Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Statement on Possible Settlement of Legislative Caucus Investigations

October 11, 2001

The proposed agreement under consideration by the state Ethics Board and Elections Board fails to meet the crucial tests of an acceptable resolution to the investigations into apparent violations of state ethics, campaign finance and open records laws by employees of the four partisan legislative caucuses.

The timing of this settlement also is deeply troubling because it is clear that the investigatory agencies involved in the probe have not yet completed the evidence gathering that will allow the people of Wisconsin to know the full nature and scope of illegal activities carried out in taxpayer-funded offices. We know, for example, that the Elections Board has yet to question Donald Fish, the former voter file manager for the state Democratic Party who filed a complaint with the Elections Board two months ago. Mr. Fish also has not been contacted by any of the other offices involved in the investigations.

It is less than comforting to know that settlements that would bring to an end the Ethics Board and Elections Board investigations are under serious consideration when stones have been left unturned and important leads have not been pursued, including the allegations made by Mr. Fish, who claims to have personal knowledge of extensive illegal activity and 500 pages of supporting documents.

Any resolution of the Ethics Board and Elections Board probes must pass three tests: 1) the caucus operations must cease to exist and the illegal activities must stop; 2) there have to be safeguards to ensure the operations cannot simply be moved to other taxpayer-funded offices; and 3) those responsible for the illegal activities and those who oversee these operations have to be held personally accountable and must be punished.

Moving a significant number of caucus positions into legislative leaders’ offices as part of the settlement raises serious questions about whether the caucuses are truly being abolished. On its face, the proposed agreement appears to only eliminate part of the problem while moving the rest of the problem to a new location.

On a more fundamental level, moving some caucus staff to the offices of legislative leaders is exactly the wrong remedy for the abuses perpetuated by the caucuses. The caucuses have been an enormously powerful tool at the disposal of legislative leaders that has enabled them to consolidate power and exercise control over their colleagues. The caucuses have played a central role in turning the legislature into a gated community where only favored insiders can gain access.

In a single generation, Wisconsin’s legislature has gone from being one of the most decentralized legislatures in the country to one of the most centrally controlled. Twenty years ago, many of the state’s elected representatives had a meaningful say in public policy decisions. Today, a handful of leaders are calling all the shots. The leadership-controlled caucuses, working in tandem with the leadership-controlled legislative campaign committees, are the primary culprits in this disturbing transformation. Doubling the size of the leaders staffs is hardly a solution to the problem.

The fines under consideration by the Ethics Board and Elections Board also fall far short of what is required to deter abusive behavior in the future. Imposing fines on the legislative campaign committees means that the special interest donors legislative leaders have become so skilled at shaking down for campaign contributions will pay the penalties. Those who have engaged in illegal activities or overseen these operations will not be held personally accountable or face direct punishment for their scandalous conduct.

Given the premature and overly lenient response under consideration by the Elections Board and Ethics Board, it is all the more important that the investigations being conducted by the district attorneys in Dane and Milwaukee counties be allowed to reach their natural conclusions. The people of Wisconsin deserve to know the truth and that requires a complete accounting of any and all illegal activities. If the Ethics Board and Elections Board agree to end their investigations, they will have shirked their duty to provide the public that complete accounting.

In that event, we will look to Dane County District Attorney Blanchard and Milwaukee County District Attorney McCann to continue their investigations and pursue criminal charges if their findings warrant it.