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By Dave Umhoefer December 8, 2011

Gov. Scott Walker says recall organizers began effort even before he took office

CNBC’s Becky Quick put a question to Gov. Scott Walker after recall organizers claimed that after just 12 days they had more than half the signatures needed to force an election.

How are you feeling about this?

Walker conceded the drive probably would succeed, putting a recall election on the ballot in 2012. But he downplayed the significance, saying if the effort got the required 540,000 valid signatures it would equal just 25 percent of the voters in the 2010 governor’s race he won.

"A minority of voters will get to force a new election in Wisconsin," he said in the Nov. 30, 2011 appearance.

Walker also argued against the idea it was a fast start by opponents, saying that while the drive officially kicked off in mid-November, those behind the recall actually got going well before he even took office in January 2011.

"The recall organizers -- who by the way started their website last November, they didn’t just start organically earlier this year – they’ve been planning this for some time."

He made a similar to a claim National Public Radio two weeks earlier.

To be sure, Walker inspired anger and protests even before assuming office, based on his rejection of high-speed rail funds, talk of a showdown with state employee unions, and other issues.

But was a recall effort already under way?

When asked to support the claim, Walker’s office referred us to the state Republican Party, which is helping with his campaign. They told us Walker was referring to, a website that -- as its name suggests -- advocates for Walker’s ouster.

The domain name was registered more than a year ago, in November 2010, according to the registration record and a post on the site by its manager, Ben Paulson, a Milwaukee-area resident.

State GOP spokesman Ben Sparks said the party views Paulson as one of several liberal activists who got the recall push rolling in the fall of 2010.

"The recall began because the Democrats are sore losers," Sparks said.

The state Democratic Party is behind the recall drive, in concert with the group United Wisconsin and labor organizations.

Based on publicly available information, United Wisconsin began operating in late February, signing up supporters and getting 200,000 unofficial "pledges" to recall Walker. That was shortly after Walker unveiled the union limits that drew massive protests at the Capitol and sent Senate Democrats fleeing to Illinois to block a quorum for weeks.

But Walker’s statement puts Paulson at the center of the effort -- and gives it a three-month earlier start.

Paulson is a virtual unknown among major players on both sides, both personally and politically, based on our interviews with both parties, recall activists and union officials involved in the effort.

In fact, Paulson and his site have attracted little attention, even in the liberal blogosphere. We couldn’t find a single interview with Paulson and only a few scattered Internet references to his website.

At least initially, Paulson’s site was viewed suspiciously by some liberals as a possible GOP front aimed at locking up a good domain name. A story on the Wisconsin Reporter, a conservative online site, described as "the purported creation of Ben Paulson."

As for Paulson himself, even the Republicans know nothing about him and say he’s "elusive."

"We have not been able to connect him in any official way" to the recall organizers, said Sparks of the state party.

So, that undermines the group’s main point -- and the statement from Walker himself.

On his website, Paulson describes himself as a moderate Democrat "who believes in fiscal and social responsibility."

"As many of you, I have been horrified with what has been transpiring in this state since January 3, 2011," Paulson wrote in an undated introductory post. "Let’s see where this takes us and maybe ... just maybe ... we can change people’s minds and get a change in the governor’s mansion before too much damage is done in Wisconsin."

Notably, Paulson did not post on the site until Feb. 19, 2011 -- eight days after Walker announced his curbs on unions.

That post was a link to the recall statute. In fact, the site functions mainly as a repository of news and commentary on the recall.

That’s a sharp contrast to the United Wisconsin and Democratic Party recall machine, which run interactive websites and detailed county-by-county organizing efforts.

As for the recall effort itself, United Wisconsin launched its "pledge" drive on Feb. 18, 2011, and registered a political action committee March 1. It joined forces on the petition drive in the fall of 2011 with the Democratic Party, prompting skepticism on the right about its independence.

Paulson’s website does link to the United Wisconsin and Democratic Party of Wisconsin sites.

But so do many other blogs and websites on the left.

We reached Paulson, and he scoffed at the notion he somehow spawned the current recall drive.

"I was talking and joking with a co-worker about how Gov. Walker would end up being recalled just as he had won election as the Milwaukee County Executive via recall," he wrote in an email. "I checked, the domain was free, and I registered it, not to think about it again until everything erupted in February."

He added: "I am not an organizer of the recall nor have I initiated any recall activities. The current recall does not trace back to me in any way."

Paulson, who works as an engineer with a manufacturing company, said he has had no contact with the United Wisconsin recall group or the Democratic Party.

Indeed, United Wisconsin officials said he was not among the 200,000 people who signed the "pledges" to recall Walker.

Our conclusion

In a CNBC interview, Walker traced the current recall drive and organization to November 2010, arguing that recall leaders were gearing up even before he took office.

But the founder of the website is not a recall organizer; he’s a fringe player at best who took no steps to actually organize the petition drive. Even Republican officials can cite no evidence to the contrary.

While his recall-advocacy website was registered back then, the site was dormant until Walker’s controversial bill was introduced. The real "recall organizers’" website, that of United Wisconsin, kicked into operation only after Walker proposed his controversial budget bill in February 2011.

We rate Walker’s statement False.

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Our Sources

CNBC’s Squawk Box, video of interview with Gov. Scott Walker, Nov. 30, 2011, website, accessed Nov. 30, 2011

Interview and email exchange with Ben Sparks, spokesman, Republican Party of Wisconsin, Nov. 30, 2011

Interview with Jill Bakken, spokeswoman, We Are Wisconsin, Dec. 1, 2011

Interview with Ryan Lawler, co-chairman, United Wisconsin, Dec. 1, 2011

Interview with Meagan Mahaffey, executive director, United Wisconsin, Nov. 30, 2011

Interview with Richard Abelson, executive director, District Council 48, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Nov. 30, 2011

Email exchange with Graeme Zielinski, spokesman, Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Nov. 30, 2011

Wisconsin Reporter, "Roots of Wisconsin Recall: Was Website Psychic," Nov. 3, 2011

NPR’s Tell Me More, audio of interview with Governor Scott Walker, Nov. 16, 2011

Wisconsin State Journal,"Massive effort’s humble start," Nov. 13, 2011

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Gov. Scott Walker says recall organizers began effort even before he took office

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