MADISON (AP) – A Republican prosecutor running for attorney general opted not to investigate whether a legislator improperly collaborated with a campaign donor on a bill, saying the liberal attack group that demanded the probe never produced any evidence of wrongdoing.
One Wisconsin Now asked Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel months ago to look into whether Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, violated any laws by working closely with former Columbus Mayor Michael Eisenga on a bill that would have reduced child support payments for wealthy parents. Eisenga, who has donated thousands of dollars to Kleefisch and his wife, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefish, since 2005, was looking to reduce his child support payments.
Kleefisch ultimately killed the bill in January amid intense media scrutiny. He said he never promised Eisenga anything but knew the measure had no support.
One Wisconsin Now sent the request for an investigation the same day Kleefisch withdrew the measure. On Wednesday the group’s executive director, Scot Ross, released an email Schimel wrote nine days after he got the request.
Schimel said in the message that lawmakers shouldn’t solicit contributions in exchange for specific actions but that it’s not improper for lawmakers to work with campaign donors on legislation. He called such collaboration the “essence of representative government.”
“Don’t people make political contributions based upon their beliefs as to what the elected official will do in office all of the time?” Schimel wrote. “Once the individual is convinced the particular official will act a certain way, why can’t that citizen make otherwise legal campaign contributions?”
Schimel demanded Ross produce evidence of wrongdoing, saying that to proceed without any would be equivalent to a witch hunt. Schimel’s campaign manager, John Koremenos, said Ross never responded.
Ross told reporters Wednesday he found Schimel’s reasoning “unbelievable.” He said it suggests the prosecutor believes lawmakers can be bought and sold. Asked why he never responded with any evidence, Ross said it was Schimel’s job to investigate.
Pressed on why he released Schimel’s email now, five months after he wrote it, Ross was vague, saying only “there’s a lot going on.”
Campaign finance reports show Schimel’s campaign gave Kleefisch’s campaign $100 in June 2012 and $1,000 this past December. Kleefisch’s campaign gave Schimel $1,000 this past November.
Kleefisch said in an interview Wednesday he has spent years working on the bill with fathers’ rights group Dads of Wisconsin in addition to Eisenga. He maintained that lawmakers constantly work with constituents on bills and he never promised anyone anything. He accused Ross of “vomiting out” baseless political attacks.
Schimel is the only Republican running for attorney general; incumbent Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen isn’t seeking re-election. Schimel will face the winner of an Aug. 12 Democratic primary between Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ and Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee in November.
Richards issued a statement accusing Schimel of dismissing concerns about pay-for-play politics in Wisconsin. Happ and Ozanne’s campaigns didn’t immediately return email messages.