Herman Cain’s smoking campaign manager, Mark Block, was the Koch Brothers’ man in Wisconsin until two days before Governor Scott Walker’s inauguration. That’s when he made the switch from controversy-plagued campaigning at the state level to controversy-plagued campaigning at the national level.
In January, 2005, Block appeared at Walker’s inaugural ball in a tuxedo to celebrate what “we did” to elect Walker, whose assaults on collective bargaining rights and public education and services sparked some of the largest protests in recent American history and who now faces the prospect of a citizen-sponsored recall.
Block’s presence at Walker’s inaugura was something of a triumphal return to the fold for a veteran political player after he had been unwillingly sidelined politically for a number of years. In 2001, Block paid a $15,000 fine and agreed to refrain from participating in campaigns in an agreement that ended an investigation of illegal coordination between a 1997 Wisconsin Supreme Court campaign he ran and the smearing of the opposition candidates by a supposedly “independent” group.
Now Block’s in trouble again, facing allegations that he is back to the old game of coordinating between a political campaign and a supposedly “independent” nonprofit group to position Cain as a presidential contender. Media reports suggest that groups Block set up and operated were moving money back and forth between nonprofit organizations and the campaign in order to benefit Cain’s campaign. There are also indications that Block—and Cain—may have been involved in an elaborate scheme to shift money between Block’s groups, a speakers’ bureau and organizations that would give Cain high-profile speaking gigs.
The scandal surrounding Block, coming parallel to another controversy involving Cain’s alleged harassment of women who worked for him when he headed the National Restaurant Association, could derail the Cain campaign—or at least its manager. Even with the collapse of so many campaign finance laws, following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the sort of coordination in which Block is alleged to have engaged violates the law.
Block is certainly not new to controversy.
But if this scandal trips him up, it will be a quick fall from grace for a man who was essentially drummed out of politics a decade ago and then made his way back to a position where, because of the Cain’s campaign’s prominence, a video of Block smoking and talking up the race became a national Internet sensation.
After this period in the wilderness, when he was barred from running or even volunteering for campaigns from 2001 to 2004, Block was brought brought back into the political game by the billionaires Charles and David Koch and the political operation, Americans for Prosperity, that they funded. AFP is, of course, the group that ginned up the “Tea Party” movement as a vehicle to elect conservative, pro-corporate Republicans.
In his capacity as state director for the Wisconsin affiliate of Americans for Prosperity, a role he assumed in 2005 (shortly after his agreement to stay out of politics ended), Block established a network of offshoot organizations, operating out of the same office with different variations on the word “Prosperity” in their title.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s examination of the groups: “AFP’s Wisconsin conferences in 2009 and 2010 gathered several hundred Tea Party activists “at a posh resort to discuss strategy, hear from national and state conservative leaders and office holders, and look ahead to how they can influence the 2010 elections.’ Listed speakers included Walker, (Wisconsin Attorney General JB) Van Hollen and (controversial Supreme Court Justice David) Prosser, as well as Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) and Paul Ryan (R-Janesville), plus Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann and a handful of state representatives. In both the 2009 and 2010 conferences, AFP invited activists to attend a closing “reception” with “invited candidates for elected office” that was “fully sponsored and hosted” by the Wisconsin Center for Economic Prosperity (WCEP), a Political Action Committee (PAC). AFP added a disclaimer to the 2010 political candidate meet-and-greet reception, stating “the reception and corresponding activities are not sponsored or hosted by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, or the Wisconsin Prosperity Network.” This disclaimer was likely aimed at avoiding restrictions on nonprofit involvement in partisan political activities, such as funding a reception for federal and state candidates.”
However, according to AFP Wisconsin’s paperwork and federal filings by the Wisconsin Center for Economic Prosperity, they shared leadership. At least one of WCEP’s checking accounts was in the name of Mark Block.
