US governor pranked by caller

2011-02-24 12:01

Madison - A prank caller pretending to be a billionaire conservative businessman was able to have a lengthy conversation with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker about his strategy to cripple public employee unions in the state, the governor's office confirmed on Wednesday.

On the call, Walker joked about bringing a baseball bat to a meeting with Democratic leaders, said it would "be outstanding" to be flown out to California by businessman David Koch for a good time after the battle is over, and said he expected the anti-union movement to spread across the country.

Audio was posted on the Buffalo Beast, a left-leaning online newspaper based in Buffalo, New York, and quickly spread across the internet.

The standoff between the governor and Democratic lawmakers is being closely watched across the US because other conservative Republican governors may try to go after powerful public employee unions as part of their budget-cutting policies.

Public-sector unions are an important part of the Democratic Party base. President Barack Obama and other Democrats will need the strong support of unions in the 2012 elections to counter a huge influx of corporate funds allowed under a Supreme Court decision last year.

On the call, Walker compared his stand to that taken by President Ronald Reagan when he fired the country's air-traffic controllers during a labour dispute in 1981.

"That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and led to the fall of the Soviets," Walker said on the recording.

Democrats ripped Walker's comments on the Wisconsin Assembly floor on Wednesday morning, saying they had nothing to do with his assertion that legislation stripping public employees' collective bargaining rights is needed to help solve a looming budget deficit in the Midwestern state.

News conference admission

"That's why we must fight it! That is why people must come to the Capitol and fight this!" Representative Jon Richards yelled as thousands of protesters inside the rotunda roared in approval. "This isn't about balancing the budget, this is about a political war."

Walker spokesperson Cullen Werwie confirmed Walker took the call, which will only heighten widespread suspicions that brothers David and Charles Koch are pulling strings in Wisconsin's battle as part of a conservative agenda to limit the unions' power.

At a news conference, Walker acknowledged being deceived but stuck to his message that the union changes were needed to balance Wisconsin's budget.

"I'm not going to let one prank phone call be a distraction from the job we have to do," Walker said. "The things I said are the things I've said publicly all the time."

The governor's plan would take away the ability of state and local public employees to collectively bargain for working conditions, benefits, or any other than their base salaries. Unions could not collect mandatory dues and would face a vote of its members every year to stay in existence.

The plan has set off more than a week of demonstrations at the Capitol, and prompted Wisconsin Senate Democrats to flee the state to block its passage. Similar ideas are being pushed in some other states with Republican governors.

In another Great Lakes state, Ohio, Republican state senators said on Wednesday they will support allowing unionised state employees to collectively bargain for their wages, a reversal of a bill provision that had drawn thousands of protesters to the Statehouse.

Ohio's possible olive branch of negotiated wages comes in a bill that still would not allow unions to bargain for benefits, sick time, vacation or other conditions. And the bill would permit no strikes for any public employee from the local level to the state; such limitations exist in more than 30 states.

Koch donations

In the prank phone call in Wisconsin, the man pretending to be Koch, Buffalo Beast editor Ian Murphy, said, "You're the first domino."

"Yep, this is our moment," Walker said.

The brothers own Koch Industries, Incorporated, which is the largest privately owned company in America and has significant operations in Wisconsin. Its political action committee gave $43 000 to Walker's campaign, and donated heavily to the Republican Governors' Association, which funded ads attacking Walker's opponent in last year's election.

The Kochs also give millions to support Americans For Prosperity, which launched a $320 000 television ad campaign in favour of Walker's legislation on Wednesday and already has a website, standwithwalker.com, where more than 60 000 have signed a petition supporting his plan.

On the call, Walker talks about speaking with state Senator Tim Cullen, one of the Democrats hiding in Illinois to stop the bill, and telling Cullen he would not budge.

'Crush these bustards'

After Walker said he would be willing to meet with Democratic leaders, the caller said he would bring "a baseball bat". Walker laughed and responded that he had "a slugger with my name on it".

The caller suggested he was thinking about "planting some troublemakers" among the protesters, and Walker said he had thought about doing that but declined. Walker said the protests eventually would die because the media would stop covering them.

At the end of the call, the prankster says: "I'll tell you what Scott, once you crush these bastards, I'll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time."

"Alright, that would be outstanding. Thanks for all the support and helping us move the cause forward. We appreciate it and we're doing the just and right thing for the right reasons and it's all about getting our freedoms back," Walker said.

Werwie, the governor's spokesperson, said the phone call "shows that the governor says the same thing in private as he does in public and the lengths that others will go to disrupt the civil debate Wisconsin is having".

- AP

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