When Wisconsin attorney general J.B. Van Hollen announced last month that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of several other AGs by suing the federal government over health-care reform, he presented the issue as a pressing legal and constitutional priority. “Wisconsin must act to protect its sovereign interests and the interests of the citizens of this state by bringing an action to contest the constitutionality of the (law),” Van Hollen, a Republican, wrote in a letter to the governor.
That may be how he sees things. But emails released this week by Van Hollen’s office suggest that politics was hardly absent from the initiative.
The emails, obtained under an open records request by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel,
show that just three days before that announcement, Van Hollen’s top deputy, Ray Taffora, was in touch with Ben Cannatti, a GOP political consultant based in Austin, Texas, on the subject of the potential lawsuit. Cannatti wrote an email to both Taffora and Bryan Stirling, a top aide to South Carolina AG Henry McMaster, saying that Taffora and Stirling should “connect as soon as possible” to discuss Taffora’s questions about the health-care bill. Taffora quickly responded to say he would call Stirling.
McMaster and Florida AG Bill McCollum took the lead in organizing the lawsuit and winning national attention for it.
Why was Cannatti involved? Perhaps because he’s a leader in the movement to get state-level GOP candidates into office. Cannatti used to help run the Republican Attorneys General Association, which aimed to elect GOP AGs across the country, according to his website. He then co-founded the Republican State Leadership Committee, which, says the site, is “committed to recruiting and electing [GOP] candidates to down ballot state offices.”
A spokesman for Van Hollen told the Journal-Sentinel that the AG’s decision to seek a lawsuit was “based on his legal analysis.”
This isn’t the first time that Van Hollen has seemed to use his office for partisan purposes. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, a lawsuit filed by the AG, requesting confirmation on thousands of voter registrations, was thrown out by a judge. Van Hollen then dispatched state prosecutors to poll watch on Election Day, and asked district court judges across the state to alert him on Election Day in case he had to “initiate emergency election-related proceedings,” provoking outrage from Democrats, including Governor Jim Doyle.
Van Hollen’s desired health-care lawsuit has not been filed to date. Doyle opposes it, as does the Democratic-controlled state legislature. It is unclear whether Van Hollen has the authority to do so independently.
It’s not a newsflash that the lawsuit was as much about politics as the law. After all, McMaster, McCollum, and several of the other AGs who joined it are running for governor in their states. But the emails involving Van Hollen’s office help demonstrate that in perhaps clearer form than ever.