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Another Madison ethics breach

MADISON -- Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen did not withdraw from a state Supreme Court case that was partially bankrolled by a group that spent $2.5 million to get him elected last year.

MADISON -- Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen did not withdraw from a state Supreme Court case that was partially bankrolled by a group that spent $2.5 million to get him elected last year.

The tax case has generated scrutiny because the same group, business lobbyist Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, spent more than $2 million to elect Annette Ziegler to the Supreme Court in April. Ziegler has remained on the case.

Van Hollen did not ask Ziegler to withdraw from the case, which was the subject of oral arguments Thursday. Ziegler has stepped aside in two other cases in which parties asked her to because of links between cases and the campaign.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the case highlights flaws with the way officials are elected.

"We had never seen this kind of special-interest involvement and influence in a campaign for the state's highest law enforcement position, and we had never seen this kind of activity in a judicial campaign before," McCabe said. "What this will do is undermine public confidence in the integrity of our law enforcement system and our judicial system."

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Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spokesman Jim Pugh said McCabe was looking for problems where there weren't any. "No one should recuse themselves because they ran a campaign for public office," Pugh said.

Also Thursday, Justice Louis Butler disclosed more donations he received from lawyers who are representing parties that have cases pending before the Supreme Court.

Questions have arisen about Butler's slow disclosure of a donation from a lawyer in the tax case. That lawyer also sits on his campaign's finance committee.

Butler, who is up for election in April, said he is still identifying lawyers who gave donations that needed to be disclosed under a voluntary policy he developed . He said he disclosed donations in cases on Wednesday and Thursday.

"We are trying to be transparent," he said.

The tax case stems from the state Department of Revenue's assessing sales tax on a multimillion-dollar software package purchased by Neenah-based Menasha Corp. It is expected to determine when software is taxable, and it could lead to $350 million in refunds and interest to businesses.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce helped finance Menasha's appeal of the case and filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the matter. It has labeled winning the case a top priority.

The business group's spending during Ziegler's and Van Hollen's elections were made separate from their campaigns.

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Recusal requests rare

Van Hollen aide Kevin St. John said it is "exceptionally rare" for the Department of Justice to ask a judge to step aside, saying he knew of only one such case in recent years.

The department does not ask judges to withdraw unless they have reason to believe the judge is biased, he said.

St. John said Van Hollen had no reason to step aside in the case under the state ethics code or the Department of Justice's rules on conflicts of interest. Van Hollen declined to comment.

Now that arguments have been presented, the case is entirely in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Ziegler disclosed the business group's role in her campaign earlier but said she planned to participate in the case.

She began routinely disclosing donations and other potential conflicts when she joined the court in August, going further than other justices.

Her practice prompted Butler to adopt a new disclosure policy for himself. Butler said he would disclose whenever he got money from a lawyer who represents a party with a case before the court.

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The Journal Sentinel found five cases in which lawyers with cases before the court had given his campaign money. Butler said he disclosed four of those donations in recent days, as well as others the paper wasn't aware of, and was continuing to identify other donations that needed to be disclosed.

On Wednesday, Butler made his first disclosure of a campaign contribution, saying Maureen A. McGinnity, a lawyer for Menasha, sits on his campaign's finance committee and gave him $500 in June.

The disclosure came just hours after the Journal Sentinel inquired about why he had not made a disclosure.

Ziegler declined to comment through a court aide.

-- Copyright © 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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