GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is first target of new Democratic congressional 'integrity' group

The Congressional Integrity Project is raising questions about the senator's public actions and his personal finances in its initial report.
Image: Senators Hold Press Availability After Weekly Policy Luncheons
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks to reporters as he arrives for the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon in Washington on June 30.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images file

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By Heidi Przybyla

WASHINGTON — Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who heads the Senate's chief oversight committee and is one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, has likely seen his personal fortune double as he has advocated for policies that have benefited him financially while he has been in office, a new Democratic-backed nonprofit group alleges.

The first report by the Congressional Integrity Project, which was shared with NBC News, outlines how Johnson, the powerful chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, broke a campaign pledge to create a blind trust for Pacur LLC, the plastics company he once owned and in which he held a financial stake until earlier this year.

He also advocated for laws demanding lower rates for "pass through" entities similar to his family business and defended companies that have skirted taxes by using offshore corporate tax havens, the report said.

The report suggests that Johnson is likely to have increased his wealth anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent since he took office, a figure confirmed by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Johnson was paid millions by Pacur even after he was elected to the Senate in 2010, when his brother took over the company.

Alex Baumgart, a researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, said Johnson's decision to retain a stake in Pacur while lobbying for tax changes that would significantly benefit his family's fortune is the kind of situation ethics experts examine for potential conflicts of interest.

"You can make a comparison to what other members are doing," Baumgart said. "We have seen other members of Congress make very large efforts to either increase their disclosure or move things around to things they don't have control over."

The formation of the Congressional Integrity Project, which declined to disclose its donors, signifies an aggressive new effort by Democrats to lean into what they call "corruption and self-dealing" by Republican lawmakers, in particular those with leadership or oversight responsibilities.

Top targets, the group says, will be Republican leaders and committee chairs who they claim are shirking responsibilities to provide oversight of the country's coronavirus response, police brutality, election interference and other issues to pursue "politically motivated" investigations like the inquiry into former Vice President Joe Biden's family.

Johnson — who has directed his committee to investigate Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and his son Hunter in connection with their dealings with Ukraine — has become a key target for the Democratic opposition to President Donald Trump.

Johnson has said he is likely to issue subpoenas in the Biden investigation as soon as this week.

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Kyle Herrig, executive director of the Congressional Integrity Project, said in an interview that Johnson is just the first of several targets the group is pursuing.

"For too long, members of Congress like Ron Johnson have put their own personal interests before the needs of the American public, covering for Trump's corruption and ignoring their oversight responsibilities," Herrig said.

Johnson sold the majority of his marketable securities upon taking office and converted them into cash while retaining a 5 percent ownership of Pacur and his 401(k) account. Far from enriching him, Johnson's actions meant he actually sat out a more than 100 percent stock market increase after the sale, said Aaren Johnson, the senator's spokesman.

Baumgart of the CRP suggested that Johnson's sale of his stake in Pacur merits further scrutiny. Before the sale, in 2018, Johnson's stake in the company was reported to be worth $1 million to $5 million. His earnings from the sale are estimated to have been $5 million to $25 million, according to Senate financial disclosures forms he filed, and the venture capitalist who set up the deal is a campaign contributor.

"This was a very big sale for him," Baumgart said. "I can say this is worth looking into more."

The transaction notably took place in March, after confidential briefings for members of Congress on the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson has said the sale had been in the works since 2018 and was unrelated to the pandemic. His office shared correspondence indicating that the Senate Ethics Committee "did not find evidence" that he had violated federal law or Senate rules or conduct guidelines in the sale.

Johnson, through an aide, said he didn't recall a campaign promise and that he didn't create a "blind" trust because his family runs the business, making it impossible for it to be truly blind. While the terms of the deal prohibit him from disclosing the amount of the sale, it was on the low end of the $5 million to $25 million range, the aide said.

While a number of Johnson's business dealings outlined in the Congressional Integrity Project document have been previously reported, together they raise questions about whether he has benefited financially during his years of public service in Washington.

Among the report's findings: Johnson cast a deciding vote on Trump's 2017 tax bill after having secured changes in the legislation to create lower tax rates for pass-through businesses, or those whose owners report profits on their individual tax returns. Pacur, the plastics company, is considered such a business.

But Johnson's spokesman said it is "intellectually dishonest" to suggest that securing lower tax rates for a majority of small businesses is self-dealing.

"Senator Johnson was one of the few members of Congress worried about pass-throughs. It is thanks to his work that the average American business was helped by the tax bill," the spokesman said.

The senator also owns part of an Ireland-based company owned by a Spanish holding company that pays no taxes, the report says. His stake is just below the 10 percent limit that requires reporting to the federal government, which the report calls a "shelter."

Johnson has repeatedly opposed measures to block "corporate inversions," which allow companies to avoid taxes by reincorporating in low-tax countries like Ireland.

Johnson has said the Irish company is a small investment used to "export product" into Europe made by Pacur. Johnson got a return of no more than $5,000, and there was no "sheltering of income," the senator's spokesman said.

Brett Kappel, a lawyer specializing in ethics who has been critical of the Trump administration, said many of the findings "fall into the sleazy but legal category."

Most Americans don't realize that members of Congress aren't supposed to have any outside employment, yet they're not required to recuse themselves from championing laws they or their families personally and financially benefit from.

"This should get more attention," Kappel said.