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Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013

Big Donors, Little Scrutiny

State law forbids public investigations of political donors

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Last week, the nonpartisan watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign announced that it had identified 14 donors who had made campaign contributions over the legal $10,000 limit this year.

Those donors include Ted Kellner of Milwaukee, John Menard of Eau Claire, George Mitchell of Whitefish Bay and Richard Uihlein of Lake Forest, Ill. These contributions overwhelmingly favored Republicans such as Scott Walker and the conservative candidate for state Supreme Court, Pat Roggensack.

As it has in the past, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign also asked the Government Accountability Board (GAB), which oversees the state’s elections and campaign finance records, to investigate these apparent violations.

But, thanks to state law, Wisconsinites will have a hard time finding out if the GAB investigated the organization’s campaign finance allegations, and whether any of those allegations turned out to be true.

When state lawmakers established the GAB in 2007 to replace the old state Elections Board, it required the GAB to conduct its investigations of complaints in secret, including issuing subpoenas, taking depositions and asking for search warrants.

And when the GAB finishes its investigations, it doesn’t announce that information publicly or post the news on its website, although the public can request to view limited investigation results.

For example, in 2012, the GAB found that five individuals exceeded campaign finance limits and those donors paid a total of $2,850 in fines. The settlement agreements include the name of the campaign donor and the fine he or she paid, but no other information about the violations.

The settlement agreements were not announced publicly, but GAB spokesman Reid Magney provided them to the Shepherd upon request.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said that the restrictions the Legislature placed on the Government Accountability Board stand in stark contrast to the way the former Elections Board operated.

“The process back then was more transparent,” McCabe said. “Everything was reviewed in public.”

McCabe said the new process is so opaque it’s frustrating and difficult to know when or why the GAB takes action on a violation. McCabe said he isn’t notified when the GAB acts on one of his organization’s complaints and must request the information that can be released publicly, which is limited.

“There’s a big double standard here,” McCabe said. “If a citizen is arrested, that’s public. If they’re acquitted, that’s public too, but the arrest has already been in the news. But lawmakers don’t want any news of their violations, or their donors’ violations, made public until there’s a finding of guilt.”

That said, McCabe said that the GAB is more likely than the former board to levy fines on donors who break campaign finance laws.

“The old board would bend over backwards to not give a fine and just give a slap on the wrist,” McCabe said.

The GAB’s Magney told the Shepherd that the board routinely reviews donations that appear to exceed campaign limits at the end of each year, when all donations for the calendar year have been made. The results of its review will only be made public upon request.