Campaign Finance Regulators May Continue to Contribute to Political Candidates

August 24, 2016

Dollar Bill

Members of a new partisan commission that enforces the state’s campaign finance and ethics laws may continue to make contributions to Wisconsin political candidates, who they are responsible for investigating and disciplining for ethics and campaign finance violations.

The Ethics Commission effectively approved the practice at a meeting Tuesday by tabling a proposal to ban campaign contributions by commission members on a 4-2 vote. The practice is a departure from the commission’s predecessor, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB). The GAB, which was abolished by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature and replaced with an Ethics Commission and an Elections Commission, was made up of nonpartisan retired judges who were prohibited from making political contributions.

The staff who serves the Ethics and Elections commissions, which are each made up of three Republicans and three Democrats appointed by legislative leaders and the governor, will continue to be prohibited from making political contributions.

Commission members Robert Kinney, a Democratic appointee, and Pat Strachota, a GOP appointee, favored the ban. Kinney said banning campaign contributions by commission members was a matter of public perception about whether the commission could be seen as fair in dealing with cases before it.

But the four who voted to table the plan said the members’ partisan leanings were well-known; that contributions would not affect their judgement on cases; and that banning contributions would not prevent the commission from being criticized as partisan. Commission chair Peg Lautenschlager, a Democratic appointee, called the proposed rule “farcical.”

Joining Lautenschlager to table the ban and allow political contributions by commission members were Democrat David Halbrooks, Republican Mac Davis, and GOP appointee Katie McCallum.

Here’s some brief biographical information about the Ethics Commission members and the campaign contributions they made between January 2005 and December 2015:

Kinney, of Rhinelander, was an Oneida County circuit judge who retired in 2007 after 31 years on the bench. He has served as a reserve judge for the state and a referee in disciplinary cases for the state Office of Lawyer Regulation. Kinney contributed a total of $600 to nonpartisan Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson, but made no contributions to partisan statewide or legislative candidates.

Davis, of Waukesha, was a Waukesha County circuit judge who retired in 2015 after 25 years on the bench. Before getting elected circuit judge, Davis was a GOP state senator from 1983 to 1990. Davis contributed $100 to nonpartisan Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Annette Ziegler, but made no contributions to partisan statewide or legislative candidates.

Lautenschlager, of Fond du Lac, was a Democratic attorney general from 2002 to 2006, and a former U.S. Attorney and legislator. Lautenschlager contributed about $3,600 mostly to Democratic legislative and statewide candidates.

Halbrooks, of Milwaukee, was a former municipal attorney, municipal judge and member of the old partisan state Elections Board, which was replaced by the GAB in 2008. Halbrooks contributed $6,550 to Democratic legislative and statewide candidates.

Strachota, of West Bend, was a former longtime GOP Assembly representative. Strachota and her husband, Tom, contributed about $18,700 mostly to Republican legislative and statewide candidates.

McCallum, of Middleton, a former state Republican Party spokesman, has not contributed to legislative or statewide candidates.