Watchdog tallies corporate political cash, files complaint vs. Dems

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    The campaign watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign lodged three ethics complaints against two state Democratic Party groups as well as the party’s national legislative campaign unit Tuesday.

    The information on which the complaints were based surfaced while the Democracy Campaign was researching corporate contributions to both the Democratic and the Republican parties in 2019.

    The complaints filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission name the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), along with the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

    The first complaint alleges that the DLCC, in making contributions in 2019 to the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee and to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, exceeded the state campaign finance law’s cap on corporate contributions. 

    A corporation is limited to $12,000 in political contributions per recipient in a year under the state law, and another $12,000 in the form of Political Action Committee contributions to each party or legislative campaign committee, the Democracy Campaign said. Because the DLCC has no state or federal PAC, however, it can’t give more than $12,000 a year to a legislative campaign committee.

    Campaign finance reports showed the DLCC gave the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee $36,000, “three times the allowable limit,” the Democracy Campaign stated.

    The second ethics complaint relates to how some of the donated funds were directed.

    Besides exceeding the corporate limit, the Democracy Campaign said, two of the $12,000 donations appeared to have gone into the state Senate Democratic Committee’s regular account, instead of being put in a segregated account, where they cannot be used to fund individual candidates or to pay for express advocacy campaigns. A third $12,000 donation to the Senate committee was properly segregated, the Democracy Campaign reported.

    The third complaint alleges that The Democratic Party of Wisconsin received $12,000 from the DLCC that “appears to have been misreported as a PAC contribution and appears to have gone into the party’s regular campaign account instead of a segregated account,” the Democracy Campaign stated. 

    A $12,000 DLCC contribution to the Wisconsin Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee was handled appropriately, the Democracy Campaign stated.

    The ethics complaints were filed on the same day that the Democracy Campaign released a new report on corporate contributions in 2019 to the two main political parties in the state.

    “It was while doing this report that we noticed the apparent violations that led us to file the ethics complaints today,” Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild told the Wisconsin Examiner.

    Together the two political parties took in $1.1 million in corporate contributions, according to the report. 

    Those to the Republican Party and its related entities dwarfed those to Democratic Party groups, the Democracy Campaign found.

    “The state Republican party and the two GOP legislative fundraising committees accepted about $882,800, or 78 percent, of the corporate contributions,” the Democracy Campaign reported. The Republican funds went to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, $438,70; the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, $393,185; and the Republican Party of Wisconsin, $50,910.

    “The state Democratic Party and the two Democratic legislative fundraising committees raised about $250,600, or 22 percent of the corporate contributions” — a figure that included the amounts that were the subject of the Democracy Campaign’s ethics complaints. 

    Other corporate donors — including those who gave funds to entities in both parties — were Charter Communications, St. Louis, MO, $44,000 to the four legislative campaign committees; Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, Madison, $43,000 to the four legislative campaign committees; Wisconsin Realtors Association, Madison, $40,000 to three legislative campaign committees and the state GOP; and WEC Energy Group, Milwaukee, $36,000 to the four legislative campaign committees.

    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.