As we noted last week, the Franklin Center claims to be “a nonprofit, online news organization” representing “a free market, limited government perspective on state and local government and politics.” Practically speaking, this mission seems to boil down to providing supportive publicity for ALEC and the State Policy Network as they pursue the Koch brothers’ legislative agenda. But the Franklin Center has also waded into the Brett Kimberlin story, which has no discernible connection to the organization’s mission statement about free markets or limited government. So we have been looking into what other “news” the Franklin Center covers in an effort to understand this organization a little better.
The Franklin Center generally does not get involved in any story that does not impact the priorities of its right wing donors, but it is swift to comment on stories that do. For instance, back in November we learned that a Wisconsin special prosecutor is investigating allies of Scott Walker over allegations of illegal coordination between candidates and outside groups during recall elections.
This news comes from an unlikely place: an unsigned Wall Street Journal editorial. In a piece first published Friday, and updated over the weekend, the Journal quoted Eric O’Keefe, the director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, who confirmed receiving a subpoena. As TPM has previously reported, John Doe investigations are generally secret, and parties involved are ordered not to discuss it publicly. O’Keefe came forward despite the “personal risk” because he “wants the public to know what is going on,” according to the Journal.
O’Keefe told the Journal he received a subpoena in early October. According to O’Keefe, at least three other targets of the investigation had their homes raided at dawn.
The Journal reported that it had reviewed copies of two subpoenas related to the investigation, which demanded “all memoranda, email … correspondence, and communications” — both internal and between the subpoena target and nearly 30 conservative groups. According to the Journal, those groups included nonprofits, political vendors, and party committees, among them the League of American Voters, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, American Crossroads, the Republican Governors Association, Friends of Scott Walker and the Republican Party of Wisconsin. One subpoena asked for “all records of income received, including fundraising information and the identity of persons contributing to the corporation.”
The unsigned Wall Street Journal editorial about the John Doe investigation was just the beginning of the weirdness in this story. For who should appear on the media horizon to declare the investigation an improper political witch-hunt? Why, a pair of websites run by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, of course. And of course, they do not acknowledge clear conflicts of interest in their reporting, either.
The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity (through its Wisconsin Reporter and Watchdog.org websites) has aggressively attacked the “John Doe” probe into possible campaign finance violations during Wisconsin’s 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Its outlets have also published new information about the apparent targets of the investigation, but they have omitted an important detail: Franklin Center has close ties to individuals and groups that may be caught up in the John Doe.
The only name associated with the investigation, Eric O’Keefe, helped launch the Franklin Center’s operations in 2009, and his Sam Adams Alliance group provided the majority of its startup budget; O’Keefe has spoken publicly about being subpoenaed in his capacity as director of Wisconsin Club for Growth. Franklin Center’s Director of Special Projects John Connors, and the Executive Assistant to the President Claire Milbrandt, also have close ties to a group reportedly involved in the John Doe probe. Its former Director of Operations and General Counsel, James Skyles, worked with another group active in the Wisconsin recalls.
Franklin Center’s Wisconsin Reporter has written 16 stories so far that are highly critical of the John Doe probe and prosecutors (calling its series “Wisconsin’s Secret War”), but these latest revelations raise questions about whether the outfit has a conflict of interest in its coverage.
“It does sound like a conflict-of-interest situation that minimally ought to be disclosed, whenever stories are written,” said Robert Drechsel, Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communications. “Particularly if the reporting in question is being done by an entity that holds itself out as nonpartisan and as doing the same kind of journalistic work being done by any traditional journalism institution.”
It turns out that the Franklin Center was basically created by the same people it is now defending in Wisconsin.
O’Keefe’s ties to the Franklin Center run deep. He was the CEO and chairman of the Sam Adams Alliance, which in 2009 launched and funded the Franklin Center. According to an O’Keefe bio from last year: “Under his leadership, the Sam Adams Alliance (SAM) has established some of the most active and respected organizations in the freedom movement, including American Majority and the Franklin Center.”Whether he continues to fund or direct funds to Franklin Center is unknown.
