Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Democrats Blast GOP Opponent for Attorney General

Was Brad Schimel lax in prosecuting alleged pay to play or are Democratic AG candidates blowing smoke?

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Brad Schimel

Brad Schimel

Brad Schimel, the lone Republican candidate for state attorney general, ignited a firestorm with his response to a letter alleging pay-to-play politics.

“What law do you believe has been violated?” asked Schimel, the district attorney of Waukesha County, in an email response to One Wisconsin Now. The liberal advocacy group had urged him to investigate a state lawmaker who introduced a bill that would have helped a wealthy donor.

“Why can’t a legislator press for legislation that benefits a person who has contributed to their campaign?” Schimel’s email continued. “Isn’t that the essence of representative government?”One Wisconsin Now called Schimel’s response, which it received in January and made public in June (after the race for AG was in full swing), “shocking and disappointing.” Schimel’s remarks were also blasted by the three Democrats vying in the Aug. 12 primary for the right to be his opponent this fall.

“He openly says that there’s nothing wrong with a contributor to a politician asking for special favors,” clucked state Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee.

“Schimel’s comments suggest that those with power and money will have a greater ability to influence legislation,” charged Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne chimed in: “Schimel and his Republican friends need to focus on making our communities safer, not protecting their pay-to-play buddies and stripping voters’ access to democracy.”

But beyond the spin, it isn’t clear that Schimel and his Democratic rivals are all that far apart.

The case at hand concerned a donor who was allowed to help draft a bill that would have eased his child support burden. The lawmaker who introduced the bill, state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, withdrew it after the extent of the donor’s involvement came to light.

Schimel, in his email, asserted that “politicians should not solicit financial support in exchange for taking specific actions.” He adds in an interview that he has no reason to believe this occurred; his request to One Wisconsin Now for additional evidence went unanswered.

“There was nothing that suggested there was any kind of pay to play,” Schimel says. “Why is it wrong for a citizen who believes they have been wronged by a law to lobby a legislator, just as all sorts of special interests do?”

The three Democrats, in separate interviews, agree that Schimel should have done more to investigate. “It might be criminal,” Richards says. “At a minimum, it doesn’t pass the smell test.”

But all three stop well short of asserting that any laws were broken. “There may not be anything,” Ozanne says. An investigation, Happ says, “absolutely” could have concluded that no crime occurred.

In fact, the Democrats and Schimel largely agree on what conduct is against the law — money for favors, quid pro quo. The only dispute is whether Schimel looked hard enough.

All four candidates say the attorney general can play an important role on issues of campaign finance and public integrity.

“I think it’s unfortunate we’ve seen money so permeate the process,” Happ says. “We’ve got to work toward restoring people’s trust.” Ozanne offers similar statements about the office’s need to protect “the integrity of the system.”

Richards specifically calls for more transparency from independent groups in elections, while acknowledging that recent court rulings have made that more difficult.

Schimel also considers openness an important value but adds, “I don’t know that we can go much further with transparency given how the courts have ruled.” He supports keeping the state’s current per-candidate contribution limits and its ban on corporate contributions.

The three Democrats declined to say, even ballpark, how much they plan to raise and spend. “We don’t want to show our hand,” Happ says. “That will all be reported,” adds Richards.

Schimel is less coy. “I’m hoping to raise and spend between $750,000 and $1 million,” he says, earning points for transparency.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

2 thoughts on “Democrats Blast GOP Opponent for Attorney General”

  1. Beer Baron says:

    Schimel is no stranger to this. Keep in mind he let Scott Jensen walk and his excuse at the time was basically he was too lazy to prosecute Jensen. Even funnier story is literally a couple days later, he went to Walker’s inauguration an sat with Jensen. A friend of mine was a reporter at The Freeman who went to inauguration and actually got a photo of the two of them walking in together, but they quickly split when they saw him. I know he said they never ran the photo but I guess it’s still in existence somewhere. He showed it to me because I didn’t believe him, but there they are, laughing together. If there is no better proof that Schimel is a pawn for these big money interests it’s that reckless display of chumminess with a guy he was just supposed to prosecute.

  2. Urban Dweller says:

    Now Schimel has been busted by Politfact for falsely accusing Richards of planning to enforce only laws with which he agrees. If it were true that would indeed be wrong for an AG to do, but at least it would be a principled stance; Schimel has made it clear he will only enforce laws that don’t adversely impact his political bedfellows. That’s corruption.

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