Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Operation Freedom" - Charitable Event Or Political Stunt?

When people ask me about the most recent chapter of the Walkergate saga, where Tim Russell, long time personal friend and aid to Scott Walker, and two others were arrested stemming from a tangent of the Walkergate  investigation, I tell them as explosive as this news is, it's just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.  I remind them there is a big part of the investigation that is still under way.

But even with just the news of the arrests, there is enough fodder for an army of reporters and researchers to keep busy for a long time. This one story is indeed like a rancid onion, in such that as you peel away one rotten layer, there is another, even more rotten layer beneath it.

One of the things that is puzzling a lot of people is the timeline of events regarding "Operation Freedom" and how it was managed.

Per a report from WisPolitics.com, the common accounting of things is that in 2006, concerns were raised by the Milwaukee County Ethics Board on handling a charitable event through the office of the County Executive.  The finances were given over to the Milwaukee Order of the Purple Heart, where Kevin Kavanaugh, was treasurer.

In 2008, Darlene Wink found that $11,000 was missing from the fund and reported it.  Kavanaugh readily agreed that his group owed the fund this money.  (It should also be noted that in 2010, despite his concerns of what happened to the money, Walker reappointed Kavanaugh to the Veterans Service Board.)

Subsequently, in early of 2009, the financial management was handed over to an American Legion Post.  About the same time, Tom Nardelli, Walker's Chief of Staff, went to the District Attorney's office and spoke to them about it.

Despite the American Legion doing an exemplary job of handling the money, in the fall of the same year, they were removed from  deal and the set up was handed to the Heritage Guard Preservation Society, which was basically a front group headed by Tim Russell.

In other words, despite the admonishment by the Ethics Board, Walker still had people in his office in control of the funds for "Operation Freedom."

In 2010, only after the money was transferred to this front group did Walker's office file a formal complaint.

This chain of events raise any number of question, with two of the main ones being why did Walker personally order the funding be transferred from a group that was doing well to the front group ran by Russell, who already had a history of stealing money?  And why did Walker ignore the advise of the Ethics Board by keeping his fingers in the mix?

To answer those questions, as well as some others that have arisen, one has to first look at just what is "Operation Freedom."

Well, according to their About page (complete with misspelled words), "Operation Freedom" is a non-profit group intended to honor veterans by hosting a free picnic at the Milwaukee County Zoo, including free admission to the zoo.

Sounds good, right? Well, on the surface, it certainly does.

But something nagged at me about it.  So, over the weekend, I decided to call Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan, Jr., who I know had proudly served in the United States Marine Corps.

Weishan told me that he also had a lot of questions about "Operation Freedom."  He told me that he would be invited, almost as an afterthought, to come to the event and stand on stage, behind Walker and whoever else was hosting it, usually one of the squawk radio hosts from WTMJ-620 AM - Charlie Sykes, Jeff Wagner and James T. Harris (none of whom, I believe, served in any branch of the armed services).  Weishan said that no matter what, he was always told that the would not be allowed to speak, which he considered to be offensive.

Weishan also told me that he was not the only veteran that Walker was less than respectful to.  He told me that certain vet groups, like Veterans for Peace, were also not invited to participate in these events.

Milwaukee County Supervisor
John Weishan, Jr.
He said that Walker might have wanted to keep such tight control of this in order to prevent all groups from participating, which would be difficult if the American Legion were in control of the finances.  He also questioned the purpose of the event, since it was only for certain veterans.  Part of our discussion was whether Walker was doing this to curry favor with the Bush administration and promoting the Iraq War.

As it turns out, I was not the only one questioning the purpose behind Walker's actions in regards to "Operation Freedom."

Dominique Paul Noth, of Milwaukee Labor Press and a man a deeply admire for his skills as a reporter and a writer, in a article worthy of reading for the comprehensiveness of it, was also thinking of Weishan:

When Supervisor John Weishan, a Marine, complained several years ago that Walker was engaged in self-aggrandizement, shutting out the America Legion and the County Board and insisting on creating his own charity effort along with Russell for veterans, Weishan was hooted down as just another liberal politician opposed to Walker’s right-wing vision. So busy were the attackers that they failed to notice what the DA seized on, that Walker created a 501 ( c ) for veterans out of his own elected office, a big warning signal of what could happen to funds from the well-meaning public.  
Today, Weishan looks pretty prescient . . . while Walker? It’s as if the preacher’s son was grabbing a nap in the back pew when morality and ethics came up in the pulpit.
James Rowen, another person I hold in the highest esteem, picked up on Noth's piece and took it even further.  Rowen points out that Weishan led the charge to keep Russell from being appointed as Director of Economic Development.  Rowen felt that this was part of a slap back at Weishan for his defiance:
So it would not surprise me that Walker chose to transfer the veterans' charity management to Russell because Walker saw it as a way to stick it to Weishan. 
I can hear Walker saying, 'Weishan thinks he's the veterans' guy in the Courthouse? He thinks he can push me around by making Russell's life difficult? I'll show Weishan who's in charge here: watch me give that veterans' program to Russell just to tick Weishan off.' 
That's my theory, and don't think for a moment that scores in government aren't settled just like that when a chief executive wants to teach a lesson to a nettlesome legislator.
While all three of these fine gentleman have rational theories that have merit - after all, Walker has shown himself to be a butt-kisser, unethical and punitive - my thoughts take me in a slightly different direction.

Having lived under the Walker regime for going on ten years now, one of things I know for certain about Walker is that everything he does is self-serving.  He can't resist a chance to grandstand and try to curry favor with someone.

At the risk of appearing overly cynical, I believe that Walker saw "Operation Freedom" as just one more opportunity to promote himself.  Indeed, if you look at the page for "Operation Freedom" you see Walker everywhere.  Even their flicker page, which only has 27 pictures after all those years and tens of thousands of vets, and half of those are pictures of Walker.  Yet the events were able to give him the appearance of being such a good patriot. And by tying in his good buddies and free advertisers at WTMJ radio, he was getting all sorts of publicity.

Since he left Milwaukee County, I can't recall one thing that he did to show that he still wants to honor vets outside of what is absolutely obligatory.

It would also explain Walker's desire to keep the control of "Operation Freedom" close to him, so that he could minimize any negative exposure for himself with all those mean old veterans that might not agree with his ideology.

When I spoke to Weishan, he told me that it cost Milwaukee County $100,000 in lost revenue each time they closed the zoo to the public.  In other words, this was just another way he could use his office to promote his personal political interests.

And if Walker was so concerned about the vets, why did he wait two years after the discovery of the missing money to finally file a formal complaint? Is it possible that he only did so when he became nervous when the Democrats filed their complaint against Walker and Russell?

All of this indicates to me that Walker did all of this just to get some free publicity and brownie points for his campaign.

And before anyone wants to try to raise the point that conservatives respect veterans too much to pull such a dastardly scheme as to use them in order to simply raise funds and promote conservative causes and/or candidates, let me give you two names to counter that false argument: Sean Hannity and Lt. Col. Oliver North.


  1. You are exactly right. This was all about self-promotion. Veterans were simply props.

  2. Nice report, that was also affirmed by this Weishan interview on Monday.