MADISON, Wis. — Republican Senate candidate Ron Johnson, who has campaigned against government subsidies to business, employs up to nine prison inmates at his plastics factories whose health care costs are paid by the state, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
Johnson, a political newcomer challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, is running as a businessman and job creator who opposes subsidies as government interference in the free market. He holds a slight lead in the race, according to recent polls.
Public records show that Pacur Inc. and Dynamic Drinkware LLC, two companies run by Johnson, employ up to nine inmates at a time through a state Corrections Department jobs program.
Johnson's companies offer private health insurance to the regular employees at the Oshkosh factories. But Melissa Roberts, an executive assistant with the Corrections Department, said the companies don't have to cover the inmate workers. "The benefit is that they don't have to pay health benefits," she said.
Health industry statistics indicate that companies spend an average of about $10,000 per worker a year for insurance.
The Johnson campaign said the candidate was not available to comment Friday because he was preparing for his debate later that evening with Feingold. But campaign spokeswoman Sara Sendek said his companies hire inmates as a public service.
Saving money "was not a factor by any means," she said. "The factor was, this is a way to help put these people on the path back to recovery so they could contribute and work their way back into society."
Democrats said the state-subsidized employees show that Johnson is guilty of hypocrisy.
"Instead of employing hardworking Wisconsinites he's employing prisoners," said Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate. "It's another example of him taking advantage of government programs to help his bottom line. It's the height of hypocrisy for someone who claims to be a job creator."
Johnson's campaign would not say how many inmates the companies employ. State records, obtained by the AP through a state open records request, indicate the companies have participated in the work release program since 1998.
Pacur employs about 120 workers at a plant that makes packaging materials. Dynamic Drinkware has fewer than five employees. According to the Corrections Department, six other companies in Winnebago County participate in the work-release program, hiring up to 30 workers.
Health insurance and government spending have been major issues in the Senate campaign. Johnson has said the main reason he entered the race was to repeal the health care reform law that expands health insurance coverage. He has criticized Feingold for voting for the act.
Johnson has run ads arguing that as a businessman he is better qualified than Feingold, a lawyer, to attack unemployment, and that jobs are created by private enterprise, not through government subsidies and programs.
"Ron does not believe the federal government is capable of picking 'winners and losers' and should not remove capital from the private sector to create more government programs and jobs, which are unsustainable," according to a statement on his website.
According to Corrections Department regulations, inmates on work release must receive wages comparable to other employees.
Russ Feingold: http://www.russfeingold.org
Ron Johnson: http://www.ronjohnsonforsenate.com
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Milwaukee.
(This version CORRECTS Updates with details of how work-release program works. Adds quotes from Johnson campaign, state Democratic party, Dept. of Corrections. Adds contributing line.)