Caucus defense fund is bipartisanship at its worst

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

October 13, 2001

In a rare display of bipartisanship in the State Capitol, 13 legislative leaders voted unanimously to use taxpayer money to pay lawyers to defend state employees in the scandal-plagued legislative caucuses. These staffers are under investigation for illegally campaigning on state time, misusing state offices and equipment, and destroying public records to hide incriminating evidence.

Remember the 13 elected representatives who authorized this gross misuse of public funds. They include: Senators Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), Fred Risser (D-Madison), Rodney Moen (D-Whitehall), Mary Panzer (R-West Bend) and Alan Lasee (R-De Pere), and Representatives Scott Jensen (R-Waukesha), Steve Foti (R-Oconomowoc), Steve Freese (R-Dodgeville), Bonnie Ladwig (R-Racine), Dan Vrakas (R-Hartland), Spencer Black (D-Madison), Peter Bock (D-Milwaukee) and Jim Kreuser (D-Kenosha).

Unless this shamelessly self-serving decision is reversed, hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars will be spent fighting the investigations into violations of state ethics, campaign finance and open records laws. Taxpayers whose money has been flagrantly misused on illegal activities will be further punished by paying still more to defend the very people who abused the public treasury – and the public trust – in the first place.

Forcing taxpayers to pay these legal bills adds insult to the injury of knowing these same 13 leaders have been united in their support of spending $3.9 million of your tax money each and every year on these corrupt offices.

The leaders' rationale for providing taxpayer-funded legal representation for the caucus staffers is that they are being investigated over job-related activities. What this lame rationalization ignores is that the conduct in question is not part of caucus employees' official job duties. In fact, the activities they've engaged in are expressly prohibited by law.

Perhaps a case could be made for using tax funds to pay for their lawyers if the caucus employees had been doing their jobs and someone wanted to haul them into court. But they weren't doing their jobs. As the Wisconsin State Journal’s outstanding investigative series has chronicled, they were doing work they weren't supposed to be doing on state time. So they should pay for their own lawyers.

I've lost count how many times I've been told by lawmakers in both parties that the state can’t afford campaign finance reform legislation like Senate Bill 104, which carries a pricetag of $4.1 million. There’s no money, they say. But even as the caucus scandal was breaking and subpoenas started flying, they had no trouble finding the $3.9 million needed yearly to continue funding the leadership-run caucus operations that get them reelected.

Legislators on both sides also have told me repeatedly that there’s no money to implement the Citizens Right to Know law that requires electronic filing of campaign reports, giving citizens quicker and easier access to information about the campaign donations candidates receive. The law was passed in 1998 and set a July 1999 deadline for implementation. The cost of getting the new system up and running is $3.5 million, but lawmakers can’t bring themselves to authorize the spending. The state budget’s tapped out, they say.

Not only is the cost of implementing Citizens Right to Know less than the $3.9 million legislators spend year after year on the secret, illegal electioneering carried out in the legislative caucuses. It pales in comparison to the tax breaks, pork barrel spending and other budget favors lawmakers doled out during the budget process to special interests that were making unprecedented campaign contributions while budget decisions were being made.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign unearthed over three dozen budget items worth over $819 million that lawmakers offered to special interests while they reaped a record $1.6 million in campaign donations from those same interests during this year’s budget deliberations. That’s nearly double what they raised during the previous state budget process two years ago.

Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature don’t agree on much, but they sure see eye to eye when it comes to putting the perpetuation of their own power ahead of the public interest.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director

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