STATE EMPLOYEES SECRETLY CAMPAIGN
Dee J. Hall Wisconsin State Journal
Employees at four state agencies secretly campaign for legislative candidates on state time and from their state offices in apparent violation of the law, a Wisconsin State Journal investigation revealed.
The employees work for four partisan legislative caucuses that cost taxpayers an estimated $3.9 million a year.
The caucuses, one each for Assembly Democrats and Republicans and one for each party in the Senate, are officially charged with helping lawmakers with legislative tasks such as researching bills, drafting news releases and printing newsletters.
The state Ethics Board has advised legislators and their employees that it is illegal to campaign on state time or with state resources. But a State Journal investigation involving hundreds of records and interviews with more than 70 people found that the caucuses operate as secret campaign machines, especially during the election season.
"It's not confined to either the Democrats or Republicans, but I would say it happens on a wholesale basis and it's barely disguised anymore," said Greg DiMiceli, who was ousted last year from the Senate Republican Caucus (SRC) along with three others when state Sen. Mary Panzer took over GOP leadership in the Senate.
"It (campaigning) is almost the reason now for the existence of the caucuses," he said.
Among the State Journal's findings:
The state caucus offices serve as campaign central for many legislative races, performing a variety of campaign functions in their government offices including coordinating advertising, providing lists of registered voters, designing brochures and giving out advice.
Most candidates interviewed by the State Journal said they were unaware that caucus workers were prohibited from offering campaign help on state time or in state offices.
Caucus employees placed dozens of long-distance telephone calls from their state phones to non-incumbent candidates and political advertising firms during the three months leading up to the Nov. 7 election. The State Journal also obtained campaign documents, e-mails, bills and telephone messages sent to and from some caucus offices.
While the questionable activity occurs in caucuses from both parties and in both houses, the State Journal obtained more detailed records about the Assembly Republican Caucus that show widespread and well-coordinated participation in virtually every one of the fall legislative races. It's unclear whether all four caucuses are involved in campaigns to the same extent.
Tracking exactly how much state time is spent on campaigning is nearly impossible because Assembly and Senate staffers are required to keep only minimal track of their time.
The four caucuses are headed up by the Legislature's top leaders: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison; Senate Minority Leader Panzer, R-West Bend; Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha; and, until earlier this month, Assembly Minority Leader Shirley Krug, D-Milwaukee.
Chvala, Panzer, Jensen, and the new Assembly minority leader, Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, also control legislative campaign committees that give money to candidates and plan statewide campaign strategies. These campaign committees are not taxpayer funded and are supposed to operate separately from the state caucus offices located near the Capitol.
But the State Journal found that the line between the campaign committees and the caucuses is often blurred, allowing the leaders' hand-picked candidates to use state employees and resources to help their campaigns.
Two of the four legislative leaders in charge during the 2000 campaign season - Krug and Chvala - refused several opportunities to comment. Black, who has been in the Assembly since 1984, said he is new to top leadership and unaware of the caucuses' campaign role. "If there are allegations of that sort (campaigning out of state offices), I'm going to take them extremely seriously," Black said.
Panzer and Jensen agreed to issue written statements through their spokespeople.
"Since being elected leader, Senator Panzer has made every effort to insure that state law, Senate policies and the state ethics code are complied with and that campaign-related activity does not take place on state time," Panzer spokeswoman Maureen McNally said in a written statement.
Jensen spokesman Steve Baas said Assembly Republicans "go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the campaign-related activity of staff is conducted on their own personal time," noting that many staffers choose to use vacation time or leaves of absences "to be involved in our democracy."
But former employees say campaigning on state time with state resources is an open secret at the state Capitol to which regulators, lawmakers and the media have turned a blind eye for many years. Ethics Board Executive Director Roth Judd said that although such activity has been rumored for years, no complaints ever have been filed nor have any investigations been launched by his agency. He said members of the Ethics Board, which enforces the state's Ethics Code, are "eager to learn what the State Journal has turned up."
"If state tax dollars are being misdirected to private campaign activities," Judd said, "that is wrong and possibly unlawful."
State ethics laws prohibit public officials and state employees from using the resources of state government for their own personal benefit. A single infraction could cost an employee or lawmaker a $5,000 fine.
