FOX 11 Investigates: Mayor Schmitt campaign finance case

Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt (Photo courtesy City of Green Bay)

GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- Green Bay mayor Jim Schmitt is expected to be sentenced Monday morning for charges that he violated the state's campaign finance laws.

As part of a plea deal with the special prosecutor from Milwaukee, Schmitt is expected to plead guilty to three misdemeanors.

Schmitt, who first elected Green Bay mayor in April 2003 and re-elected three times, has led the effort to revitalize downtown, develop the waterfront and bring the Zippin Pippin to Bay Beach.

"He thought he was above the law," said alderman Guy Zima who is a frequent critic of the mayor. Zima is one of the three council members who brought attention to the issue nearly two years ago, accusing the mayor of accepting illegal campaign contributions.

"I have absolutely no respect for him," Zima said. "And time has caught up with him. This guy intentionally committed many, many violations. It's time for him to go."

"I think it's a big deal in that it reflects on the city of Green Bay," said alderman Bill Galvin, who was just elected in April. He says the case has affected the city.

"It's going to be tough going forward. I think it's going to get ugly before it gets better," Galvin said.

When the allegations were first made, Schmitt insisted any errors were not intentional. He vowed to fix them.

"If there is anything wrong, we're definitely going to make it right," Schmitt told FOX 11 in January 2015.

Schmitt did try to fix it by amending his campaign finance reports. And according to special prosecutor Bruce Landgraf, that's essentially what led to the criminal charges. In a court filing last week, Landgraf wrote, "This is a case where the cover-up was the real crime."

Landgraf wrote that instead of "...making it right through legal means..." Schmitt "...chose to lie..." about who donated to his campaign and how much money they gave.

According to the criminal complaint, the mayor changed the names of some donors who gave him more than the contribution limit of $1,040 by writing in the names of the family members of those contributors.

Landgraf says the mayor even "invented a non-existent person."

In a separate filing last week, Schmitt's attorney, Patrick Knight, blamed it all on "...a poorly managed campaign...." and "...a misunderstanding of the laws."

Knight added that the mayor was relying on "...advice..." he now knows was "...ill-advised..." that it was okay to list excess contributions to a donor's family members.

As a result of the investigation, Schmitt is now facing three misdemeanors. But under the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to ask the judge for any jail time or probation. Instead, the state is recommending Schmitt be fined a total of $4,000 and be required to perform 40 hours of community service.

The defense is asking for a $1,500 fine.

"If this stuff doesn't violate the public trust, I don't know what does," Zima said.

Zima says once the court case is wrapped up, the council may try to remove the mayor. It can do that with a three-quarters vote. If that doesn't happen, Zima says a recall election is possible.

"One way or another, he's got to face the public for all that he's done," Zima said.

Galvin, who sits on the city's ethics committee, says the council needs to be patient.

"Hopefully when this is all done, we'll take our time, we'll sift through the facts, not the rumor, not the innuendo, and we'll make a good decision going forward what's best for the city," Galvin said.

As for Schmitt, he has refused to comment on the case until it's settled in court.

He did release a statement when the charges were first issued in September. In it, the mayor apologized to the city and wrote that while he disagrees with some of the prosecutor's conclusions, Schmitt does not dispute the factual findings nor the prosecutor’s belief that all responsibility for accuracy and compliance rests with Schmitt.

When asked if the mayor can effectively lead the city after this, Galvin replied, "That's a good question."

If Schmitt stays in office, he will have some work to do. FOX 11 asked Cole Buergi, who is the vice-president of Leonard and Finco public relations, about how people can rebuild their image. He says while it is difficult, it can be done.

"It really applies to just about anybody. If you did something wrong admit it. But be apologetic and accept the responsibilities that come with it. Then move forward," Buergi said. "And make sure you don't do it again."

As part of the plea deal, the mayor has agreed to dissolve his campaign committee. The $23,000 left in his campaign account was transferred to the school fund, which helps fund school libraries across the state.

Schmitt has promised to answer questions about what happened once the case is resolved.

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