Wis. governor pranked by caller posing as billionaire

February 23, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

A prank caller pretending to be billionaire conservative businessman David Koch had a lengthy conversation with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker about his strategy to cripple public employee unions, the governor's office confirmed Wednesday.

On the call, the governor joked about bringing a baseball bat to a meeting with Democratic leaders, said it would "be outstanding" to be flown out to California by 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 website based in New York, and quickly spread across the Internet.

Ian Murphy, editor of the Beast, told The Huffington Post that he was the caller and that he was "shocked" by how easy it was to get Walker on the phone merely by pretending to be a billionaire donor.

"Fifteen minutes in, I wanted to almost stop it and say, 'Are you so dumb? I'm not David Koch. How can your staff be so incompetent, and how could I get on the phone with you so easily?' " Murphy said. "But I didn't."

Democrats React

On the floor of the state Assembly on Wednesday morning, Democrats ripped Walker's comments, tying them to his assertion that legislation stripping public employees' collective bargaining rights is needed to help solve a looming budget deficit.

"That's why we must fight it! That is why people must come to the Capitol and fight this!" Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee 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 spokesman Cullen Werwie confirmed that Walker took the call, which will only heighten widespread suspicions that brothers David and Charles Koch are behind the effort to limit the unions' power.

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

The plan has set off more than a week of demonstrations at the Capitol and prompted Democrats in the Senate to flee Wisconsin to block its passage.

Similar anti-union ideas are being pushed in some other states with Republican governors.

'This Is Our Moment'

During the prank call, the man pretending to be Koch said, "You're the first domino."

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

The caller apparently got through by saying he was David Koch. NPR's Peter Overby reports that Koch and his brother Charles were key contributors to Walker's campaign for governor last year.

The brothers own Koch Industries Inc., which is the largest privately owned company in America and has major 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 favor of Walker's legislation Wednesday and has a website, www.standwithwalker.com, where more than 70,000 have signed a petition supporting his plan.

During the call, Walker talked about speaking with state Sen. Tim Cullen, one of the Democrats hiding in Illinois to stop the bill. The governor said he told the senator he would not budge.

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'd thought about doing that but declined. The governor said the protests eventually would die because the media would stop covering them.

At the end of the call, the prankster said: "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."

Walker responded: "All right, 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."

'An Astounding Confirmation'

Cullen, the Democratic senator, said the call was an "astounding confirmation of what we've been saying for a couple weeks now. This bill is about the money. This bill is about destroying public employee unions."

Cullen said he felt the call "displays a level of partisanship and pettiness on the side of the governor I don't think is going to sit well with the public."

Werwie, the governor's spokesman, 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."

NPR's Peter Overby contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.