MADISON (AP) – The Wisconsin Republican Party filed a complaint Tuesday with the state elections board over a full-page newspaper ad by Trek Bicycle Corp., saying it amounts to an illegal contribution to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke.
She is the sister of Trek president John Burke. Their father started the company in the 1970s and Mary Burke previously worked there as a top executive.
Mary Burke has touted her connections with Trek during the campaign, while Walker has tried to sully those ties by pointing out that Trek manufactures bikes in China. Trek is the largest manufacturer of bikes in the United States, but it also has plants in China, Germany and Holland.
Last week Walker launched a television ad saying Burke made millions while working for a company that shipped jobs overseas where woman and children earn as little as $2 an hour. He unveiled a second ad accusing Burke of outsourcing jobs on Tuesday:
The ads, coming from the pro-business Walker, were even more unusual given that his administration just two years ago lauded Trek and made it one of five companies at the center of a marketing drive to attract other businesses to Wisconsin.
Both John and Mary Burke separately defended Trek, noting that it employs 1,000 people in the state and contributes $100 million to Wisconsin’s economy annually.
On Sunday, Trek ran a full-page newspaper advertisement in both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal reacting to the Walker ad and defending the company.
“Governor Walker’s campaign recently ran an inaccurate political ad about Trek,” John Burke wrote in the newspaper ad. “This compels me to set the record straight.”
Trek spokeswoman Marina Marich said Monday in reaction to the complaint that the newspaper ad was legal under state law and was constitutionally protected free speech.
“Trek is disappointed to see yet another attack on it by Governor Walker’s campaign,” Marich said.
The complaint comes in the midst of the ongoing legal fight over what extent third party groups like Trek can get involved with campaigns, specifically whether it’s legal for them to run issue advertising that doesn’t explicitly call for electing or defeating a particular candidate.
Prosecutors in 2012 began investigating Walker’s recall campaign and a host of third party conservative groups for alleged campaign law violations, arguing that issue ads run by Wisconsin Club for Growth and others amounted to illegal in-kind campaign contributions.
A federal judge in May stopped the investigation, saying that government can’t regulate groups running issue ads that don’t expressly support or oppose a candidate. Prosecutors are appealing.
Both Burke’s campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki, and the Trek spokeswoman, said there was no coordination between the two over the newspaper ad. Trek’s ad did not mention Mary Burke by name or call on voters to support her over Walker.
Republican Party executive director Joe Fadness alleges in the complaint that the ad violates Wisconsin state law prohibiting corporations from making donations to candidates.
Fadness says the newspaper ad uses “corporate funds to buttress the stated position of the Burke for Wisconsin Campaign Committee,” and uses language parroting Burke’s talking points.
Fadness asked the Government Accountability Board to commence an investigation. The board does not comment on pending complaints.
Burke continued the criticism of Walker’s ad on Monday.
“For him to drag a great Wisconsin company through the mud is bad for business – it’s all about politics with him,” she said in a statement. “If he knew more about business he would understand the global marketplace and how you compete worldwide.”
Walker has stood by the initial ad, saying the Burke campaign has never disputed its factual accuracy. Instead, he said Monday, Burke is trying to take credit for Trek’s successes while distancing herself from less savory aspects of the business.
Both last week’s ad and the new one Walker released Tuesday do not mention Trek by name. Instead, they refer to her company or the family business.
Burke spent nearly three years as secretary of the Commerce Department under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. She also worked twice for Trek, leaving most recently in 2004. This year’s run for governor is her first statewide campaign.
A May poll from the Marquette University Law School showed the race tied among registered voters. A new poll was slated to be released Wednesday.