April 23. 2012 9:58AM

The fine line between contribution and bribe

By Bob Chernow

When is a political contribution really a bribe? That is a question that needs to be addressed.

Harold Simmons has poured millions into Republican politics – especially in Texas. These are not modest $5000 to $10,000 contributions, but over $20 million to date. His motivation is getting "permissions" to run a nuclear waste dump in West Texas that is located over a major water source. His political "investments" got him a special exception to operate this nuclear dump. In Texas, he is a non-partisan and pro-Simmons $6.8 million contributor to both Republicans & Democrats.

Bob Perry, another Texan, has "donated" more than Simmons. His contributions have "paid off". For example, his home construction company relies on immigrant labor (illegals?). His money influence was enough to block immigration reform in Texas.

In West Virginia, a coal mining executive bought and paid for one of the State's new Supreme Court justices. The West Virginia Supreme Court was ruling on a case involving the executive's coal company. The new justice did not recuse himself. His vote was the deciding vote.

In Wisconsin, two races for our Supreme Court were bought with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) money. Indeed more money was spent by WMC than by the candidates themselves. Did these justices recuse themselves when WMC cases came up to the court? No way. WMC's "return on investment" was a significant multiple. In fact, they did much better than the West Virginia coal company.

I looked at contributions to Governor Walker's campaign. I know many of the contributors, but I can't think of one who actually wants something from the Governor. None do business with the State.

But others, like the Koch brothers, who have donated millions to Walker, want something from State government. They own a pipeline that runs across the state, paper mills, transportation centers, and coal stations to name just a few of their Wisconsin investments. Before it was leaked that Walker planned to sell state owned utility plants in a secret, no-competitive bid deal, it was rumored that the primary "buyers" were the Koch brothers.

A few years back, big state contributions were road builders, who were not satisfied in getting most of Wisconsin's road building business. They wanted all of the business. They divided the state in "half". Several of the owners of these companies were convicted. Today, their contributions are the prime reason we continue to build new roads rather than maintaining existing roads. Municipalities handle maintenance; road builders do new construction. This is bad public policy. But as the saying goes – money talks, everyone else walks.

In 2007, AT&T wanted to do away with Public Access. I was chair of the Regional Telecommunications Commission at the time, a coalition of 35 Wisconsin cities, towns and villages. AT&T set up a PR campaign and sent a flotilla of lobbyists to Madison to bully & bribe their bill through. Competition, they said, would lower prices. Of course, the bill did nothing of the sort. As chair it was difficult if not impossible to get access to our representatives to discuss the perspectives of our communities. AT&T had no such problem.

We need to examine how money is influencing public policy.

First, contributions from any source need to be made public. This includes corporate, private and union funding.

Second, all members of the any of our courts need to recluse themselves when a conflict arises. Free legal services to justices and judges or contributions over a certain amount are examples. We can debate if the "amount" of a contribution is $5000 or $10,000 but no one would discount a $50,000 or $100,000 (or $4 million) political contribution.

Third, we need to address the amount of money an individual running for office can spend or the amount of money that others can contribute.

Bob Chernow is a Milwaukee businessman.