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Pro-voucher group spent $730,000 in Wisconsin for 2010, mostly on behalf of GOP

The American Federation for Children’s insistence that it is a bipartisan education group took a hit today when it was revealed to be one of three school choice advocacy organizations raising $3.36 million dollars for mostly Republican candidates during the 2010 Wisconsin legislative season.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign determined AFC spent $730,000, the lion’s share going to Republican lawmakers and now-Governor Scott Walker, says Mike McCabe, executive director of the watchdog group. According to McCabe, AFC spent no money on behalf of Walker’s Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett.

Unlike most states, Wisconsin’s office of the secretary of state does not monitor campaign finance activity. Instead, the Madison-based Government Accountability Board serves as the oversight agency, though it’s data is limited due to a loophole in the state’s campaign donor laws. When third party groups like AFC push for candidates or legislation, often the money they put up goes to advertisements and direct mailers that do not explicitly announce endorsements. Without these “trigger words,” the state’s accountability board does not receive information on donor contributions.

Research conducted by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign picked up where the state oversight authority was legally hamstrung, requesting invoices for media ad buys from the state’s various radio and television channels. The non-profit’s total dollar calculation of AFC’s activity is a combination of mandatory reporting to the state accountability board and inquiries by WDC.

American Federation for Children Action Fund, a 527 organization, is the state arm of AFC and is required by state law to disclose its financial support during elections. Though public documents offer a limited scope of the fund’s activities, they do reveal AFC Action Fund spent $119,000 on four legislative races in 2010.

And though last year’s election season was the first appearance of AFC in Wisconsin, McCabe explains the group is a reincarnation of All Children Matter, a group that stopped going by that name after various incidents of improper electioneering came to the fore.

“[All Children Matter] figured prominently in previous Wisconsin elections,” says McCabe, “and you can see the same cast of characters involved in running American Federation for Children.”

In 2009, Betsy DeVos, current head of AFC, donated $75,000 to All Children Matter from personal holdings in her husband and father-in-law’s multi-billion-dollar corporation Amway/Alticor Inc, Alticor Global Holdings. Another major player in AFC’s current operations, Jim Walton, donated $310,000 to ACM that year. Walton is the youngest son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. The younger Walton was reported to own over $21 billion according to Forbes Magazine. He is a part of the Walton Foundation, a charity that helped sponsor AFC’s recent school choice summit in Washington, D.C. Listings from 2008 show even more staggering amounts donated to ACM by the pair. Also giving to ACM in 2008 was “Koch Industries” and the Oberndorf family. Bill Oberndorf, a founding partner of SPO Partners & Co., was featured in an AFC summit session titled “Why the Business Community Must Step Forward Now.”

Only one donor from Wisconsin was listed as a donor for the 2008 and 2009 period, Terry Kohler of Windway Capital in Sheboygan. He donated $110,000, a soupcon compared to the tens of millions given by out-of-state funders. One small city appeared in the donor list 16 times — Grand Rapids, Mich., home to the The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation and where Betsy DeVos’ Amway holdings are registered.

In 2008 All Children Matter spent $1.1 million dollars on campaign donations, but $1.3 million on salaries and administrative costs.

According to McCabe, AFC has not contacted Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to dispute the findings released today.

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