Phony Walker, Koch Call Raises Political, Journalistic Ethics Questions

Mar 8, 2011

Democrats are accusing Governor Scott Walker of breaking ethics and campaign finance laws during a phone conversation he thought he was having with billionaire David Koch. The state Democratic Party Monday filed a formal complaint with the Government Accountability Board. WUWM’s Erin Toner reports that the case has raised ethics questions, not only in the political realm, but also in the field of journalism.

Gov. Scott Walker

Late last month, during mass protests in Madison, Gov. Walker spoke on the phone with blogger Ian Murphy. He was posing as the wealthy conservative activist David Koch, whose money helped Walker get elected. Democrats say during the phone call, Walker broke a number of state laws. The party accuses him of engaging in illegal coordination of independent expenditures when he asked the fake Koch to run ads in Republican districts. Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate says the complaint also references an exchange near the end of the 20-minute phone call.

“Gov. Walker was offered a trip to California, where he would be shown a good time. Walker accepts by saying that that would be great. That’s in violation of Wisconsin statute that states no state public official may use his or her public position to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value for private benefit of himself or herself,” Tate says.

The state Democratic Party also accuses Gov. Walker of conspiring to incite disorderly conduct by talking about planting provocateurs among peaceful protestors at the state Capitol.

Walker’s spokesman issued a written statement in response. Cullen Werwie said the complaint is without merit, and called it sad that Democrats are obsessed with playing politics rather than helping Gov. Walker create new jobs.

The Government Accountability Board will assess whether the complaint has merit. Some experts have already weighed in, saying while the phone call may be embarrassing for Gov. Walker, it does not seem as if anything improper occurred.

“The conversation was mostly the kind of innocuous generalities that pass between elected officials and their supporters all the time, we just don’t hear about it.”

Kenneth Mayer teaches political science at UW-Madison. He says generally, in order for there to be a violation, there must be an explicit understanding or promise that the elected official will take some action in return for support or a contribution. Mayer says that type of quid pro quo occurred in Madison more than a decade ago, when a number of legislators got into trouble for using state offices to conduct campaign business.

“And there were also pay-to-play conversations where if you wanted a bill to be brought to the floor, you needed to make a contribution of this amount and that’s the kind of thing that crosses the line into illegal conduct,” Mayer says.

While elections officials look into whether Gov. Walker may have violated state ethics laws, the phony phone call is also stirring debate over journalistic ethics. In a recent interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Ian Murphy – the blogger who posed as David Koch – defended his method and said he believes he acted in accordance with the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists. The code says reporters should “be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting news.”

“I seriously doubt he understands journalism ethics the way he’s supposed to.”

Kevin Smith is chairman of the SPJ’s Ethics Committee. He says journalists should only consider undercover reporting when they’ve exhausted all other means of exposing vital information to the public. Smith says in the blogger’s case, the ends did not justify the means.

“He wasn’t saving anybody’s life and he wasn’t doing a greater justice. And there’s plenty of case studies where people have gone undercover and lied to prove fraud and to prove medical malfeasance and all kinds of things. This isn’t one of those,” Smith says.

The Society of Professional Journalists says the scam gives the industry a black eye, and no credible reporter would ever misrepresent their name or affiliation when seeking an interview.