Madison — The lobbyist for a self-described sportsmen group offered free fishing excursions to then-Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder just days before an affiliate of the group secured a now-canceled $500,000 grant from the state, newly released records show.
Suder, an Abbotsford Republican, went on the Lake Michigan outing with the head of the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin in August, about 21/2 months after he engineered money for the grant into the state budget. Also scheduled to be on the Aug. 22-23 trip were a lobbyist and a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. The former NRA lobbyist, Darren LaSorte, is also a board member of the foundation affiliated with United Sportsmen.
Suder said he paid his own way on the trip. But a set of emails released by Suder under the state's open records law make plain the close ties between Suder, United Sportsmen, the National Rifle Association and the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.
Scott Meyer, United Sportsmen's executive director and lobbyist, sent an email Aug. 16 to Suder and two others detailing plans for three outings over two days.
"Both (Thursday) evening and Friday evening are no charge," Meyer wrote, referring to a charter fishing trip and an outing on a boat owned by a United Sportsmen board member.
The trip came a week before the United Sportsmen Foundation won a $500,000, two-year grant from the state to promote fishing and hunting. In May and June, Suder had worked with other GOP lawmakers to insert a provision into the state budget creating a grant so narrowly tailored that the United Sportsmen Foundation was all but assured of receiving it. The politically active group has scant experience with the kind of training called for in the grant.
By the time of the trip, the group knew it was the only one that had applied for the grant.
As a lobbyist, Meyer cannot legally give anything of value to state officials.
"Scott Suder paid his portion of the fishing trip and gave me a check that day," Meyer wrote in an email to the Journal Sentinel. "Scott (Suder) clearly understood he had to pay his equal share himself which he did."
'A higher standard'
Rep. Nick Milroy of South Range, the ranking Democrat on the Assembly Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee, said he was concerned that Suder took the "expensive fishing trip with special interest groups and registered lobbyists."
"Public officials are held to a higher standard," Milroy said. "The people who elect us expect more of us than this."
Milroy questioned the decision by Walker's administration to give Suder a $94,000-a-year job at the Public Service Commission. Suder is to start Oct. 7.
A Walker spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about Suder's trip.
Suder said he paid at the time of the trip $116 for a salmon fishing outing, $100 for a walleye fishing outing and $194 for a hotel stay during the trip. Two weeks after the excursion, as the Journal Sentinel published a string of stories about the group,Suder paid $25 to reimburse for the fuel costs for a harbor tour he took on a boat owned by Tom Kleiman, a United Sportsmen board member, Suder said.
"I paid for everything," he said. "I'm very well aware of the ethics rules."
Within a day of going on the fishing trip, Suder downplayed his relationship with United Sportsmen to the Journal Sentinel in an interview for a previous story, saying that his closeness to the group had "absolutely no bearing" on his work on their grant. He also said then that he wasn't aware that his former chief of staff, Luke Hilgemann, was listed as an educator for United Sportsmen Foundation on the grant.
But days before Suder made that denial, he was copied on an email that made clear Hilgemann was a board member for the United Sportsmen Foundation, the records show.
Hilgemann recently left his job overseeing and lobbying for the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity to take a job in Washington, D.C., as the No. 2 executive for the group, which favors conservative economic policies.
The day after the last day of the trip, Aug. 24, a Saturday, the United Sportsmen Foundation held a board meeting in the state Capitol. They were able to meet there because Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) had reserved a room for Meyer, who lives in his district.
Suder joined them for part of that meeting. Also at the meeting was David Fladeboe, a former Suder aide who replaced Hilgemann at the helm of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. United Sportsmen and Americans for Prosperity have teamed up in the past on voter registration drives and a "freedom fest."
Tiffany aide Jennifer Esser was invited to the board meeting as a special guest. Tiffany said Esser allowed the group into the room and locked it up afterward, but did not actually attend the meeting.
Tiffany said he did not know the meeting was for United Sportsmen until Friday, when a reporter told him about the group's emails. He said he was comfortable with his staff arranging the meeting space for the group because Meyer is a constituent.
Days after the meeting, on Aug. 29, the Department of Natural Resources awarded the grant to United Sportsmen. It was easily renewable, with $450,000 available every two years after the initial grant and no requirement in the law for it to be competitively bid.
But a week later, Gov. Scott Walker rescinded the grant after the Journal Sentinel reported that the group made misrepresentations about its nonprofit status and that its president had been cited in 2005 for shooting a trophy black bear without the proper license.
LaSorte, a former longtime lobbyist for the NRA in Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, did not respond to requests for comment. Brent Gardner, the current lobbyist for the NRA in Wisconsin, wrote in a brief email that he was invited on the trip and attended.
"I paid my own way and no one else's," Gardner wrote.
United Sportsmen's Meyer, however, claimed that he paid some costs for Gardner and LaSorte.
Hilgemann, Suder's former top aide, hasn't responded to repeated requests for interviews over the United Sportsmen grant. But privately, he wasn't shy about giving his thoughts on the matter.
After the Journal Sentinel started writing news articles about United Sportsmen, Hilgemann wrote his fellow board members, the newly released emails show.
"Let me be as direct as I can with this recent attention for USW....Bring it!" he wrote. "In our business we wear these types of unfounded, misguided political hack jobs as a badge of courage."
Hilgemann, now the chief operating officer of Americans for Prosperity in Washington, said criticism of United Sportsmen from a liberal group, PR Watch, reflected the "impact on public policy" that the sportsmen's group has had.
Over the past two years, United Sportsmen has lobbied lawmakers such as Suder not just on hunting and fishing legislation but also in favor of bills to bring a massive iron mine to northern Wisconsin and make it easier to build on wetlands.
"They know that if we're successful with educating and exposing a new generation of soccer moms and their children to the outdoors and the sporting pursuits that will eat away at their base and they won't be able to perpetuate the lies and scare tactics they've used on these groups anymore," Hilgemann wrote.
Paul A. Smith of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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