New York Times report finds political network with Wisconsin ties deceived donors

By: - May 15, 2023 1:36 pm
Dollar bills money being pulled away with a fishing hook

Credit: BW/Getty Images

Three Wisconsin men are identified in a New York Times report published Sunday as organizers of a network of political nonprofit fundraising groups that raised $89 million, ostensibly for political ends, but spending very little of that on anything except to pay the fundraisers themselves or other consultants.

The Times report described a series of robocall campaigns by five different but closely connected groups that raised money in small amounts from donors “who were pitched on building political support for police officers, veterans and firefighters,” the Times reported. “But just 1 percent of the money they raised was used to help candidates via donations, ads or targeted get-out-the-vote messages, according to an analysis by The Times of the groups’ public filings.”

The newspaper report, published online, stated that about 90% of the money raised was paid back to fundraising contractors in what a lawyer who advises Republican campaigns described as “an elaborate self-licking ice cream cone” in which money that is raised goes to pay the cost of raising more money. 

Four of the five nonprofits remain active, according to the Times. 

The Times identified the organizers of the groups as John W. Connors, Simon Lewis and Kyle Maichle. The three “were all active in college conservative politics in Wisconsin about 15 years ago, when Mr. Connors was the leader of campus Republicans at Marquette University,” the newspaper reported.

All three operate consulting firms that have contracted with one or more of the nonprofit fundraising groups. The nonprofits have paid altogether $2.8 million to the three, according to the Times, while paying most of the remainder to other consultants that did not appear to be connected with the organizers.

“In their calls, the groups identified themselves to potential donors as political organizations,” the Times reported. “Beyond that, they were often vague about whom they supported and how.”

The nonprofit groups told the Times that the fundraising calls themselves were their means of providing support. 

“In statements, they said they had not sought to avoid oversight, enrich insiders or deceive donors,” the newspaper reported. “Instead, the groups said, they simply believed in helping politicians indirectly — not by giving them money or buying them ads or mentioning their names, but by obliquely raising issues that could shift voters their way.”

Lewis told the newspaper: “We have met, and in fact exceeded, in our mission to raise awareness of police issues, hold politicians accountable for shameful treatment of police officers, and activate grassroots supporters who demand change.” 

The nonprofit fundraising organizations aren’t regulated by the Federal Election Commission or state agencies that monitor campaign spending, according to the Times — but by the Internal Revenue Service, which polices tax-exempt organizations. 

While experts interviewed by the Times questioned whether the fundraising groups met legal requirements for tax-exempt organizations, lawyers for the groups told the newspaper that they had been examined by the IRS and were told they would face no penalties.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.