Is collaboration between a donor and a politician evidence of pay-to-play legislation, or is it politics as usual?
Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel declined a request earlier this year from the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now to investigate state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, and his bill to cap the amount of child support that can be imposed on the wealthy.
"If the political contributions are all reported pursuant to law, what law do you believe has been violated? Why can't a legislator press for legislation that benefits a person who has contributed to their campaign? Isn't that the essence of representative government?" Schimel, the sole Republican candidate for attorney general, wrote in an email to One Wisconsin Now.
Both OWN's request and Schimel's response were sent in January.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported in January that Kleefisch had worked closely with Columbus, Wis. millionaire Michael Eisenga on the child support bill. Legislative drafting documents showed Eisenga and his attorney offered line-by-line instructions that played a key role in writing the bill. A Kleefisch aide requested specific changes to the wording that would allow Eisenga to reopen his case and seek a previously denied reduction in his $15,000-per-month payments.
Eisenga has given $10,000 to Kleefisch and his wife, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, since 2005, and $19,500 to Gov. Scott Walker. Kleefisch donated $1,000 to Schimel's campaign in 2013, and Schimel gave Kleefisch $100 the previous year.
Kleefisch withdrew the child support bill quickly in January, decrying the "misinformation" spread by reports on his collaboration with Eisenga and the bill's intent.
OWN executive director Scot Ross said his group asked Schimel to investigate the bill because Kleefisch is a resident of Waukesha County. Ross said he doesn't know whether a law was broken, which is why OWN asked the district attorney to get involved. But Ross said he was dismayed by the response he received.
"If this is what he would say to a liberal advocacy organization and put it in writing, what is he saying to donors he is meeting with and courting on in his race to be the state’s top cop — the person charged with administering our laws, in a sense?" Ross asked. "And investigating allegations of wrongdoing, like public officials who may or may not be on the take?"
State Rep. Jon Richards, one of three Democratic candidates for attorney general, released a statement Wednesday responding to the email.
"I was astonished and disturbed to read that Brad Schimel once again blithely dismissed the concerns about pay-for-play politics in Wisconsin," Richards said. "He has been repeatedly accused of looking the other way when his political friends commit crimes, not the least of which was the former Assembly Speaker getting a sweetheart deal in what was one of the state’s biggest scandals."
Richards was referring to the plea agreement made between Schimel and former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen after the "caucus scandal" in 2002. Jensen's case was moved from Dane County to Waukesha County in 2010 after the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that a state law allowing elected officials charged with ethics violations to be tried in their home counties applied to his case. Under the agreement, felony charges against the once top-ranked Republican were dropped. Jensen was fined $5,000 and barred from running for office again.
Schimel's campaign manager, John Koremenos, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that there was no evidence in Kleefisch's case of a quid pro quo exchange and that One Wisconsin Now did not respond when Schimel requested that the group provide any. There is no evidence that any contributions were made based on a legislator taking specific actions, Koremenos said.
"Pay-to-play politics undermines our democratic system and perpetrators need to be held accountable," Koremenos said. "Schimel’s email to OWN clearly states that 'politicians should not solicit financial support in exchange for taking specific actions.' Any other characterization of his comments is taken out context."
Schimel referenced the role of former state Sen. Chuck Chvala, a Madison Democrat, in the caucus scandal in his email to One Wisconsin Now.
"If there was some specific quid pro quo that required a contribution before the legislator would take action, such as Senator Chvala did years ago, that could be different," Schimel wrote. "You have not asserted that Representative Kleefisch engaged in any 'pay for play' type of pressure. I realize that corruption does not usually occur overtly, but there must be some evidence of wrongdoing. What is there besides your suspicions?"
Schimel went on to say that it would not be proper for a prosecutor to "engage in a witch hunt without any evidence whatsoever."
"Only liberal groups like OWN believe that political witch hunts absent of real evidence is a proper use of our legal system," Koremenos said.
Ross said his group was requesting that Schimel investigate whether there is anything that legally precludes an elected official from specifically targeting legislation to benefit a donor.
"I am sure the people of Wisconsin believe the essence of democracy is a government that protects their rights, not one that takes them away while encouraging the buying and selling of official action to economic elites," Ross said.