Leaked documents follow money trail
By Robert Cloud
Waupaca Mayor Brian Smith believes state Sen. Luther Olsen has some explaining to do.
Leaked documents from the John Doe investigation into election campaign violations linked a last-minute provision in the 2013-15 budget to political contributions to the Wisconsin Club for Growth.
That nonprofit group spent heavily in the 2011 recall elections against six Republican senators and the 2012 recall against Gov. Scott Walker.
Olsen was one of the senators facing recall in 2011. He is also a member of the Joint Finance Committee, which oversees the state’s budget in the Legislature.
The Guardian reported prosecutors in the John Doe investigation found that Harold Simmons, owner of one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of lead used in paint, donated $750,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth between April 2011 and January 2012.
In 2013, the final “999 motion” of the state budget included a provision to grant the lead industry retroactive immunity from legal liability.
Families had filed 171 lawsuits against the lead industry seeking compensation for children harmed by lead paint.
“Nobody seems to think it was wrong that 171 cases were – at the time – made to go away by a special-interest provision in the budget,” Smith said. “Those cases involved young children who were hurt by lead paint.”
In 2011, Republicans enacted Act 2, a tort reform law that required anyone harmed by a product, such as lead paint, to prove the company they were suing was directly responsible for the product which harmed them.
Because lead paint was banned in 1978, it is only found in old buildings. That makes it difficult to trace the specific manufacturer whose paint harmed a child. As a result, the 2011 law protected the lead industry from new lawsuits.
The 2013 budget provision added four words to Act 2: “whenever filed or accrued.”
These four words made the lead industry’s legal immunity from litigation over negligence retroactive.
According to The Guardian, the four words were suggested by a lobbyist working for Simmons’ company, NL Industries.
“Was this based on tort reform or was it pay-to-play?” Smith asked.
Olsen said the provision was a part of ongoing efforts at tort reform.
Under Wisconsin law prior to Act 2, “companies were being sued for products they didn’t make,” Olsen said.
Olsen said he was hearing complaints from businesses in Wisconsin that they were unable to defend themselves from lawsuits because the plaintiffs did not have to prove the company made the product or that their product actually caused the harm.
Olsen said Simmons’ company was one among many facing lawsuits for problems it did not cause.
“They are not a lead paint company. They made lead and sold it to companies that put it into their paint,” Olsen said. “We used to have lead in our gasoline, too.”
When asked about the pay-to-play accusation, Olsen described it “a campaign tactic to make people look dirty.”
He said he never heard of Simmons or his company NL Industries prior to reading about it last week and he did not know who donated money to Wisconsin Club for Growth.
“It’s totally ridiculous,” Olsen said. “We in the Legislature voted for something in the budget. Somebody we didn’t know gave money to somebody else we didn’t know. How could this ever be considered pay-to-play?”
A federal appeals court subsequently overturned the 2013 provision and ruled retroactive immunity was unconstitutional. The 171 cases continue to move forward.
“The fact that Sen. Olsen doesn’t see anything wrong with his vote to sell out injured children and shield lead paint manufacturers is exactly why we need to vote for change this November,” Smith said.