It’s a rare day when the internal workings of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a powerful and decidedly private civic organization, become the stuff of campaign attack fodder.
And post-campaign attack fodder.
But that’s exactly what happened in connection with a long-awaited report from the group, which has been looking into ways to rescue financially troubled Milwaukee County. In September, the group decided to wait until after the Nov. 2 election to release the report.
The catch: Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker was running as a Republican for governor. And his campaign chairman, Michael Grebe, is chairman of the GMC board.
Ultimately, word got out about the report -- which is actually just a set of not-yet-released recommendations, including that the county is in such dire shape state lawmakers should OK legislation allowing it to declare bankruptcy. That was courtesy of the Oct. 9, 2010 No Quarter column, written by Dan Bice, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The report drew fireworks in the campaign.
And now in the transition: When Walker named Grebe as a co-chair of his transition team on Nov. 5, 2010, the state Democratic Party fired off a biting two paragraph news release with the headline: "Walker rewards his ‘Cleaner.’"
The release claimed "Grebe killed the release of a damaging report on Walker’s record in the days leading up to the election." It went on to quote party chairman Mike Tate saying Walker had driven the county to the point of bankruptcy and Grebe "did a good job keeping a report that detailed these facts from the public."
That’s a lot of punch to pack into two paragraphs.
But is it true?
Much as in a courtroom, we believe the burden of proof lies with the person making the statement -- in this case the state Democratic Party.
Their news release included a link to Bice’s column.
PolitiFact Wisconsin asked if there was anything else, but the party did not respond.
So we’ll start with the column, but we won’t stop there.
In the piece, Grebe said it was Julia Taylor, who is president of the GMC and reports to the board, who recommended delaying the release of the report. Grebe agreed, then presented the idea to the full board -- a 32-member group composed of business, labor and civic leaders with ties to both parties -- and the board agreed.
That meeting was Sept. 8, six days before Walker won the GOP nomination.
Grebe repeated this account to PolitiFact Wisconsin, saying it was a group decision. Taylor supported this account. So did Sheldon Lubar, who headed the group’s task force on county government.
Taylor and Grebe told us they didn’t want the report to get ground up in election partisanship and therefore become irrelevant. They said they also wanted to review what other states have done in similar circumstances. Lubar said the recommendations were not final and needed more vetting by groups in the community.
So, it is clear Grebe played a role in the report’s delay.
But did he singlehandedly kill it for partisan gain as the Democrats allege?
Grebe was deeply involved in the election, beyond just the fancy title of Walker campaign chairman. As president and chief executive officer of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, Grebe personally gave a total of $50,000 to the Republican Governors Association in the past year -- a group behind a major anti-Barrett TV campaign.
After the No Quarter column came out, Grebe didn’t hesitate to mix the two jobs -- he responded to criticism of Walker by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic nominee, and defended Walker’s record on fiscal issues.
Grebe told us he did not think it was necessary to recuse himself from discussion on that item: "I'm still the chairman of the organization. I did the right thing to bring it to the board."
But getting at whether Grebe personally pushed for the decision -- and whether his motive would have been protecting Walker -- is difficult given the private nature of the group.
We talked to various members of the group, including some considered more sympathetic to Democrats. None provided any evidence that Grebe pushed the delay -- and none said there was dissent over the decision to delay.
One preferred a mid-campaign release but was not asked for an opinion. Some would not talk on the record, with one citing fear of retribution within the group.
Lubar told us more work was needed on the recommendations, but by other accounts the proposals -- initially expected by summer -- were pretty far along by the Sept. 8 meeting. One board member, union leader Candice Owley, said she sent her comments on the recommendations to the board for that meeting.
And H. Carl Mueller, a public relations executive and member of the group’s board and its county task force, was starting in mid-September to line up a newspaper story on the bankruptcy recommendation. His firm does work for the board.
Mueller told us he was just laying the groundwork for a post-election story on the recommendations (which still have not been formally finalized or released). Mueller said he got no marching orders from Grebe.
Lubar, who gave $10,000 to Walker’s campaign and $5,000 to Barrett’s campaign, said the document leaked to Bice was a list of options, not a final set of recommendations, and that Grebe was "not a player" in determining them and had not suggested a timetable for release.
"Grebe had zero to do with it," Lubar said.
That’s a very different statement than the Democrats’ claim.
So, where does that leave us?
With no direct evidence, the state Democrats allege Walker rewarded Grebe for burying a damaging report. As Greater Milwaukee Committee chairman, Grebe had the means, motive and opportunity to delay the report -- but in trying to connect the dots, Democrats ignore the most important one: evidence he actually did it. The column they cite raises that as a possibility, but does not state it as fact. Indeed, the column -- and our reporting -- includes people who say the opposite, that it was a group decision, albeit one Grebe acknowledges supporting.
If the party or others produce a smoking gun, we would revisit our determination. But we’re left with the facts in evidence and find the statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.