Reading Time: 3 minutes

The federal judge who ordered an end to an investigation into possible illegal campaign coordination between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups during two recent recall elections regularly attended expenses-paid judicial conferences sponsored by conservative organizations including the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation — groups that have funded efforts against campaign finance reform.

In a 26-page decision issued on May 6, Judge Rudolph Randa of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ordered prosecutors to immediately halt its long-running investigation into the campaign spending and fundraising activities of Walker, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups. Prosecutors were trying to determine whether the Walker campaign and the conservative groups were illegally coordinating campaign strategies at the time of the 2011 and 2012 recall elections in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth spent millions on ads during Wisconsin’s recall elections, supporting the governor’s collective-bargaining reforms. It requested that the federal court stop the investigation, claiming that the probe violated the group’s constitutional right to free speech.

Randa wrote in his decision that the Wisconsin Club for Growth had found a way to get around campaign finance laws. “That circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted,” the decision said. “Instead, it should be recognized as promoting political speech.”

As the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy first reported, Randa has regularly attended expenses-paid judicial conferences hosted by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center and funded by right-wing foundations like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and large corporations like ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical and Pfizer.

A Center for Public Integrity investigation last year revealed that conservative foundations and corporate giants were the most frequent sponsors of George Mason judicial conferences, which often serve state and federal judges a steady dose of free-market, anti-regulation lectures.

Most recently, court records show, Randa reported attending an October 2013 judicial conference hosted by the university’s Law & Economics Center. The three-day conference, titled “Antitrust Law & Economics Institute for Judges,” was sponsored by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John William Pope Foundation, among other conservative groups, corporations and individuals.

Previously, Randa attended George Mason judicial conferences in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth’s director, Eric O’Keefe, has connections to the Koch brothers. Michael Grebe, the Bradley Foundation’s president and CEO, chaired Gov. Walker’s 2010 and 2012 gubernatorial campaigns.

A woman who answered the phone in Randa’s chambers Tuesday said he would not comment on cases that are still pending.

In siding with the Wisconsin Club for Growth, Randa told prosecutors to return all of the property seized during their investigation and to destroy copies of documents they obtained during their searches.

A day after his ruling, however, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Randa’s order ending the investigation, ruling that the judge overstepped his authority when he ordered that prosecutors destroy documents.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.