Review: Elections, Ethics commissioners made political donations after joining boards
More than half of the appointees on the state Elections and Ethics commissions continued to make political donations to state candidates and groups even after joining the bodies, according to a WisPolitics.com check of campaign finance reports.
The head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which opposed the commission replacing the old Government Accountability Board, said the donations were "beyond inappropriate" considering the commissioners' role in state elections.
Still, there is no ban on commissioners making contributions, and several members contacted by WisPolitics.com said it was unrealistic to expect partisan appointees to forgo political activities while in the roles.
Ann Jacobs, a Dem appointee on the Elections Commission, also noted that body's oversight includes areas like approving nomination papers, not campaign finance or ethics complaints. She said that's why she has declined to sign nomination papers for the first time, adding it would help avoid any appearance of a conflict if a challenge to signatures came before the commission.
"By definition, people are going to have political leanings. That's how the commission is designed," she said, adding it's "unrealistic" to expect members to stop supporting candidates financially while on the commission.
In splitting up the old Government Accountability Board, lawmakers gave the Ethics Commission the responsibility of administering state laws regarding campaign finance, ethics and lobbying. They also did away with a provision governing the old GAB that banned board members from making political contributions.
Matt Rothschild, executive direction at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said appointees to the commissions should have to give up their ability to make political donations as a condition for serving on the bodies.
"If a commissioner is giving to one candidate, can that commissioner be nonpartisan when a complaint is filed by that candidate's opponent?" he asked.
The WisPolitics.com check found fewer donations from members of the Ethics Commission. That includes GOP appointee Pat Strachota, a former state lawmaker who donated $750 to the Washington County Republican Party and $55 to the 5th Congressional District GOP.
Strachota said she has decided on her own not to contribute to individual candidates while on the commission to avoid any conflicts if a case came before the board. But she views contributions to the local parties differently, saying the commission does not have oversight over them.
"I've given to the local party for many, many year and I'll probably continue to give to the local party," she said.
Meanwhile, Katie McCallum, secretary of the state GOP, gave the Republican Party of Wisconsin $60 in March.
Chair David Halbrooks, a Milwaukee attorney and Dem appointee, gave $250 to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee in October 2016 and another $250 that was recorded June 30 of that year, the day the commissions officially replaced the GAB.
Halbrooks said he saw no issues with the donations, though he said he'd likely avoid making a donation he thought might require him to later step off a case. He said that's why before joining the commission, he gave up his work with the group Prosperity for Everyday People, a 501(c)(4) that was created in 2015. Halbrooks said there was nothing illegal about continuing that association. But he didn't want a conflict to arise that could force him to recuse from an issue before the commission.
"The one thing that's different about this body than anything else is we are picked as partisans," Halbrooks said. "You can't pick someone as a partisan and then expect they're going to be nonpartisan or not give money."
The other three Ethics Commission members had no donations listed in the agency's database dating back to June 30, 2016, when the agency was created, or the day they joined the board.
The members of the Elections Commission were more active with their donations and contributed more during the most recent six-month reporting period:
* Mark Thomsen, a Dem appointee who chairs the Elections Commission, has donated $21,294 since the body was created. That includes more than $5,000 to Dem governor hopeful Dana Wachs, $2,500 to the State Senate Democratic Committee and $1,000 to Dem AG candidate Josh Kaul during the last six months of 2017.
Thomsen bemoaned big money in politics. Still, he said no one has accused him of having a bias against any candidate in any decision the commission has made.
"Frankly, the little bit of money that I've given to my partner to support his campaign is not going to impact my decision one iota," said Thomsen, who works at the same firm as Wachs.
* Jacobs, the board vice chairperson, has donated $4,100 since joining the Elections Commission. That includes $1,000 to Wachs and $500 to Kaul.
* GOP appointee Jodi Jensen listed a single contribution of $25 to Gov. Scott Walker's campaign for a T-shirt.
* Dean Knudson, a GOP appointee who joined the board Sept. 25, gave $500 to Republican state Rep. Adam Jarchow's campaign for state Senate and $125 to Walker.
* The two clerks serving on the committee — GOP appointee Beverly Gill of Burlington and Dem Julie Glancey of Sheboygan Falls — did not have any donations in the state Ethics Commission's database since joining the commission.
Before leaving the state Legislature in early 2017, Knudson transferred his remaining campaign funds to the Wisconsin Liberty Fund, prompting questions on whether it was appropriate for a sitting legislator to have a PAC. The Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint filed over the PAC in October 2016. After his appointment to the Ethics Commission almost a year later, Knudson said he planned to find someone else to oversee it.
The PAC, which listed $225 in expenses during the last six months of 2017 for a voter list, had $20,539 in the bank to end the year. It also now lists Joy Knudson, Dean's wife, as the treasurer.
Knudson, of Hudson, said his wife has taken over the PAC, though he said legally there was no need. He said he's not completely walled off from the PAC, but giving her oversight was important from a perception standpoint while he's on the commission.
Knudson, who helped write the law breaking up the GAB and now sits on the Elections Commission, said he saw nothing inherently wrong with members making contributions. Still, he acknowledged if someone who received a contribution came before the commission, it could force a member to step off the case. That, he said, would upset the equal partisan split on the commission.
"You'd have to think about whether that's more fair for that person," Knudson said.
The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics, and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.