WDC Hands Out ‘Nero Awards’

3 Top Leaders, 70 Majority Party Lawmakers, State Elections Board Cited for Fiddling While Corruption Takes Root

June 4, 2002

Madison - Wisconsin’s governor, 72 state legislators and a state regulatory agency were given "Nero Awards" today by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign for failing to respond effectively to growing political corruption in the state.

The awards are named for the 1st Century Roman Emperor Nero, who was famously said to have "fiddled while Rome burned."

The awards went to three looming figures in Wisconsin politics - Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and Governor Scott McCallum - as well as 70 legislative Democrats and Republicans who have supported Chvala and Jensen through a prolonged stalemate over the state’s budget crisis and a growing political corruption scandal. The state Elections Board also was cited for its failure to police campaign finance abuses.

While most observers focus on the role the state’s most powerful political leaders have played in the budget meltdown and corruption scandal, many state officials bear responsibility for Wisconsin’s political fall from grace, WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. Majority party lawmakers in both houses selected their leaders and have remained silent as the leaders have manufactured gridlock on the budget repair bill and have kept campaign finance reform legislation bottled up, he said.

"Of course the big three are most to blame for the failure of our state government to clean up the corruption that has taken root in the Capitol," McCabe said of McCallum, Jensen and Chvala. "They are best positioned to provide leadership, and they have failed the people of Wisconsin."

But, he added, "rank and file legislators have walked lockstep behind their leaders. Silence is an act of complicity."

While the list of Nero recipients is long, there is a smaller group of heroes who deserve recognition, McCabe said, including Senators Gary George (D-Milwaukee) and Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), the only two majority party legislators to publicly challenge legislative leadership. Others include Senators Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) and Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and Representative Marty Reynolds (D-Ladysmith).

Ellis is the legislature’s leading advocate for campaign finance reform and author of the most far reaching reform plan under consideration, Senate Bill 104. The Neenah Republican also has fought against the use of public funds to pay legal fees for those under criminal investigation in the caucus scandal.

Harsdorf is a co-sponsor of Ellis’ campaign reform plan and has consistently voted for reform, but also was the first Republican to step forward early in the session to support the Voters First reform proposal. The initiative was developed by a coalition of public interest groups led by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and most of the plan was eventually incorporated into SB 104. Harsdorf distinguished herself further by standing up to her own party’s leadership and introducing legislation with Representative Reynolds to abolish the legislative caucus offices. In addition, she consistently broke ranks with leadership to vote to block the use of taxpayer money for the legal defense of those implicated in the caucus scandal.

When the caucus story was breaking and legislative leaders in both parties circled the wagons in hopes of weathering the storm, Reynolds was a lone voice speaking out against the caucuses. When his own party’s leadership was still standing behind the discredited offices, Reynolds condemned them. He authored Assembly Bill 466 to eliminate the taxpayer-funded caucuses and, like Ellis and Harsdorf, fought against state payment of caucus legal fees. He also has been a consistent supporter of other reform initiatives.

McCabe noted that Reynolds, Ellis and Harsdorf are minority party lawmakers and said the lack of majority party legislators willing to stand up to their leaders on reform issues goes a long way toward explaining why Congress passed campaign finance reform but Wisconsin’s legislature has not.

"The difference between Congress and our state legislature is that the people who are in charge at the State Capitol are not being challenged by members of their own party," McCabe said. "At the national level, there were heroes who risked alienating themselves from their own partisan comrades to push forward the debate on campaign finance reform. We don’t have that same maverick spirit in the majority party in either house of our state legislature."

Along with Chvala and Jensen, legislators receiving Nero Awards include: Assistant Senate Majority Leader Rod Moen, Senate President Fred Risser, and Senators Jim Baumgart, Roger Breske, Brian Burke, Russ Decker, Rick Grobschmidt, Dave Hansen, Robert Jauch, Mark Meyer, Gwen Moore, Kim Plache, Judy Robson, Kevin Shibilski and Robert Wirch; Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti, Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Freese, and Representatives John Ainsworth, Sheryl Albers, Garey Bies, Marc Duff, Jeff Fitzgerald, Donald Friske, John Gard, Glenn Grothman, Scott Gunderson, Mark Gundrum, Eugene Hahn, J.A. Hines, Timothy Hoven, Michael Huebsch, Jean Hundertmark, Suzanne Jeskewitz, DuWayne Johnsrud, Dean Kaufert, Neal Kedzie, Steve Kestell, Judy Krawczyk, Robin Kreibich, Bonnie Ladwig, Frank Lasee, Michael Lehman, Joe Leibham, MaryAnn Lippert, Gabe Loeffelholz, Terri McCormick, Dan Meyer, Phil Montgomery, Terry Musser, Steve Nass, Luther Olsen, Alvin Ott, Carol Owens, Jerry Petrowski, Mark Pettis, Mike Powers, Kitty Rhoades, Lorraine Seratti, Rick Skindrud, Samantha Starzyk, Jeff Stone, Scott Suder, Tom Sykora, John Townsend, Gregg Underheim, Frank Urban, Daniel Vrakas, Scott Walker, David Ward and Steve Wieckert.

Nero Awards