According to the center, “As a PAC, WCEP is supposed to report all expenditures to the federal government, as well as comply with state disclosure rules in state races. But it reported no expenses related to its ‘sponsorship’ of the AFP receptions in 2009 and 2010. Block’s WCEP has not been charged with wrongdoing, but it has received four ‘failure to file’ notices from the Federal Elections Commission. Additionally, WCEP is one of three plaintiffs challenging Wisconsin’s ‘Impartial Justice Act’ that provides public financing of Supreme Court elections, a system designed to protect against the politicization of the state’s highest court.”
While Block maintained his interest in judicial races, his primary focus was on federal and state politics when he headed AFP Wisconsin.
Block spent much of his time organizing support for Congressman Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future”—the outline for Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program—and Ryan was a featured speaker at rallies organized by Block.
Block’s Prosperity Network positioned millionaire Ron Johnson, a newcomer to politics who ran an “outsider” campaign much like Herman Cain’s run, as the challenger to US Senator Russ Feingold. (Johnson, who beat Feingold in 2010, was introduced to statewide politics by Mark Block at the April 15, 2010, “Tea Party” rally at the state Capitol in Madison.) And that network was at the center of a 2010 voter suppression scandal that targeted students and minority voters for challenges to the right to participate in the political process—WIsconsin media exposed a scheme involving Block’s groups, their Tea Party allies and Republican Party of Wisconsin insiders to try to strike as many as 70,000 “suspect voter registrations” from the the state’s voter rolls before the election. In attachments to e-mails regarding the scheme, there were detailed plans to use an array of intimidation tactics, including photographing the homes of the targeted citizens.
The group One Wisconsin Now described the plan as: “A coordinated plot by the Republican Party of Wisconsin, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin and organizations in the so-called Tea Party movement targeting minority voters and college students in a possibly illegal ‘voter caging’ effort for voter suppression…”
The plot was exposed just weeks before the 2010 election and drew national attention.
It was hardly the only link between Block and his operations to the election that put Scott Walker in the governor’s office.
As a candidate, Walker attended Block’s rallies, appeared at events with Block, and enjoyed the benefits of Block’s initiatives and alliances.
The Koch Brothers were major donors to Walker’s campaign, and to the Republican Governors Association, which spent heavily on behalf of Walker. Block and AFP’s Wisconsin affiliate were actively engaged throughout 2010 as a free-spending advocates, turning up at Republican conventions and events. From 2006 on, he regularly organized rallies and events at which a featured speaker was another ally of the Koch Brothers he had come to know: Herman Cain. (Cain served on the AFP board and was paid to speak at events promoting its “Prosperity Expansion Project.” (Walker is now touring the country and appearing at events promoted by AFP.)
There was never much question of the Walker-AFP-Koch connection. So it came as no surprise that, in the midst of the Wisconsin fight over collective bargaining earlier this year, Walker took a call and spoke for twenty minutes to someone he thought was David Koch. Walker did not know Koch, but he knew Koch’s man in Wisconsin: Mark Block.
Indeed, when he showed up at Walker’s inaugural, wearing that tuxedo and a big smile, Block essentially claimed credit for Walker’s election.
“I think what you really got to look at is not just the governor’s inauguration tonight but look at what happened in Wisconsin on November 2nd,” announced Block. “I would argue to anyone that what we did as a movement, as a Tea Party movement, is the reason that Wisconsin flipped more than any other state in the country.”
Block also announced that he had a new gig. “I was the state director of Americans for Prosperity until two days ago. Now, I’m the chief of staff for Herman Cain.”
A day after Walker’s inaugural, one of Block’s Wisconsin groups, Prosperity USA (a part of his Wisconsin Prosperity Network), paid for the new chief of staff of the Cain campaign to fly to Washington to meet with David Koch and AFP president Tim Phillips in Washington, DC.
That trip is one of many on the list of questionable connections that have arisen between Block’s supposedly nonprofit “charitable” groups and the Cain campaign—connections that Block now says the campaign is delving into with an “internal investigation.”