Special Interests Snub Disclosure Law

In other cases, lawmakers failed to reveal information interest groups gave to them, documents show

August 30, 2000

Madison - Powerful special interest groups are violating Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws by not disclosing employment information about their contributors, and some legislative candidates are not revealing this legally required information even when it is provided to them, according to a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign analysis released today.

A review of the 20 most active conduits providing legislative contributions in the first half of 2000 found six that failed to report legally required employment information on $57,065 worth of large individual contributions. The top offenders were the chiropractors and realtors. As recently as 1998, the realtors conduit had identified its members’ employers in conduit letters to the candidates.

Chiropractors Health Info and Education $31,010 $28,760
WI Realtors Direct Givers Program $38,358 $13,325
WI Optometric Association $10,850 $5,450
WI Institute of CPAs $11,000 $3,500
National Association of Theatre Owners $4,750 $3,150
Tavern League Direct Givers $4,700 $2,880

A conduit is an organization formed by employers or professional groups that can collect and send contributions from several of its members to candidates for public office. State law requires conduits to identify the name, address, occupation and employer of each contributor who gives more than $100, in letters that accompany the contribution to the candidates.

Special interest groups use conduits in order to increase the size of their contributions - and influence. Instead of small, individual contributions trickling into a candidate’s campaign, a conduit formed by an employer or professional group can bundle dozens of donations from its members and make a single, large contribution that is more memorable - and effective.

In cases where conduits properly identified contributors in letters sent with the contribution to the candidate’s campaign, eight candidates still did not disclose the occupation and/or employer information at the time that their campaign finance reports were due.

"Legislators in both parties talk about how important disclosure is, but their actions often tell a very different story," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "Unless all the information required by law is disclosed, it’s impossible to know a donor’s interest."

After the WDC reported last week that 49 legislators and legislative candidates violated state disclosure laws, legislative reaction centered on a commitment to getting the information from donors and eventually reporting it. The review of the conduit letters sheds new light on that response, McCabe said.

"Now we know that in some cases special interest groups aren’t providing candidates the information they are legally required to disclose. But in other cases we know candidates have the information in hand and are not reporting it," he said.

Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen of Waukesha heads the list. Campaign finance reports show that his campaign did not disclose the occupation and/or employer on 11 large individual contributions that totaled $1,665 from seven conduits despite letters that contained the information. The remaining seven candidates each had only one or two such contributions.

These contributions are among 44 large individual contributions totaling $10,000 for which Jensen’s campaign failed to disclose legally required employment information in reports for the first six months of this year. These represent 16 percent of his $61,798 in large individual contributions that are subject to the law requiring donors’ employer information to be disclosed.

Here is a sample of some of the improperly disclosed contributions by Jensen and the:

  • Senate Minority Leader Mary Panzer of West Bend received a $500 contribution from David Goulet, but her campaign did not disclose his employer despite a conduit letter that said he was vice president of Midwest sales for Miller Brewing.
  • Assembly Speaker Jensen failed to identify the employer of two Miller Brewing Co. executives who contributed a total of $400 to his campaign on June 12. The executives were identified in a conduit letter sent to his campaign as Tod Gimbel, director of strategic planning and programs, and Carl A. Baumann III, director of sales and marketing finance.
  • Jensen’s campaign also did not report employment information for three contributions totaling $375 from members of the Physicians for Better Government. However, conduit letters clearly identify Dr. John E. Patchett as executive vice president of the State Medical Society; James Siepmann as an Aurora Medical Group doctor; and Dr. Sridhar Vasudevan as employed at the Pain Rehabilitation Center in Mequon.
  • Democratic Rep. Marlin Schneider of Wisconsin Rapids received a May 17 contribution of $200 from Dr. John Hamilton. His report did not note Hamilton’s occupation or employer despite a conduit letter that identified him as a staff doctor at Dean Medical Center.
  • Democratic Sen. Robert Wirch of Kenosha did not disclose employment information involving a $125 campaign contribution from Kevin Kluesner, even though a Wisconsin Hospital Association conduit letter identified him as an Aurora Health Care vice president.
  • Republican Sen. Robert Welch of Red Granite did not list an employer for Dr. Michael Plooster, who contributed $350 to his campaign, and for Dr. Paul Wertsch, who contributed $200 to his campaign. Conduit letters identify them as working for Orthopaedic Specialists and the Wildwood Family Clinic, respectively.