Little known Wisconsin foundation behind ‘voter fraud’ billboards

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When Scot Ross heard about more than a dozen billboards going up in largely minority neighborhoods around Cleveland, Ohio, bearing ominous images of a judge’s gavel and copy warning of the legal penalties (fines and jail time) for voter fraud, the story had a familiar ring. Back in 2010, nearly identical billboards sprang up around Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Like the Ohio boards, the Wisconsin campaign seemed to target minority-rich neighborhoods, low income areas, and a few rural areas. And just like in Ohio, whoever purchased the ads from Clear Channel Outdoor Advertising did so anonymously — the boards carried only the information that they were paid for by “a private family foundation.”

The Milwaukee billboards in 2010 replaced the gavel with images of a black man and woman, and a larger picture of a white woman, behind bars, with the words “We Voted Illegally” emerging from a cartoon bubble, underneath the large headline: “VOTER FRAUD is a FELONY!” Voting rights advocates protested the boards, to no avail.

And then, with just a few weeks to go before the 2012 election, the boards were back. More than more than 85 of them across the Milwaukee area, according to Clear Channel Outdoor Advertising.

Activists in Ohio and Wisconsin, including Ross’ organization, One Wisconsin Now, tried to get Clear Channel to name the purchaser, but were rebuffed.

After weeks of protests, Clear Channel backed down, removing the boards in both states, saying they violated the company’s prohibition on anonymous political advertising. But Ross and other activists still wanted to know — who had targeted minority voters with a message that, to many, smacked of attempted intimidation and voter disenfranchisement?

A joint investigation by One Wisconsin Now and theGrio revealed the name of the family foundation that purchased the “voter fraud” Wisconsin billboards in 2010 and 2012. And while it’s not known whether the same foundation also bought the boards in Ohio, it’s clear that the web of “dark money” funding not just anti “voter fraud” campaigns, but also more aggressive tactics aimed at overwhelmingly Democratic voters in key swing states, has deep roots in Wisconsin.

One Wisconsin Now and theGrio discovered that a little-known non-profit, the Einhorn Family Foundation, based in Milwaukee, was behind the 2010 and 2012 Milwaukee area billboard campaigns. The Einhorn Foundation, led by the family patriarch, Steven Einhorn, is just one of a constellation of conservative organizations that go beyond Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers behind much of the tea party funding, who have become familiar to those watching the rise of “dark money” in American elections since the Citizens United decision in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Kochs, with their Americans for Prosperity, fellowships designed to influence colleges and universities to teach the Kochs’ version of “free market” principals, their aggressive patronage of the Libertarian Cato Institute, and the more than $100 million the two have pledged to spend to defeat President Barack Obama for a second term, are by far the most public members of a conservative elite who aim to exert influence over public policy at the state and federal level. But they are neither the only, nor even the largest players.

An even larger entity, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Family Foundation, has spent close to $500 million since 2001, on everything from conservative think tanks to voting-related groups and even a right wing media watchdog, which has spread the myth of rampant voter fraud to conservative blogs and news outlets.

“A lot of people think that the most destructive elements coming out of Wisconsin might be [Governor] Scott Walker’s agenda, and [Republican vice presidential candidate] Paul Ryan,” One Wisconsin Now’s Scot Ross told MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry on Saturday. “But it turns out it’s this little building down in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that houses the Bradley Foundation.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailed the Bradley Foundation’s funding of right wing causes last year, ranging from think tanks like the American Enterprise, Hoover and Manhattan institutes, to what activists have deemed efforts to suppress minority votes, in order to help elect conservative Republicans.

Organizations receiving financing from Bradley include American Majority, a tea party affiliated group started in 2008 to train candidates for state and federal office, and which has received nearly $700,000 from Bradley since 2010, the Wisconsin Institute for Liberty, a conservative legal organization funded with a $500,000 from Bradley, and True the Vote, which has claimed it plans to recruit 1 million “poll watchers” to challenge voters’ eligibility and be on guard for alleged “voter fraud” at polling places nationwide. (True the Vote ultimately had to return the $35,000 it received from the Bradley Foundation because the organization had not received 501C3 status.)  American Majority, in turn, was an early funder of a Wisconsin-based nonprofit called “Media Trackers,” started by a former Republican National Committee staffer in 2011, which performs opposition research for the right, attacking so-called “liberal media” outlets and even blogs, and floating stories about alleged voter fraud to right wing media.

In 2010, the Einhorn Family Foundation received $10,000 from the foundation “to support a public education project” under the Bradley Foundation’s “civic growth and prosperity” giving category.

The foundation is led by Steve Einhorn, who along with his wife, gave Gov. Scott Walker $25,000 during the recall campaign.

One Wisconsin Now came across the foundation’s name by comparing a list of the top Milwaukee private foundations with a list of major donors to Walker’s recall campaign. Ironically, the identity of the private purchaser became clearer after a Milwaukee conservative radio host, Charlie Sykes, mentioned that he had been in contact with the billboard advertiser, because of Sykes’ own strong ties to the Bradley Foundation and his past work for the organization.

Independent sources with direct knowledge of the campaign then confirmed to theGrio that the Einhorn Foundation was indeed the buyer.

So far, the Einhorn Family Foundation has declined to comment publicly on the billboards or on their political activities related to the 2012 election. A public relations representative for the foundation denied that the organization had any part in the billboard campaign.