The Ethics Board has interpreted the law to say that legislative employees and lawmakers should not engage in campaign activity using "state supplies, services or facilities not available to all citizens." Campaign activity is prohibited during regular work hours and in state offices regardless of the time of day.
Yet 11 former caucus staffers told the State Journal that at certain times of the year, campaign work is the primary - and required - duty of caucus employees.
Paul Uebelher, who worked at the Assembly Democratic Caucus (ADC) on and off for more than a decade, said that by the end of his tenure in 1997, "The overwhelming majority of our work was campaign related." He since has joined the reform group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Lyndee Wall, former executive assistant to the Assembly Republican Caucus (ARC), said in 7 months of working with the caucus she engaged almost exclusively in campaign activity, "and it was wrong. I don't think anything that was done (at the caucus) was not campaign related."
Wall said she resigned from her $33,780-a-year job March 5 because she was promised by her boss, ARC director Jason Kratochwill, that the campaign work eventually would end, but it didn't. Kratochwill declined to be interviewed for this story.
As for other ARC employees, "There was no policy research being done whatsoever," Wall said. "Caucus employees were out of the office (working on campaigns) all the time. They come back once a week, but then it's still not to do state business - it's for Monday morning campaign meetings."
Longtime Rep. Frank Boyle, D-Superior, agreed that campaigning by state workers is no secret at the Capitol. He said it's done by partisan employees on both sides of the aisle.
"Are they engaged in campaign activity? You bet," Boyle said of the caucuses. He added that in his 14 years as a lawmaker, he's never asked for caucus help with a campaign.
Former caucus staffer Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said any campaigning he did during four years at the Assembly Democratic and later Senate Democratic caucus was done on his free time or vacation. He left the SDC in 1998 to run for office.
"I wasn't expected to do anything when it came to politics and working on campaigns," Erpenbach said. He added that as a senator, he often uses the services of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
"There are times of the year - like right now, we're in session, the budget - where you can always use more help. That's where the caucuses can fill in," Erpenbach said. "Some people say we could eliminate the caucuses. I'm uncomfortable with that ... (because) the support they provide during busy times of the year is invaluable."
Former SRC staffer DiMiceli, who also worked at the ARC and as an aide to former Sen. Tim Weeden, R-Beloit, said legislative leaders feel they have little choice but to continue campaigning on the state's dime - or lose seats in the Legislature.
"It's like an arms race," DiMiceli said. "Both sides are doing it. You can't compete if you know that your opponent is working with 14 (caucus) people at his disposal, working around the clock on such activity ... . You have little left to do except to engage in those activities."
Jay Heck, former communications director for the Senate Democratic Caucus (SDC), recalled with irony the campaigning he said he and other caucus staff members did during his tenure from 1989 to 1991. It's ironic because Heck now runs Common Cause in Wisconsin - a leading advocate for campaign-finance reform and clean government.
"Much of that (campaigning) was done right on state property," Heck said. "You were, essentially, in many cases, the campaign apparatus for the candidates."
Mike Boerger said during his two years at the Senate Republican Caucus in the late 1980s, campaigning on state time was rampant. Later, during a decade working as an aide to Senate Republicans, he said the joke going around the Capitol was, "What does the caucus do all day? Answer: Opposition research."
Wall turned over hundreds of pages of documents to the State Journal that show the Assembly Republican Caucus participated in some way in virtually all of the 99 races throughout Wisconsin last year in which a Republican ran for an Assembly seat. Several Assembly Republican candidates from the fall races also said they either visited or called the ARC office for help with their campaigns.
Wall said she maintained two sets of office supplies at her desk - one for legitimate government work for the Assembly Republican
Caucus and another for campaign work she was told to do for the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee (RACC). RACC, which is controlled by Assembly Speaker Jensen and is supposed to operate separately from the ARC, has a post office box but no office of its own.
According to the documents provided by Wall, ARC staff members participated in the following campaign activities last fall:
Recruiting candidates and maintaining a database of candidates and potential candidates.
Soliciting and selecting political consultants.
Producing photos and graphics and arranging for printing of campaign materials.
Scheduling filming of campaign commercials.
Sending packets of information and distributing RACC funds to candidates.
GOP Assembly candidate Ryan Strnad said ARC employees gave him position papers and "we were even being urged to use these issues in our campaign." He ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Rep. Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee. "Definitely, it was helpful," Strnad said.