O’Keefe’s Sam Adams Alliance, whose president was the former executive director of the Illinois State Republican party, acted as the Franklin Center’s “sponsoring organization” until the group obtained its 501(c)(3) status, according to its communications director. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, much of the $2.9 million Franklin Center raised in its first year came from the Sam Adams Alliance. (The other group that O’Keefe boasts of creating in his bio, American Majority, was established to recruit and train Tea Party political candidates, and held a rally in support of Governor Walker during the height of the 2011 protests featuring Andrew Breitbart and others.)
Franklin’s President, Jason Stverak, previously worked as Regional Field Director for O’Keefe’s Sam Adams Alliance, after leading the South Dakota Republican Party for six years. Their allies speak of O’Keefe and Stverak in the same breath. For example, in the acknowledgement section of James O’Keefe’s book, the undercover videographer whose heavily-edited videos helped bring down ACORN (and who is not related to Eric O’Keefe) thanks “Eric O’Keefe and Jason Stverak for their role in the citizen journalism movement.”
In only one of the sixteen articles Franklin Center/Wisconsin Reporter has written on the John Doe have they touched on O’Keefe’s ties to Franklin Center.
“The public has to be very wary of taking for granted what is being reported by the Wall Street Journal and Wisconsin Reporter,” McCabe said. “O’Keefe and others have decided that is who they want reporting on John Doe, they’ve decided what to leak, and how they want it framed, and what they want the public to believe what the investigation is about,” he said, while prosecutors and judges are gagged by the John Doe’s secrecy order.
In an op-ed at Wisconsin Watch, Bill Leuders of the Wisconsin Center For Investigative Journalism wondered at the rhetoric one Franklin Center website used to criticize the John Doe investigation.
The conservative news outlet has published more than a dozen articles on the probe, many quoting anonymous sources making similar charges. One article even suggested the DA’s office chose Francis Schmitz to serve as special prosecutor to provide cover for its Democrat-led scheme to “take down” Walker. Schmitz, a respected former federal prosecutor, made President George W. Bush’s short list for a U.S. attorney post.
But wait: Why is tapping someone with Republican ties and a stellar reputation — the same article quoted a named source calling Schmitz ethically “beyond reproach” — proof of devious partisan intent?
“It lacks internal logic,” reflects Madison attorney Hal Harlowe, formerly district attorney of Dane County. “I don’t see how you can criticize the Milwaukee DA for picking someone who’s beyond reproach.”
Perhaps the missing “internal logic” is actually a very cold-blooded and deliberate dissonance. Maybe the problem is that the Franklin Center exists to make politics petty and personal whenever the billionaire agenda is threatened by, say, a perfectly valid investigation of dark money groups who appear to be breaking the law, or by a relatively obscure activist in Maryland. Consider the experience of one muckraking journalist who worked with the organization for a little while.
Dougherty’s bosses asked him to start joining in on conference calls with reporters from other similar free-market policy groups across the country. The calls were organized by a new nonprofit called the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which was training right-of-center think tanks to do investigative journalism, as well as funding nonprofits to run news sites and hire reporters—including Dougherty, who says his contract was now being paid for with Franklin Center money. The calls rubbed Dougherty the wrong way. “What bothered me,” he recalls, “was they were taking delight in causing specific angst for political gain. It wasn’t, to me, ‘This is public interest journalism.’ This is hatchet journalism to attack an opposing candidate.” After Dougherty wrote a memo to his bosses explaining his discomfort, they allowed him to skip the teleconferences, and he went on to write more than a dozen stories questioning the legality of the state’s property tax structure. Once again, Dougherty’s reporting hit a nerve; at least two of the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidates have made overhauling the property tax system part of their campaign platforms.
Then, this past March, NPRI and Dougherty started talking about yet another project: forming a nonprofit investigative reporting center in Nevada. Dougherty was intrigued, but only wanted to be involved if the center’s board was independent and included a mix of political perspectives. NPRI refused to agree to these terms. Weary of the secrecy and ax grinding surrounding the whole endeavor, Dougherty finally cut ties with the group. “There has always been, to some degree, a sort of tension between my point of view about reporting and his,” Steven Miller, the institute’s vice president for policy and Dougherty’s former supervisor, said when I asked him about the incident. “It’s amazing we found as much common ground as we did.”
Hatchet journalism and naked political partisanship? A “specific angst” to score political points that is incompatible with genuine journalism? Yes, that sounds about right. The Franklin Center is exactly what you think it is: an attack dog pretending to be a public policy watchdog.