Wisconsin Open for Bribery

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

October 12, 2016

Bribery

On Oct. 11, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission dismissed the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s complaint against Rep. Dean Knudson, who has set up his own PAC, the Wisconsin Liberty Fund, while still being a sitting legislator.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign alleged that this was against the rewritten campaign finance law, and it relied on Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s own words on the Senate floor when the bill was passed.

“You cannot coordinate with yourself,” Fitzgerald said on the night of Nov. 6, 2015. “There’s still the bright line. So if you have your campaign committee, which you’re required by law to have if you’re a candidate for office in Wisconsin, you cannot set up a separate committee and then say I’m going to raise money into that pot as well because you’re coordinating with yourself. That is prohibited by this law.”

The Ethics Commission, in its letter dismissing our complaint, said that the Democracy Campaign was misreading what Fitzgerald was referring to.

Quite the contrary.

This passage was in response to Sen. Jon Erpenbach saying: “We need to make sure that legislators and candidates can’t create or operate any committee other than their own campaign committee. That means that we cannot start an issue advocacy group and go out and raise money for it and say how the money is going to be spent. That means we can’t start up some sort of SuperPAC and dictate how the money is going to be spent. We have to have this to protect the integrity of the institution.”

Fitzgerald’s response was basically: Don’t worry your little head about that; this bill already prohibits a legislator from doing such a thing.

Now the Wisconsin Ethics Commission says, in actual fact, it doesn’t.

This is a flagrant misreading of the legislative history, and it sets a disastrous precedent, opening the floodgates for even more corruption in Wisconsin’s politics.

Now, just as Sen. Erpenbach warned, legislators can set up their own PACs or issue advocacy groups and have their wealthiest donors, including corporations, donate unlimited amounts to these groups, which they themselves run!

And if it’s an issue advocacy group, we’ll never even know about these donations because they can be given in secret.

This renders meaningless the law’s limits on direct contributions to candidate committees, which are designed to prevent corruption. A legislator running for reelection to the State Assembly, for instance, can receive individual donations of only up to $1,000 to their campaign committees. But now they can steer unlimited donations from individuals and corporations to the “outside” groups that they themselves run, and they can use that money to flood the airwaves with commercials slamming their opponents or extolling their own virtues.

It was bad enough that the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the state legislature said that candidates can now coordinate with outside groups.

But now they can coordinate with “outside” groups that they themselves set up and run!

This is a travesty squared.

And look how corrupting it could be. A legislator could have his own issue advocacy group and receive literally millions of dollars from a corporation that has a vested interest in changing a particular law. (Maybe it wants its taxes to be cut, or maybe it wants to dodge anti-pollution regulations, or maybe it wants to do away with some consumer protection law that is cutting into its profits.) The legislator could then introduce a bill to change the law precisely along the lines that the corporation wants, and we’d never know about these millions, under the table, that would be grossly distorting our legislative process.

But that’s where we are today in Wisconsin, which is now open for bribery.

WDC Executive Director Matthew Rothschild
Matthew Rothschild
WDC Executive Director

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