A computer-assisted analysis of long-distance phone calls from the caucuses, documents obtained by the State Journal, and interviews with former employees indicate similar campaign activity has gone on in the other three caucuses.
Such activity begins even in the primaries, at a time when political parties generally claim neutrality. Gary Bahr of Belleville, who ran in the 1994 Democratic primary for the 79th Assembly District, said he gradually figured out that the legislative and Assembly Democratic Caucus staffers who worked on his race were doing so in apparent violation of state law.
"I don't like tax money being spent wrongly and illegally, and I don't like state employees running campaigns," Bahr said. "They're so corrupt, in every way, shape and form." Because the Ethics Board has determined that state law prohibits such activity, the operations of the caucuses often are kept secret even from the candidates on whose behalf they work, according to more than a dozen candidates interviewed by the State Journal.
Several candidates from both parties said they didn't know they were in government offices when they visited the caucuses or that their campaign workers were state employees. The Assembly caucuses are at 17 S. Fairchild St., and the Senate caucuses are at 1 S. Pinckney St.
Former Assembly Democratic Caucus Director Tanya Bjork responded, "People routinely call or visit the ADC with questions about legislative issues. ADC staff responds. The ADC can't discriminate against people that might be running for local or state office."
But candidates interviewed by the State Journal said they specifically received campaign help at the caucus offices:
Candidate Strnad said he visited the Assembly Republican Caucus office to get lists of pro-life and Republican voters from caucus database specialist Paul Tessmer. Strnad said his main contact throughout the race was Jim Emerson of the caucus.
"(Emerson) was calling me every other day between mid-June and the middle of July. The caller ID said, 'state of Wisconsin,'" Strnad said.
Neither Emerson nor Tessmer responded to messages seeking their comments.
"I never really bothered to wonder where they got their money from," Strnad said, adding that he's "embarrassed" state employees may have worked on his campaign on state time.
Dave Jones, a Republican from Cottage Grove who ran unsuccessfully against state Rep. Tom Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said he had no idea the Assembly Republican Caucus was part of state government. Among the items Jones said he received while at the Assembly Republican Caucus office were a brochure designed for his campaign and lists of likely voters compiled by Wisconsin Right to Life.
When told that the ARC is a government agency, Jones was angry. "That's wrong! Do the taxpayers know this? People should know these things. That's not an appropriate use of tax dollars," Jones said.
Jefferson County Sup. Steven J. Nass of Lake Mills, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against state Rep. David Ward, R-Fort Atkinson, said he met a few times with Gerald Lowrie at the Assembly Democratic Caucus office to get help on his campaign. (Nass should not be confused with state Rep. Stephen L. Nass, R-Whitewater.)
Democrat Chad VanDierendonck, a Carroll College student who ran unsuccessfully against Jensen, said he knew that the ADC's Lowrie was a state employee. He said he visited and called the state office several times for help on his campaign. When told by the State Journal that caucus staffers including Lowrie are required to keep campaigning separate from their state jobs and state offices, VanDierendonck appeared surprised.
"Wow! I basically thought they (caucuses) were put together to help campaigns. Everyone was doing it - that was my impression. It was kind of explained to me that everything we were doing was totally legal," he said.
Lowrie replied, "I did help these two candidates on my own time. Yes, they did stop by our office with questions about state issues and also to inquire about legal requirements for those running for office. They were referred to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee (ADCC). All assistance received by these two candidates was from the ADCC."
Added Lowrie: "Chad was a first-time candidate, and I think he might not have understood the difference. Chad did call on a couple of occasions. I instructed him that that was not appropriate and that he should call my (personal) cell phone after business hours."
Republican Dan Kapanke, who ran unsuccessfully against former state Democratic Rep. Mark Meyer for the Senate seat that includes La Crosse, said he often called the Senate Republican Caucus office in Madison to get advice about his campaign. SRC director Brian Fraley didn't respond to messages seeking his comment.
"If I had questions on particular things, I would just call down there (SRC) and deal with whoever answered the phone," Kapanke said.
When asked whether he realized that the Senate Republican Caucus was a taxpayer-funded office, Kapanke replied, "I'm not aware of that."
