Why We Filed an Ethics Complaint Against Wisconsin Rep. Dean Knudson

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

September 7, 2016

On Sept. 1, I walked over to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission to hand in the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s ethics complaint against Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson.

Knudson has set up his own express advocacy PAC, the Wisconsin Liberty Fund, even though he is still in office. We believe this is patently against the law. And it sets a terrible precedent, which would invite even more corruption in our state.

Knudson is not running for re-election, so you might say, “Big deal.”

But it is a big deal because if elected officials who aren’t running for re-election can raise unlimited amounts of funds for their own PAC or issue advocacy group, they can be bought off for the rest of their term, doing the bidding of their largest donors. Or they could set themselves up as kingmakers or destroyers, using their treasure chest to intimidate other legislators to vote for their pet projects.

And it’s an even bigger deal because if Knudson is allowed to do this, other legislators down the road, who actually are running for re-election, will set up their own PACs or issue advocacy groups and funnel their biggest donors into these groups, thus evading the limits on campaign contributions.

Under the current law, the most someone can give your campaign if you’re running for state Assembly is $1,000. But you could tell your rich friend to give a million dollars to your PAC or issue advocacy group. This end-around renders meaningless any limits on campaign contributions.

And here’s where more corruption comes in: You, as a legislator, could shake down powerful corporate executives who are testifying before you. You could pitch them softballs, and then afterward ask them to make a $500,000 donation to your PAC or issue advocacy group.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, raised this sleazy prospect during the floor debate on the campaign finance law the night of Nov. 6, 2015. He and his fellow Democrats introduced an amendment that explicitly would have banned legislators from forming such groups.

Otherwise, said Erpenbach, “each one of us could have our own separate campaign which we could control and which we could raise unlimited amounts of money. Who needs Scott Jensen? Who needs a middleman? You really don’t. You can do it on your own. ... Each one of us can have our own Friends for a Sunny Day, We Love Cheese, How ’Bout Them Packers.”

Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald responded that such an amendment was unnecessary because it was already illegal for any legislator — and that would include Knudson — to do so under the new bill.

Here’s what Fitzgerald said:

“Currently the bill limits candidates to one candidate committee unless they are running for higher office. ... You can’t coordinate with yourself. There’s still the bright line. ... You cannot set up a separate committee and then say I’m going to raise money into that pot as well because you’re coordinating with yourself. That is prohibited by this bill.”

Knudson’s action violates the law. The Ethics Commission should make him disband his PAC until he is out of office. If it doesn’t, it will only compound the bad joke that the new campaign finance law is playing on our democracy.

This column originally appeared in The Capital Times.