Agriculture Group Pays ‘Penalty’ to Itself for Illegal Corporate Donations

March 10, 2015

An influential agricultural lobbying group that made illegal corporate donations to its political action committee got a sweetheart deal from state campaign finance watchdogs. In lieu of a fine, the Government Accountability Board (GAB) let it donate the amount of its illegal donations to charity, but not just any charity: Its own charity!

A settlement reached last September between GAB and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation said the group partly funded its Volunteers for Agriculture PAC during the previous three and a half years with contributions from 881 individuals who contributed about $5 each to the federation from their business accounts, rather than making personal contributions, GAB documents show.

The federation’s PAC is used to make direct contributions to candidates and to sponsor electioneering activities in legislative and statewide races. Between 2011 and June 2014, the PAC contributed $38,000 to candidates for statewide office and the legislature, including $35,500 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker. In addition, the PAC spent about $378,000 between 2011 and 2014 on outside electioneering activities to support legislative and statewide candidates, including $85,239 on behalf of Walker.

The group suggested to the board that its penalty for the violation, which the federation discovered and reported to the GAB, should be a charitable donation equal to the amount of illegal corporate donations and that the charitable donation be made to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Foundation, which supports agricultural education and leadership development, according to the settlement. A campaign finance report showed the PAC made a $4,152 charitable donation to the foundation on Oct. 2.

The settlement called the federation’s proposed penalty “acceptable” based on the small amount of the illegal donations, the fact that the federation reported the incident to GAB, and that the group took steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The GAB imposed nearly three dozen forfeitures and fees totaling about $9,500 in 2014 for violations by candidate and political party committees, PACs, and lobbyists. Most of the fines were for $100 or $125, and most of the violations involved late or incomplete campaign finance reports.