- State Journal reporter Phil Brinkman contributed to this
ONE CAUCUS MAY HAVE ILLEGALLY HELPED GROUP
Dee J. Hall Wisconsin State Journal
A former legislative caucus staff member said she and other state workers secretly helped a private group coordinate attack ads against Assembly Democratic candidates last fall, in possible violation of state campaign finance laws.
Lyndee Wall, former executive assistant to the Assembly Republican Caucus, said she and at least two other caucus employees helped a group funded by the state Republican Party to produce, address and mail controversial campaign radio ads before the Nov. 7 election.
Much of the work took place in the caucus's state office at 17 S. Fairchild St.
The ads, run in 12 races statewide by the group Project Vote Informed, included one highlighting a candidate's past marital problems that was so controversial some radio stations refused to air it. The ad, directed against Rep. Lee Meyerhofer, D-Kaukauna, set off renewed calls to further regulate so-called "independent expenditure groups" such as Project Vote Informed.
If Wall's allegations are true, the implications could be "monumental," said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, which advocates further restrictions on spending by independent political groups.
"This would demonstrate, at the very highest level of legislative leadership, collusion in violation of Wisconsin statutes," Heck said.
In recent months, the state Elections Board signaled it intends to punish campaigns and independent groups that coordinate election efforts. It collected $60,000 in fines, the largest such payment in state history, to settle a state lawsuit that alleged illegal, secret coordination between Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox's 1997 election campaign and a group that worked on his behalf.
Wall's allegations, uncovered as part of a Wisconsin State Journal investigation into the taxpayer-funded caucus system, provide further support to claims that the caucuses frequently engage in campaign activity, contrary to the state Ethics Board's interpretation of Wisconsin ethics law.
The four legislative caucuses were created in an era when legislators had little staff or other support agencies to rely on. They are supposed to provide legislators with partisan advice on issues and help communicate with constituents and the media. The Ethics Board has advised legislators and their employees that it is illegal to campaign on state time or with state resources.
In its editions Sunday, however, the State Journal cited hundreds of documents and accounts by legislators, candidates and former caucus members suggesting staffers from all four caucuses flout those rules.
In the case of the Assembly Republican Caucus, Wall said staffers went even further by working directly with Project Vote Informed. Like other independent groups, Project Vote Informed was required to file an oath with the Elections Board that it would operate independently of any candidate in the races it targeted.
Wall was the Assembly Republican Caucus's lowest-ranking employee from July 17, 2000, until her resignation March 5 of this year. She said she left because of what she viewed as the caucus's consistent abuse of the law.
The caucus is led by a director, Jason Kratochwill, who reports to Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha. Neither would comment for this story.
Todd Rongstad, director of Project Vote Informed, also declined to be interviewed but denied any connection between his group and the caucus, where he worked from 1994 to 1997, including a stint as deputy director.
"Any suggestion that Project Vote Informed coordinated its activities or acted in conjunction with any partisan caucus, affected candidate or agent of a candidate's committee is false," Rongstad said in a brief e-mail statement.
So-called independent expenditure groups such as Project Vote Informed are prohibited from acting "in concert with, or at the request or suggestion of" candidates or people working on their behalf, according to state campaign finance law.
Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the Elections Board, which regulates campaigns, said Wall's allegations "certainly raise some questions that merit looking into and might be the grounds for a complaint."
Kennedy said the key question would be whether the Assembly Republican Caucus staff members who allegedly helped Project Vote Informed played important roles in any of the 12 races targeted by the radio ads.
Wall provided the State Journal with hundreds of pages of documents showing that the Assembly Republican Caucus helped organize campaigns across the state during the last election, including the 12 races targeted by the radio ads.
She said the two employees who enlisted her help with the Project Vote Informed ads - deputy director Mark Jefferson and media director Heather Smith - worked as key advisers in many races, acting "like overseers" across the state.
"They helped everybody," Wall said of Smith and Jefferson. "Everyone (candidates) called them with help in pulling together ads. They (Jefferson and Smith) proofed all the lit. They proofed all the radio spots. They wrote press releases. They were kind of like the issue people for all the campaigns."
Both Jefferson and Smith declined to comment for this story.
Wall's chronology of events closely matches the account of its activities that Project Vote Informed gave in its spending reports on file at the Elections Board.
