Ethics Commission will be able to make political donations

August 24, 2016


MADISON Wisconsin's newly created commission charged with overseeing the state's ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws voted Tuesday to allow its six partisan appointees to continue making donations to the very candidates they are regulating, rejecting a proposal to ban such giving.

State law allows members of the Ethics Commission to give to partisan candidates, and the three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel have donated in the past. Two commissioners who wanted a ban on such donations said continuing to give money would look bad. They were outvoted, 4-2, by commissioners who said their votes would not be swayed based on political donations they've made.

"I don't want to be limited in giving contributions," said Democratic Milwaukee attorney David Halbrooks. "I don't think it will ever affect my analysis."

But fellow Democrat Robert Kinney, a former Oneida County circuit judge, argued that "it's a matter of perception and public confidence."

"We have, right now, people claiming that elections are rigged," he said. "We don't want to create a situation where there's less confidence in government, less confidence in fairness, less confidence in nonpartisanship."

Kinney and Republican Pat Strachota, the former Assembly majority leader, effectively voted against allowing contributions. Technically, the vote was on whether to table motions that would have included banning donations.

Halbrooks was joined by former Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, state Republican Party secretary Katie McCallum and former Republican state senator and Waukesha County Judge Mac Davis in voting to table the motions, thereby allowing contributions to continue as state law permits.

Lautenschlager said banning donations wouldn't protect the commission from criticism of being partisan, calling it a "farcical kind of a rule."

"It's out actions and not necessarily whether we decide we will or won't make campaign contributions that will be the measure of whether this commission works," she said.

But Strachota said she assumed when she took the post that she wouldn't be able to make donations and that's what the public expects.

State law does bar staff members for the new Ethics and Elections commissions from donating to political candidates and causes. But the commission members, whose partisan affiliations are public, are free to give as they see fit. All six members of the Ethics Commission have made donations to candidates in recent years, campaign finance records show.

The new commissions were created by the Republican-controlled Legislature replace the Government Accountability Board, which was comprised of retired judges. State law prohibited them from donating while they were on the board.


Associated Press