls, United Sportsmen faced backlash for their involvement in a series of misleading “Absentee Ballot Application” mailers with incorrect election dates run in apparent coordination with Americans for Prosperity and in 2012 they endorsed Scott Walker in the recall election, stating that, “The second amendment took on a new meaning in Wisconsin under Governor Scott Walker.”

After coming under scrutiny for orchestrating the grant for the right-wing front group, Suder was pulled from the fire by Scott Walker, who appointed him to the Public Service Commission – a position paying double his salary as a representative. Even as Suder was moving into his new role, he remained at the center of the pay-to-play scandal and eventually declined the appointment.

At the time, the Journal Sentinel editorialized that, “Like other aspects of Scott Walker’s administration, there are strong indications that the grant-making process in this case was politically motivated.”

It was only after United Sportsmen falsified its application to the state and at a hearing before the Joint Finance Committee in stating that they had a federal 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation and reports that the group’s president was caught shooting a bear without a license — did the Walker administration finally cancel the grant.

“Much like our sporting heritage is an essential way of life for Wisconsinites, so is pay-to-play corruption for Scott Walker,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Mike Tate said Wednesday. “Whether its rigging a half a million dollar grant to his Tea Party supporters or steering state economic development funds to his campaign donors instead of small businesses in need, Scott Walker is always looking for the best way to leverage the taxpayers’ money to his personal advantage.”