Wall said her involvement with Project Vote Informed began last October, when a fax arrived at the caucus office from Jensen's Capitol office. The material included an Outagamie County Circuit Court transcript and an Antigo Police Department report, parts of which later showed up in Project Vote Informed ads against Democratic Assembly candidates Meyerhofer and Sarah Waukau of Antigo.
Wall said that shortly after the material arrived, Smith and Jefferson asked her to deliver a sealed envelope from the caucus office to Project Vote Informed director Rongstad at his office at 10 E. Doty St.
She said she made the delivery at the request of Smith, who is Rongstad's ex-wife. Wall said she didn't look inside the bulky envelope, so she couldn't say whether it contained the faxes from Jensen's office. The information in the faxes eventually showed up in Project Vote Informed ads against the two Democratic candidates.
"Heather didn't want to be seen delivering anything to that office, and neither did Mark," Wall said, referring to Smith and Jefferson. "They thought I was a face no one would recognize."
After the delivery, Wall said, Smith spent two days producing a series of radio ads for Project Vote Informed at Abella Audio Productions Inc., 2302 W. Badger Road in Madison. The group's campaign spending report shows payments to Abella and several people who provided "radio voices" for the ads on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
Both Smith and Jefferson took some vacation days in October and November, but they weren't required to report which days they took off. Wall said she was not on vacation or leave. Even if they were on their own time, Wall said, some of the work was done in the office.
The Ethics Board's interpretation of the law extends to prohibiting the use of state offices, equipment and supplies for campaign work.
After the ads were finished, Wall said Smith asked her to help address envelopes containing audiotapes to "30 or 40" radio stations in and around Wisconsin with the return address listed as Project Vote Informed. She said Jefferson provided the addresses, the cost of buying the radio airtime and instructions for running the spots.
Wall said Smith placed checks in each envelope written from a Project Vote Informed checkbook.
"The checks themselves - the payments - were written out of Todd's checkbook," Wall said. "I watched her (Smith) write them out."
Wall said Assembly Republican Caucus staffers used her personal cellular phone to call Rongstad and radio stations to avoid having those phone numbers show up on state telephone bills. She provided copies of her cell phone bills to the State Journal showing five phone calls to Rongstad's home and office in October and early November and four phone calls to radio stations that aired the radio ads.
The State Journal's investigation also found two instances in which photographs from the Assembly Republican Caucus archives ended up in supposedly independent print ads produced by Rongstad. The ads attacked Rep. John Ryba, D-Green Bay, and supported Rep. Mark Pettis, R-Hertel.
Although the photos are public records and available to anyone who asks for them, their appearance in the ads raises questions about how Rongstad even knew the photos existed, the Elections Board's Kennedy said.
If someone from the caucus approached Rongstad or knew he planned to use the photos in independent campaign ads, and that person played a key role in those same races, it could be evidence of cooperation, Kennedy said.
ARC photographer Jay Salvo said he doesn't know how his photos showed up in the ads. Rongstad and Kratochwill, the Assembly Republican Caucus director, didn't respond to requests to explain how Rongstad obtained the photos. Documents obtained by the State Journal show ARC staff members worked on the campaigns of both Brent Weycker, who ran unsuccessfully against Ryba, and Pettis, who was re-elected.
Wall said she came forward because "he (Rongstad) completely relied on the people paid by the state to do this. . . not even doing it himself."
Wall said she would be willing to cooperate with investigating agencies if it would lead to an end to the activity she witnessed and participated in during her 7 months in state government. She said she hoped regulators would consider her role in any violations as relatively minor, but added, "If I'm going to be punished, at least I want something to change."
While Jensen provided no formal response to Wall's allegations, his spokesman, Steve Baas, said: "Sounds like Lyndee was pretty involved with Todd Rongstad. If Lyndee was behaving inappropriately, then she should have to answer to that."
In response, Wall laughed and pointed out she was the caucus's lowest-ranking employee.
"I'm the one they send downstairs to get a Coke for Jensen when he comes for the staff meetings," Wall said. "What say did I have in anything? This is just them, one more time, spin-doctoring things."
Wall's allegations follow revelations by a Green Bay television station that copies of the Outagamie court transcript highlighting Meyerhofer's past marital problems were distributed from Speaker Jensen's office. The transcript was used in the anti-Meyerhofer radio ads by Project Vote Informed.
