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Wisconsin ethics commission refers Trump fundraising arm for prosecution

MADISON, Wis. — A bipartisan ethics panel in Wisconsin has recommended felony charges against one of Donald Trump’s fundraising arms in relation to an alleged scheme that it says was meant to circumvent campaign finance laws to take out a powerful GOP lawmaker who has turned against Trump.

The prosecution referrals became public Friday and add to the legal troubles of the former president, who is already facing 91 charges in four cases in other jurisdictions.

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission this week found probable cause that Trump’s Save America committee, a state lawmaker and multiple local Republican officials committed felonies and recommended six district attorneys investigate and prosecute them, according to records released Friday.

The commission’s investigation centers on the 2022 primary race between Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the most influential Republicans in Wisconsin, and Adam Steen, a political newcomer who embraced Trump.

Individuals and most political entities can give a maximum of $1,000 each to candidates for the Wisconsin Assembly under state law, but arms of political parties can give them unlimited amounts. The commission alleges that Steen, his campaign and three county Republican parties arranged to sidestep campaign finance laws by having donors give money to one of the county parties, which would then steer it to Steen’s campaign or his vendors, according to the records released Friday.

Save America donated $15,000 to the county parties in August 2022 — $5,000 each to the Republican parties of Chippewa, Florence and Langlade counties. They are the only donations Save America made to county parties in 2021 and 2022, campaign finance records show.

Neither the Trump campaign nor Steen responded to requests for comment Friday. The website WisPolitics first reported on the referrals.

The ethics commission made its referral against Save America and its agents but did not identify anyone with Save America by name. It alleged that those involved in the efforts committed felonies that can result in penalties of up to 3½ years in prison and fines of $10,000. Additional penalties could be in play if prosecutors pursue conspiracy charges.

In addition to Save America, the commission referred for prosecution Steen’s campaign, the three county parties and nine individuals, including county party officials and donors.

Vos has had a tumultuous relationship with Trump for years, especially since the former president baselessly alleged the 2020 election in Wisconsin was rigged against him.

Hoping to appease Trump and his supporters, Vos hired a former state Supreme Court justice to conduct an election review, which centered on conspiracy theories and false claims that the legislature could revoke the state’s electoral votes for Joe Biden.

Trump claimed Vos did not pursue the investigation with enough vigor and endorsed Steen as he made his out-of-nowhere primary challenge to Vos in 2022. Vos narrowly won that primary, and now Steen’s allies are gathering signatures in hopes of holding a recall election of Vos.

Special investigators hired by the commission determined Steen’s campaign advised those who wanted to give more than $1,000 to his campaign to make their donations to the Republican Party of Langlade County — a rural outpost in northern Wisconsin that is more than 200 miles from the district in southeastern Wisconsin where Steen was challenging Vos. Steen’s campaign told donors to write “63” in the memo line of their checks to the county party, in an apparent reference to Vos’s district number, according to the referral.

In all, more than $40,000 went to Steen’s campaign through the Langlade County party, according to the ethics commission.

Steen recorded many of his phone calls, and the conservative website Wisconsin Right Now obtained copies of them in late 2022. The recordings include one in which Terry Brand, the chairman of the Langlade County party, told Steen they would later identify another county party to help “wash that money.”

“We’re playing musical money here, right?” Steen said during that phone call, according to the recording.

Brand said in an interview that he was joking when he mentioned finding someone to “wash” money and noted Vos sponsored the state law that allows parties to make unlimited donations. “I think everything we did was perfectly legal,” he said.

Vos appointed one of the six ethics commissioners, and Brand said he believed the commission was coming after him and the others because they had opposed him. “Robin Vos wants to make sure that nobody ever dares to support a candidate that’s running against him,” Brand said. Vos declined to comment.

The Langlade County party’s support for Steen was widely known, which may have inspired donors to give to it, said Brand and Leonard Boltz, the party’s vice chairman. The county party has been focused on getting rid of Vos because he hasn’t done more to investigate the state’s elections and has blocked attempts to remove the state’s nonpartisan elections director, Boltz said

Brand and Boltz said there was never an agreement to help donors get around campaign finance limits by giving to the county party. The commission recommended charges against both.

“We got our money from people and we sent a fair amount of that money to Adam Steen, but it was never directed to do that,” Boltz said. “There was never a contract. Nothing was signed. Nothing was — verbally, there was nothing. So this is a baseless charge.”

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R), who in 2022 served as chair of the Assembly’s elections committee, was also part of the alleged scheme, according to the commission. Brandtjen did not respond to requests for comment.

The ethics commission consists of three Republicans and three Democrats. It referred charges to Republican prosecutors in six counties because Wisconsin law requires campaign finance cases to be prosecuted where the alleged perpetrator lives if they are a state resident. For out-of-state residents and entities, such as Save America, the alleged violations are prosecuted where they occurred.

If the district attorneys do not act within 60 days, the commission has the authority to refer its request for prosecution to Attorney General Josh Kaul (D). Under state law, the commission must conduct most of its investigative work in secret. It is rare for it to pursue serious charges.

Patricia Hanson, the district attorney in Racine County, said she would make a decision quickly on the referral the commission made against Steen’s campaign. Waukesha County District Attorney Sue Opper said she needed more information from the ethics commission before she could determine how she would proceed. Karl Anderson, the district attorney in St. Croix County, said he did not know how long he would need to determine what to do with a referral he received.

Other prosecutors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Clara Ence Morse contributed to this report from Washington.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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