Money & Politics Blog: When is a ‘conflict’ not a conflict?

Mark Radcliffe is an attorney in private practice in Black River Falls. He represents High Country Sand, a Minnesota-based mining company, in a lawsuit filed Jan. 3 against Eau Claire County, challenging its temporary moratorium on non-metallic mining.

Radcliffe is also a Democratic member of the state Assembly, which may soon take up a bill to revamp Wisconsin’s rules for metallic mining. While awaiting the final version before deciding what to do, he sees no reason not to vote, because it deals with a different kind of mining.

“People can’t throw all sorts of mining in the same category,” Radcliffe says. A Legislative Council staffer confirms that the laws governing the two kinds of mining are distinct.

High County Sand is interested in mining for silica sand, used in a controversial natural gas-extraction process called “fracking.” Congruent with the guidance provided by the most relevant state ethics opinion, Radcliffe vows to refrain from voting on any bill that changed the rules for non-metallic mining. That could yet come to pass.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, has just introduced legislation to require that local governments give 30 days notice to neighbors and communities prior to the approval of a non-metallic mine. She’s also unveiled a bill to require hearings and enable communities to impose conditions on mine operations.

And Vinehout, who cites state Department of Natural Resources estimates that there are now 60 frac-sand mines and 32 processing plants in Wisconsin, says she’d like to see a Legislative Council committee take a comprehensive look at state rules for non-metallic mining.

Radcliffe, because of the line he has drawn for himself, would have to avoid all of these matters. Even then he may be accused of having been hired for more than just his legal skills.

Will Fantle, an Eau Claire County supervisor, thinks it’s no accident that High Country Sand tapped a lawmaker to represent it. He notes that Hi-Crush Proppants, a Houston-based company also seeking to open a frac sand mine in the area, is represented by Rich White, until recently the county’s district attorney. Both men have met with county officials on behalf of their clients.

“It’s smart politics on their part to hire key individuals who have a lot of contacts,” says Fantle, who supports stricter county rules for frac-sand mining. “They know how to play the game.”

White declined to comment. But, in fact, his law firm represented Hi-Crush even before it hired him. Was the mining company playing the game in landing a politically connected insider, or did it just catch a lucky break?

Then there’s Gordon Steinhauer, an Eau Claire County supervisor who chairs the county’s Planning and Development Commission. He’s the retired head of Steinhauer Enterprises, an excavating company now run by his son Joel. The company is currently hauling silica sand from a mine in Chippewa County.

“We’re not doing anything in Eau Claire County,” Gordon Steinhauer says. But he concedes that if silica-sand mines are green-lighted in Eau Claire County, his family business could “bid on something” in terms of contract work. “That doesn’t mean we’ll get it.”

Steinhauer says he asked fellow supervisors and the county’s corporation counsel if they thought he should recuse himself from decisions on silica-sand mines. “The answer was unanimous,” he says; no one felt he needed to do so. He also received written guidance from the corporation counsel, which he declines to share.

On Jan. 10, Steinhauer participated in a committee vote which recommended that the moratorium be lifted for Hi-Crush but not for High Country Sand, the company that’s suing the county. The full County Board is expected to vote on the matter in March.

“What can I say?” Steinhauer asks. “Can I not vote on anything because there’s something potential in the future?”

Not everyone may answer that question the same way, but at least it’s being asked.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.