Last winter, Jensen staffer R.J. Pirlot acknowledged obtaining the transcript but denied supplying it to Project Vote Informed. Pirlot made the admission after a Jan. 30 incident in which Jensen spokesman Baas grabbed WBAY-TV photographer Steve Cady by the necktie at the Capitol while he and a reporter were investigating the source of the transcript.
Baas pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in Dane County Circuit Court on April 25 and was ordered to participate in a first-offender program.
Baas said he doesn't know whether anyone at Jensen's office faxed the documents to the Assembly Republican Caucus, as Wall alleges.
"The Meyerhofer transcript we shared with many people. It wouldn't surprise me if they (the Assembly Republican Caucus) got it out of this office," Baas said, adding that he doesn't recall seeing the Antigo police report. "Public documents shared with staff, media is part of the job here."
But he denied any involvement with Project Vote Informed.
Campaign documents obtained by the State Journal, however, indicate Baas still played a role in Republican challenger Tom Sanders' race against Meyerhofer.
The documents show Baas wrote a radio ad titled "Lee (Meyerhofer) is a liar" that ran on four stations. Baas said he didn't write the ad but said, "It was not uncommon for staff in the field to ask advice of me away from the office" and speculated one of them might have written a script based on suggestions he gave over the phone.
Sanders did not return several telephone calls seeking comment.
Meyerhofer said he is suspicious of connections among Jensen's staff, the Assembly Republican Caucus, Project Vote Informed and the Sanders campaign.
"It just shows the four are working hand in hand," Meyerhofer said. "How you tie it together exactly, I'm not sure."
State Journal reporter Phil Brinkman contributed to this
GROUPS WANT PROBE OF ALLEGED CAMPAIGNING OUT OF STATE OFFICES
Last Updated: May 23, 2001 at 10:26:22 a.m.
MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Two government watchdog groups have called for an investigation into allegations legislative employees regularly campaign out of their state offices.
The Wisconsin State Journal said in a series this week that employees who work for four partisan legislative caucuses helping lawmakers research bills, write news releases and print newsletters operate as secret campaign machines, especially during election seasons.
Among other things, the newspaper said caucus employees placed dozens of long-distance calls from their work phones to nonincumbent candidates and political advertising firms during the three months before the Nov. 7 election. The State Journal said it also obtained campaign documents, e-mails, bills and telephone messages sent to and from caucus offices.
The newspaper also quoted a former Assembly Republican Caucus worker who alleged that members of the caucus worked with an independent political group, Project Vote Informed, to coordinate ads attacking Democratic candidates, possibly violating state campaign finance laws.
"We call on you to immediately investigate the apparent violations ... and quickly move to severely punish those who have broken the law," Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said in a letter to the state Elections Board.
McCabe said in a separate letter to the state Ethics Board that the activities described by the newspaper "are not only a gross misuse of taxpayer funds, but also a clear violation of state ethics laws."
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause of Wisconsin, said, if regulators from the two state boards don't initiate investigations, his organization will file a formal complaint.
"This is something that has to be followed through and will be followed through," Heck said.
Spokespeople from both Republican and Democratic caucuses did not immediately return telephone messages left by The Associated Press Wednesday.
Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the Elections Board, and Roth Judd, executive director of the Ethics Board, were not in their offices Wednesday morning and could not immediately be reached for comment.
However, Kennedy said Tuesday the allegations of collaboration between the Assembly Republican Caucus and Project Vote Informed "certainly raise some questions that merit looking into and might be the grounds for a complaint."
In its reports this week, the newspaper quoted several legislators, candidates and others as confirming that caucus staff members do campaign work.
Lyndee Wall told the newspaper she resigned after working as executive assistant to the Assembly Republican Caucus for seven months because of the campaign work.
But Steve Bass, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha, told the newspaper that Assembly Republicans go to extraordinary lengths to make sure campaigning is done on personal time.
May 27, 2001 at 4:08:35 p.m.
MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A former Assembly Republican Caucus employee says workers destroyed or removed campaign records to keep from giving them to a reporter who filed an open records request, a newspaper reported.
Lyndee Wall, the caucus' former executive assistant from July 2000 until her resignation in March, told the Wisconsin State Journal that she saw and helped employees delete computer files and remove boxes of campaign records from their state offices.
"It's this kind of stuff that really shakes the public confidence in state government," said Jeff Hovind, editor and publisher of the Waukesha Freeman and president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a media-funded group that seeks to protect Wisconsin's open records and open meetings laws.
