Complaint questions omissions in Vos ethics filings

By: - August 19, 2020 2:04 pm

Robin Vos answers questions on June 24 after protesters tore down statues outside the state capitol. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has omitted certain business holdings from his most recent Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, state records show.

Vos’ press secretary said shortly after an official complaint was filed Wednesday about the omissions that two of them were due to a “clerical error” that would be promptly corrected, and that Vos’ stake in another omitted business fell below the threshold requiring disclosure.

The omissions were uncovered by the Campaign for Accountability, a Washington, D.C. government watchdog group, which Wednesday asked the ethics commission to open an investigation of Vos for possible violations.

“The most noticeable aspect of this case is that there are multiple discrepancies,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability. “It’s reasonable to assume that someone may make a mistake in the filing of their disclosures, but when these discrepancies begin to pile up, a closer look is merited.”

State law requires about 2,500 state officials and candidates for state office every year to submit economic interest statements, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission states on its website.

The SEI forms require people completing them to list employers, investments, real estate holdings, commercial clients and creditors for the previous calendar year “in which you or your family had at least a 10% or greater interest,” according to the form’s instructions. “The purpose of the statement is to disclose the official’s or candidate’s financial relationships,” according to the ethics commission.

The Campaign for Accountability complaint identifies two Whitewater properties that city records show are owned by a real estate group, Ladwig & Vos, in which Vos is a partner. But they are not found on recent SEI forms that Vos filed for 2019 or 2018. (The forms are typically filed in the year after the entire calendar year that they cover.)

“This was a clerical oversight and Speaker Vos will be amending his SEI immediately,” Kit Beyer, communications director for Vos, said Wednesday, referring to the Whitewater properties. Apparently lumping the two properties together, she added: “We would like to thank Campaign for Accountability in Washington, D.C. for bringing this single mistake to his attention.”

Responding to that statement, Kuppersmith replied Wednesday: “The law requires Speaker Vos to accurately report his holdings. There is no clerical error exception.”

Another omission cited in the complaint involves Vos’ ownership share in a Burlington hotel development group, identified as “Core Upgrades LLC” in the SEI form he filed for the year 2009.

The complaint notes that that firm was crossed off of his SEI for 2010 and hasn’t appeared on subsequent filings. Meanhile, records from Vos’ 2012 divorce list a business “Burlington Core Upgrades LLC” as one of the assets of which he would retain ownership following the divorce.

“It is unclear if he still has an interest in the company or if he had an interest in 2017 when the company made plans to develop a building in downtown Burlington,” Kuppersmith’s letter to the ethics commssion states.

But Beyer said that Vos’ stake in the development group falls below the minimum required to be included in his SEI statements: “It should be noted that Representative Vos does not own more than 10% of Burlington Core Upgrades LLC and is not required to disclose it.”

Watchdog group

The Campaign for Accountability is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on corruption, negligence and unethical behavior. Its priorities include federal and state government, corporate responsibility, consumer protection and reproductive rights. It examined Vos’ ethics commission filings as part of its ongoing state oversight work.

“Office-holders are elected to serve the people, not themselves,” Kuppersmith told the Wisconsin Examiner. “Without transparent and accurate financial disclosures, it’s impossible for constituents to know exactly whose interests elected officials are serving with each decision they make. Hiding financial interests is all too common for those in office, so reviewing these disclosures is an important part of our public accountability work.”

Vos’ SEI records over the years show his interests in several businesses: a gourmet popcorn purveyor, a food packaging and concession sales business and a consulting firm under the name of his wife, former state Rep. Michelle Litjens Vos, as well as a car wash in Union Grove and rental property through at least three different firms, one of them Ladwig & Vos.

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Even with correction of the errors that Campaign for Accountability turned up in the SEI forms, closer examination is still warranted, Kuppersmith told the Wisconsin Examiner.

“If every person who commits an ethics violation is immune to scrutiny once they admit and correct their actions after being caught, what is to prevent everyone from omitting important information in the hopes that it won’t be spotted?” said Kuppersmith. “Trust is the most important asset that an elected official has when serving their constituents. If a politician is untruthful to their constituents, and only ‘comes clean’ and corrects the record when convenient, then they have already improperly benefited from their omission in a way that cannot be rectified.”

It would be up to the ethics commission to decide how to follow up after investigating, she added. “No one is above the law, and we hope that the ethics commission thoroughly investigates the omissions outlined in our complaint from Speaker Vos’ SEI, then proceeds as warranted based on its findings.”

Vos (R-Rochester) is one of the state’s most powerful elected officials. First elected to the Assembly in 2004 and Speaker since 2013, he has worked along with outgoing Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) to help carry out Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda over Walker’s two four-year terms, subsequently clashing frequenlt with Gov. Tony Evers.

Aided by a voting map that GOP leaders drew up in secret after the 2010 census, at a $4 million cost to taxpayers for outside legal advice, they have maintained a Republican majority in both houses, even though more votes were cast for Democratic candidates statewide than for Republicans in recent elections.

In December 2018, after Evers narrowly defeated Walker’s third-term bid, Vos and Fitzgerald engineered a lame-duck session to cut back the powers of the incoming governor, as well as of incoming Attorney General Josh Kaul, before the two Democrats took office. Vos and Fitzgerald have since gone on to block many of Evers’ initiatives in the first two years of his term.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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