Stateline Story

Probe Clouds Wisconsin Legislature

  • December 11, 2001
  • By Doug Cunningham
An investigation is underway of Wisconsin's legislature that threatens to reach all the way to Republican Scott Jensen, the Assembly Speaker, and Democrat Chuck Chvala, the Senate Majority Leader. At issue are charges that caucus staffers who answer to the legislative leaders illegally used state resources for partisan campaigning.

The charges have led to the dismantling of the caucuses in a deal between the legislature and the state Ethics and Elections boards, legal action by watchdog groups and political infighting among state officials.

Lawyers defending the caucus staff have collected nearly $300,000 in tax money, triggering a lawsuit by the civic action group Common Cause. Wisconsin Attorney General Jim Doyle, a Democrat, says the payments are illegal and wants to join the suit to stop them. But Republican Gov. Scott McCallum opposes such a move.

McCallum says he welcomes outside legal action, but doesn't want the state involved because he says this would soak taxpayers further. McCallum says he dislikes what went on in the caucuses, but his criticism has been muted.

Bert Grover, a former Democratic state representative and state schools superintendent who now serves on the governing board of Common Cause, says Wisconsin's government is in the worst ethical shape since the pre-Bob LaFollette era.

LaFollette, a progressive icon, championed political reform in his state and the nation in the early 20th Century. He was Wisconsin governor from 1901 to 1905, and went on to serve as a U.S. senator until his death in 1925.

"Our legislators, when confronted with contemporary corruption and self-granted privilege, display only arrogance and disdain. They have no shame," Grover says.

A powerful series of investigative reports by The Wisconsin State Journal exposed what many capitol insiders had known for years - that legislative caucus staffs which were supposed to assist lawmakers in developing public policy were instead systematically used illegally for partisan political campaigning.

The non-partisan watchdog groups Common Cause and The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign pushed the state Ethics and Elections boards to probe the alleged violations of state election law.

Instead of investigating, the supposedly independent boards cut a deal with legislative leaders to abolish the caucuses and fined each of the four caucuses $20,000.

The deal allowed legislative leaders to hire more staff members, creating what Common Cause calls "shadow caucuses -- potentially leaving the door open to continue the illegal partisan campaigning on state resources.

The scandal has expanded to include criminal probes not only of former caucus staffers, but also of the men who controlled them - Jensen and Chvala. There have been allegations by unnamed lobbyists that campaign contributions were solicited in return for moving legislation.

What began as a story of possible election law violations by legislative employees has become full-blown government scandal that could lead to felony indictments.

Among the allegations being looked into -- illegal campaigning on state resources, destruction of documents covered by the state's open records law, and pressuring lobbyists for campaign contributions to get action on legislation.

Prosecutors Michael McCann in Milwaukee and Brian Blanchard in the capitol of Madison have granted immunity to about a dozen former caucus staffers in an effort to glean information about what role if any top leaders played in the scandal.

A grand jury has been empanelled and Common Cause says it believes law enforcement has questioned the leaders of the Assembly and the State Senate.

Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala both deny any wrongdoing, but otherwise have been tightlipped about the probe. Many other lawmakers are silent on the corruption issue as well.

Just last week, newspapers reported that a staff member for Republican Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti illegally worked full time on campaign fundraising rather than legislative business. Foti says there was no violation of state law. The state's Republican Party accused Democratic State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Gary George of taking a staffer on a campaign swing through northern Wisconsin while the staffer was supposed to be working on state business.

The district attorneys leading the probe of the legislature aren't talking publicly about what they've found, and nobody knows when or where the investigation will end. Government watchdog groups portray the investigation as a struggle for the soul of Wisconsin government.