The newspaper was investigating campaign activity by the four legislative caucuses and filed a request for the records.
The caucuses, partisan agencies intended to provide research and other support for legislators, are prohibited from campaigning on state time or using state resources.
The newspaper said in a series published last week employees who work for four partisan legislative caucuses operate as secret campaign machines, especially during election seasons.
Wall said the employees removed documents the newspaper had requested, including campaign brochures, literature and other materials produced by graphic artists at the caucus office on state time.
The newspaper received records that were scrutinized by three staff members, including caucus Director Jason Kratochwill, to exclude any campaign-related material, Wall said.
The newspaper still found three items that contained campaign information.
Wall, who said she also took some of the records home, eventually gave some of them to the State Journal, including some material not included in the official response from Kratochwill.
Kratochwill said in an e-mail to the newspaper that he fully complied with the reporter's open records request.
"Any suggestion to the contrary is false," he said.
Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha, said he ordered the caucus' staff to comply with the request.
"They maintain they have done so," he said.
At least two candidates for office told the State Journal they were handed campaign literature at the caucus office. Few staff members seemed worried about getting caught, Wall said.
Violating the state open records law can result in fines of up to $1,000 as well as punitive damages.
Assistant Attorney General Alan Lee, who said he was unaware of Wall's allegations, said that if true, such conduct could be considered tampering with public records with intent to defraud, a five-year felony.
In response to the newspaper series, several lawmakers have
called for scaling back or eliminating the caucuses.
Groups file caucus complaint
June 7, 2001
Phil Brinkman State government reporter , Wisconsin State Journal
Calling the legislative caucuses a "cancer in state government," two reform groups filed a complaint with the state Elections Board Wednesday, urging an investigation into possible violations of campaign finance laws by the four partisan offices and their elected leaders.
The complaint, filed by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause in Wisconsin, was in response to a series of articles in the Wisconsin State Journal last month detailing the activities of the caucus staffs.
The taxpayer-supported caucus staffs - one each for the Democrats and Republicans in both the state Assembly and Senate - are intended to provide research and communications support for legislators.
But the State Journal investigation, which involved examining hundreds of records and interviews with more than 70 people, found the offices also operate as secret campaign machines, raising money, producing brochures and maintaining lists of potential voters for the leaders' hand-picked candidates.
Wednesday's complaint was filed with the Elections Board because such activity could amount to an illegal campaign contribution. Campaigning on state time or with state resources also could constitute a violation of state ethics laws, which are enforced by the state Ethics Board. That board is believed to be conducting its own secret investigation of the caucuses.
"This was not renegade activity by a few employees who were out of control," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "This was very widespread activity. It's in all four caucuses, and it's something that's been going on for a long time."
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause and a former communications director for the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the two were asking that the Elections Board, which is made up of political appointees, name a special prosecutor to ensure action is taken quickly.
"I think it's critical that this be handled expeditiously so that the people of Wisconsin will not have the feeling this is just being swept under the rug," Heck said. "This is a cancer in state government and unless it's rooted out completely it's likely to spread and grow."
The complaint also alleges one caucus, the Assembly Republican Caucus, secretly helped an independent political group coordinate attack ads against several Democratic candidates. The group, Project Vote Informed, had previously signed an oath with the Elections Board saying it would operate independently of any candidate or campaign.
The alleged activity could be a further violation of state election law if the caucus staff members who helped Project Vote Informed played an important role in any of the 12 campaigns the group sought to benefit.
Named in the complaint are Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison; Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha; Senate Minority Leader Mary Panzer, R-West Bend; and former Assembly Minority Leader Shirley Krug, D-Milwaukee.
Also named are the directors of the four caucuses: Rich Judge, director of the Assembly Democratic Caucus; Jason Kratochwill, director of the Assembly Republican Caucus; Jon Carson, director of the Senate Democratic Caucus; and Brian Fraley, director of the Senate Republican Caucus.
It also lists Todd Rongstad, treasurer of Project Vote Informed.
Most of the respondents said Wednesday they had not yet seen the complaint and declined comment.
