Wisconsin GOP Heads Off Criminal Probe Into Corporate Election Spending By Trying To Make It Legal

CREDIT: AP Photo/Morry Gash

Wisconsin’s State Senate Majority Leader, who is reportedly under investigation for his role in a possibly illegal campaign finance scheme, has come up with a novel way to shut down the criminal probe: changing the state law to legalize the activity in question. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R) has “quietly introduced” SB 654, a bill to effectively legalize coordination between candidates and the outside groups that run “issue ads” supporting them.

Wisconsin law requires that all contributions to candidates be reported to the state’s Government Accountability Board and be within state limits. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 Citizens United ruling, outside groups are free to run as many non-coordinated ads as they wish, Wisconsin courts have ruled that coordinated “issue ads” must be counted as a contribution to that candidate.

A secret “John Doe investigation” — similar to a grand jury investigation — is reportedly looking into whether Fitzgerald or members of Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups in 2012. But Fitzgerald’s bill would change the code to spell out that, regardless of coordination, issue ads could never be considered a campaign contribution. This would mean that a politician could legally ask an outside group to run an ad on his or her behalf, write the ad, and benefit from it — but it would not be reported as a contribution to the campaign.

Were SB 654 to become law, it would mean that the alleged illegal activities being probed would no longer be illegal. The bill, also sponsored by Sen. Mary Lazich (R), is currently pending before her Elections and Urban Affairs Committee.

The John Doe investigation is ongoing, though an earlier investigation into illegal coordination between Walker’s 2010 campaign and his Milwaukee County Executive office staff is now closed.