by Abe Sauer
Today, Wisconsin votes for a supreme court justice, in an election that proves that sometimes what happens in a democracy is not all that dissimilar from what happens in a diaper.
The state’s residents have been robocalled so often in the last 24 hours that many are just not bothering to answer the phone anymore. Each side accuses the other of being the candidate propped up by outside money — even as both have had millions spent on their behalf by outside money. Sarah Palin, a resident of Alaska, has made an endorsement in another state’s supreme court election. Wisconsin’s election has become maybe the greatest single argument for not electing justices.
And yet, one element of the election is dirtier and shadier, grosser and more confusing than all others.
A few weeks ago, the “Greater Wisconsin Committee” began running an ad against incumbent Justice David Prosser. It alleges that when Prosser was Outagamie County District Attorney in 1978, he refused to prosecute a Catholic priest accused of sexually molesting two boys, Todd and Troy Merryfield. The ad uses quotes from the Merryfields, from years later, when Prosser’s role was revealed. Prosser called the ad “sleazy beyond belief.”
News hit a week later that one of the brothers, Troy, who now lives in Suffolk, Virginia, was upset with the ad.
Then, another week after that, an anti-Kloppenburg ad featuring Troy Merryfield, made its stunning debut, managing the extraordinary feat of cutting through the flotsam of election ads. The ad is moving in its simplicity. A grown man, alone, looking into the camera and explaining he was a victim of sexual abuse, adding that “my brother and I” are “being victimized again” by Joanne Kloppenburg. Pow!
How his previous harsh criticism of Prosser jibes with his current support for the justice, Merryfield told the Journal Sentinel, “I don’t want to get back to different things that were reported in the past.”
For its part, the mainstream press in Wisconsin has refused to even question the motivations of Troy Merryfield, probably because he’s a clergy sex abuse victim and nobody wants to be “that guy.”
But Troy Merryfield is in Virginia, insulated from any consequences of the Wisconsin Supreme Court election. Of late, Walker and Prosser have both been very vocal about “out of state” influence in Wisconsin elections, which makes the Virginia Merryfield’s support pretty rich. But it didn’t have to be this way. Why wouldn’t Troy’s brother Todd, who lives in Port Washington, WI, star in the ad? As Troy himself said, it was Todd, not Prosser’s campaign, that alerted him to the original ad that used the abuse case against Prosser.
Todd Merryfield, who posted his brother’s ad to his Facebook page with the comment “I hope people are paying attention…” probably doesn’t want to experience the fallout such involvement would bring.
Todd confirmed this. “I would love to be more vocal in my support for my brother,” he told me, “but the toxic political environment in Wisconsin prevents me from commenting any further than offering my support. No matter how loudly we speak of this being a non-political objection to the despicable ad put out by the Greater Wisconsin Committee….”
Todd is the co-owner of the The Learning Shop, a chain of six stores across Wisconsin that does a great deal of its business supplying… teachers. The store even offers special “Teacher Resources.” Coming out against the candidate that teachers have put their hopes in to save collective bargaining, while at the same time needing those teachers’ business, might create the kind of “toxic political environment” that Merryfield fears. Residents of Virginia have no such worries. (It’s noteworthy that his profile “likes” both the “Tea Party Patriots” and Rush Limbaugh guest host “Mark Belling,” meaning Todd may not be altogether apolitical.)
Todd further told us: “We are going to be painted as getting involved in the political process here and that is a sad mischaracterization of our involvement.”
He’s right. But not because of the content of the ad, but the partner that Merryfield chose to fund his message.
The ad, which is running in heavy rotation in major state markets, is funded by the group Citizens for a Strong America, about which almost absolutely nothing is known, except that its bare bones website was registered to the same address as Americans for Prosperity by an AFP employee. Americans for Prosperity is, of course, the activism group started and funded by David Koch. The Center for Media and Democracy also notes that the registering employee in question once “interned for Walker and worked on his campaign.”
“Citizens for a Strong America” is such a vanilla name it was used in the 1989 Frederick Forsyth novel The Negotiator for, yes, a shady conservative think tank.
Todd told us, “[I] can’t tell you anything about that organization,” adding, “Their refusal to [pull the ad] after my brother’s public plea obviously garnered support from an outside organization.”
As the Center rightly notes, the Citizens for a Strong America is “a virtually anonymous group … running ads on the eve of a major election with no public disclosure of who runs the group or who funds the group.” Sure, Kloppengburg’s deep pockets come from a front group for national union interests (fully admitted on its website), but Prosser’s bag men are front groups for front groups for front groups.
We could not reach Troy Merryfield for comment.
(The group the Merryfields have teamed with in their nonpolitical message is currently running another ad in Wisconsin. This one claims Prosser challenger Kloppenburg “put an 80-year-old farmer in jail for refusing to plant native vegetation on his farm.” It’s a claim so untrue Politifact’s truth meter burst into “pants on fire” flames with the fact-checking organization noting the commercial’s claim “is ridiculously false.”)
One other detail that’s fallen through the cracks in the unwillingness to question the (powerful) Merryfield ad. Both Todd and Troy are plaintiffs in a still-pending civil suit filed in 2008 against the Green Bay Archdiocese. In February, 2011, just before the Walker bill drama geared up, their attorney added a new punitive damage claim. The suit is based on similar California litigation, alleging fraud that saw an award in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Merryfield’s suit was only allowed to go forward in Wisconsin after the state supreme court, that included Prosser, ruled in 2007 in John Doe 1 v Milwaukee Archdiocese of Milwaukee that “Decades have elapsed since the alleged wrongful conduct of the archdiocese occurred. But that should not prevent the plaintiffs from having their day in court.” The ruling paved the way to bypass existing statutes of limitations on lawsuits against the church — but only in the cases where fraud had occurred. A year later, the Merryfield’s filed their suit against the Green Bay Diocese seeking undisclosed damages.
With this ruling in mind, Troy’s original statement gains much more context. He writes, “In retrospect, I do not believe that some of the diocese officials were honest with Prosser.”
To follow the stipulations of the 2007 supreme court ruling, the Merryfields’ case must prove fraud on the part of the archdiocese. Not being honest with Prosser would be just that kind of fraud. Merryfield writes further that Prosser “offered helpful insights” during Priest Feeney’s successful 2004 conviction, another moment that paved the way for the lawsuit. Merryfield’s lawyer may want to consult him about the advisable “cannot comment on that” behavior typical of plaintiffs in pending civil cases potentially worth millions of dollars.
This conflict of interest is not disclosed in the ad any more than is the funding of the group paying for the ad.
So, just to be clear, the two most powerful ads in service of two completely opposed candidates for Wisconsin’s supreme court are both Catholic priest sexual abuse-themed and feature statements from the same victim. It’s prototypical of the animal sentiment that will carry the day in Wisconsin.
Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.