Panzer issued a brief statement saying the Senate Republican Caucus "has and will continue to provide legitimate and valuable research and public information services for our elected members, the press and the public. "Of course we will comply with any investigation of the Senate Republican Caucus and its activities," she said. "We firmly believe, however, the complaint by the WDC and Common Cause against the Senate Republican Caucus is without merit."
In prior statements, Panzer and Krug's successor, Spencer Black, have denied any direct knowledge of campaign activity by state employees out of their state offices or on state time. Chvala and Jensen, while defending the system, wouldn't address whether such activity goes on.
In a statement Wednesday, Rongstad said his organization "did not coordinate its activities or act in conjunction with any partisan caucus, affected candidate or agent of a candidate's committee. Should the Elections Board act in accordance with the law, I assume the complaint will be dismissed."
Heck and McCabe said they hoped the Elections Board could take up the complaint at its next meeting June 27. They criticized the board for not acting immediately after the allegations came to light, instead requiring someone to file a formal complaint.
"It's like a police officer witnessing a crime being committed and refusing to do anything unless somebody complains," McCabe said.
But Elections Board Executive Director Kevin Kennedy said the criticism was misplaced.
"This isn't like a policeman observing a crime because we weren't in the caucus offices when the allegations happened," Kennedy said.
The bipartisan board, which is made up of appointees nominated by the legislative leaders, the governor and the state Supreme Court, learned long ago to carefully evaluate allegations of wrongdoing to screen out bogus claims by politically motivated complainants, he said.
Kennedy said his staff would evaluate the complaint and decide later whether to pursue an enforcement action. Violations of the state election law could bring fines of up to $500 per infraction. Intentional violations can yield criminal penalties, with fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard said last week he is investigating allegations that members of the Assembly Republican Caucus destroyed or hid campaign documents to avoid turning them over to the State Journal as part of an open records request.
Phil Brinkman State government reporter , Wisconsin State Journal
June 8, 2001
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard has removed himself from part of his office's investigation into the legislative caucuses after revealing one of the caucuses helped him in his election campaign.
Blanchard said Thursday that someone at the Senate Democratic Caucus helped him put together a nomination form last June at the caucus's office at 1 S. Pinckney St.
Although the work "could not have taken more than a total of about 30 minutes," Blanchard said he had no idea at the time that the person was a state employee or that he was visiting a state office.
"Had I known that the person was a state employee personally working with state equipment, I would not have taken the assistance," Blanchard said.
Campaigning on state time or with state resources could violate state ethics laws and campaign finance laws. A recent Wisconsin State Journal series on the caucuses found such activity has been widespread.
Blanchard's experience is a further indication of the caucuses' role in political campaigns, even for those not running for state office.
Blanchard, a political neophyte, said he was steered to the caucus by other Democrats advising him on his campaign. He said he understood the office to be an organ of the Democratic Party, not a part of state government.
His comments are consistent with those of other candidates interviewed by the State Journal, many of whom said they were unaware they were receiving help from a taxpayer-supported body.
"It was only with the recent publication of the State Journal series that I have learned that this person had to have been a state employee," Blanchard said.
As part of that series, the newspaper revealed that employees at the Assembly Republican Caucus may have destroyed or hid campaign documents to keep them from falling under an open records request.
After that story ran, Blanchard announced he was investigating possible violations of the Open Records Law by the Assembly Republican Caucus.
On Thursday, Blanchard confirmed that his office also has been working with other state agencies in reviewing evidence of wrongdoing by all four of the caucuses. The focus of that probe is the underlying assertion that caucus staff may have violated state ethics and campaign finance laws by campaigning on state time from their state offices.
Blanchard said his office would retain authority to investigate and pursue charges, if warranted, against three of the offices: the Assembly Democratic Caucus, the Assembly Republican Caucus and the Senate Republican Caucus.
But he said he has named Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann to act as a special prosecutor in any investigation into the Senate Democratic Caucus.
"I do not think that I would be biased in reviewing evidence and making prosecution decisions related to the SDC," Blanchard said.
"But there is no room for doubt about the impartiality of a prosecutor in seeking a fair and just outcome in any case."
Leaders of two of the caucuses - Senate Minority Leader Mary Panzer, R-West Bend, and Assembly Minority Leader Spencer Black, D-Madison - have said they had no direct knowledge of campaign activity by caucus employees on state time and using state resources.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison, and Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha, have not addressed whether such activity goes on.
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