Milwaukee case spurred effort to amend campaign finance law
Former Ald. Chantia Lewis | Courtesy of Lewis for Senate
Sylvia Ortiz-Velez admits she can be a bit nosy. The Democratic state representative from Milwaukee, who is also a member of the Milwaukee County Board, likes to poke around publicly filed campaign finance reports. “I like to look at who’s raised what,” she says in an interview.
It was through such snooping that Ortiz-Velez realized that former Milwaukee Ald. Chantia Lewis evidently still held the purse strings for her campaign even after being convicted of two felonies for misusing campaign funds. A campaign finance filing dated July 15, 2022, just three days before Lewis pleaded guilty and was removed from office, lists her as treasurer. Ortiz-Velez says the district attorney stated at Lewis’ sentencing on August 25, 2022, that she was in control of it still.
“I realized there’s nothing in law that says that once a person is adjudicated guilty of campaign finance violations, they can no longer be in control of their account,” Ortiz-Velez says. “I mean, I just — I don’t know if it’s smart to leave a person in control of something that they’ve already committed criminal acts about. There’s just a hole in our statutes.”
The applicable state law, 11.1401(3), says any person “adjudged guilty in a criminal action of any violation of” the campaign finance statutes must be removed from office, as Lewis was. But it doesn’t say they must relinquish control of the campaign funds.
And so Ortiz-Velez has joined with lawmakers from both parties to push legislation, which the Wisconsin Examiner reported on Monday, to plug this hole.
“Under this bill, if a candidate is adjudged guilty of such a felony in a criminal proceeding, the court’s judgment in the matter must include an order that the candidate’s candidate committee be dissolved in accordance with current law and that the candidate return unencumbered campaign funds to the donors in amounts not exceeding the original contributions or donate those funds to the common school fund,” says the co-sponsorship memo, circulated last last month with a response deadline of Thursday, May 4.
The proposed legislation, LRB-1326/1, also calls for the appointment of “a new treasurer for the candidate committee to carry out the court’s dissolution order.”
The bill is backed by Rep. Ortiz-Velez and Sen. Mark Spreitzer, both Democrats, and Rep. Shae Sortwell and Sen. Jesse James, both Republicans. It is one of two campaign-finance reforms, the other being a bill to help local governments recover some of the cost of special elections, that are now being circulated with bipartisan support.
One high-profile example
Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonprofit government watchdog, says he was aware of the bill to disallow convicted violators from maintaining control of their campaign committee but did not know what inspired it. “Nor do I know of candidates (or elected legislators) who continued to control their campaign accounts after being convicted of such violations.” He adds, “On the face of it, this measure seems to have some merit.”
Sen. Spreitzer, in an interview, says there was a case a few years back — 2018, to be exact — in which a person attempting to run for state Assembly, Charisse Daniels, pleaded guilty to one count of felony fraud and was sentenced to a year of probation for falsifying nomination papers. But he doesn’t know to what degree she had funds in her campaign account at that time or whether this issue would have even come into play.
It was really just the case involving Chantia Lewis, in which, as Spreitzer says, “the felony was explicitly about the misuse of campaign funds for her personal benefit,” that brought the need for legislation into focus. “There was just a sense that this is an area the law maybe hadn’t contemplated, and, you know, even if there’s only one high-profile example, it’s something that we ought to come in and fix.”
Lewis was elected to represent Milwaukee’s northwest side on the city council in 2016 and again in 2020. In 2021, when she was charged, she was also a declared candidate for U.S. Senate.
In July of last year, Lewis pleaded guilty to charges of felony misconduct for misusing campaign funds. Prosecutors accused her of diverting more than $21,000 in campaign funds. Says Oritz-Velez, “She spent the money on taking her family to vacation, paying her rent, fixing her car, a variety of things that any person can clearly see is not campaign related.” She was later sentenced to serve 30 days in the Milwaukee County House of Corrections, on top of two concurrent three-year probationary sentences for felony misconduct in public office and violating campaign finance law.
But Ortiz-Velez says the change in the law will not just affect Lewis: “It applies to anyone who’s convicted of certain crimes under our statutes” — namely those having to do with campaign finance. This would include any candidate for state or local official public office.
Daniel Carlton, administrator of the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, declined to comment on the proposed legislation. The Commission is limited by statute regarding what it can disclose. The Commission has made one referral to a prosecutor since Jan. 1, 2020. That referral did not involve Lewis, whose misconduct came to light through other means.
Both Ortiz-Velez and Spreitzer are optimistic that the bill will pass. “Doing this just seems like common sense,” Spreitzer says. “Obviously, not all common sense bills pass, you know, but having it be bipartisan is a good start. And I certainly don’t know of a reason why somebody wouldn’t support this.”
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