WDC Testimony on Knudson Complaint

Given Before the the Wisconsin Ethics Commission

October 10, 2016

This morning, Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, testified before the Wisconsin Ethics Commission about the ethics complaint it filed on Sept. 1, 2016, against Rep. Dean Knudson. That complaint alleged that Rep. Knudson unlawfully established his own PAC, the Wisconsin Liberty Fund, while still being a member of the legislature and while still maintaining his own campaign committee.

Here is Rothschild’s essential testimony (not a verbatim transcript, but as close as memory and notetaking allow).

Good morning, Commissioners:

I’m Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that’s been around for 21 years and advocates for clean government here in Wisconsin.

Thank you for considering our complaint. The legislative history is very clear on this one.

I was there in the Senate gallery that November night when the Senate took up the campaign finance legislation. I was virtually the only one in the gallery. There was a page, and Capitol police officer, and me. That was it.

And even with my faulty memory, when I heard that Rep. Knudson had formed his Wisconsin Liberty Fund, I immediately said to myself that this is not allowed under the new law because I’d remembered a discussion of this that night (November 6, 2015).

There wasn’t any media coverage of it. It wasn’t in any of the newspapers. So I had to go back to Wisconsin Eye to look at the debate again, and I encourage you to go back and look at the Wisconsin Eye video.

Because here’s what Majority Leader Sen. Scott Fitzgerald said: “You can’t coordinate with yourself. 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 law.”

So there you have it.

I also would like you to consider the terrible precedent you’d be setting if you allowed a legislator to set up these outside groups. Right now, if I’m running for reelection in the State Assembly, the most I can raise from an individual is $1,000. But if I can set up my own outside group, Badgers for Eternal Victory or Matt Rothschild is the Greatest, I could get $100,000 or more from my richest friend. That renders meaningless the effort by the Senate and the Assembly, and by the state of Wisconsin for the longest time, to impose reasonable limits on the amount of money individuals can give to candidates.

Now the situation in this case is complicated by the fact that Rep. Knudson is not running for reelection. And if he’d closed his campaign committee, this might be a more difficult question to resolve. But even if he had, allowing legislators who aren’t running for reelection to open their own outside groups could still invite corruption. Because these legislators could be receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars into their outside group, and if it’s for “issue advocacy,” that money wouldn’t have to be disclosed. And they could be getting that kind of money from a company that they plan on working for when they leave the legislature, so they could be getting paid to help that company out while they remained in office, and no one would ever know about it!

Allowing a legislator like Rep. Knudson to form a PAC like Wisconsin Liberty Fund would make a mockery of a mockery and would open the door to corruption the likes of which we’ve never seen before in the state of Wisconsin.

This is a very important issue, and I thank you for considering it.