Capitol Report Keeping control of campaign finance accounts

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More than two years after he left the state Legislature, former GOP state Sen. Mike Ellis still has his campaign finance account, in part, because he knows what closing it down means: The end.

It's been 47 years since Ellis, R-Neenah, won his first election to the state Assembly and three since he suddenly dropped his re-election bid following the release of an embarrassing secretly recorded video.

BUT THE former Senate leader is just now preparing to start closing out his account by creating a foundation where he will send the money and then dole it out to charities in the Fox Valley.

He compared the delay to former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre's repeated flirtations with retirement before he finally went to play for the New York Jets and then the Minnesota Vikings.

"It's difficult when you close that baby down," Ellis told recently. "You know that it's time to accept the fact that you're not 29, you're 76."

ELLIS is by no means alone among former state lawmakers and candidates who still have accounts open years after they leave office.

Under state law, past candidates have four options for their leftover contributions. They can keep the accounts open and continue spending the money on political activities so long as they comply with reporting requirements. They also can return it to donors, give it to the common school fund or donate it to charity.

Ellis is creating the Michael G. Ellis Charitable Foundation, filing paperwork with the IRS. He had $115,248 left in his campaign account at the end of June after spending $6,418 during the first six months of 2017. That includes donations of $2,000 each to GOP Sens. Rob Cowles, a long-time colleague from Green Bay, and Roger Roth, who replaced him in the Appleton-area Senate seat and is now the Senate president. He also gave $1,000 each to GOP Sens. Devin LeMahieu, of Oostburg, and Jerry Petrowski, of Marathon.

ELLIS said he spent about six months working on the foundation, though he admitted to sometimes still having the desire to run again.

"But after watching what's been going on over the last year and half, I'm not interested in running for anything," Ellis said.

The leftover campaign accounts also create a possible conflict for the former candidates who keep them open while lobbying the state Legislature.

State law only allows lobbyists to personally contribute to a candidate from the day nomination papers are circulated through Election Day. However, they are allowed to deliver a contribution at any time from a PAC or a conduit.

Administrator Brian Bell said the Ethics Commission has not addressed whether a lobbyist with an active campaign account is making a personal donation if they use the fund to donate to a candidate or it should be considered delivering a contribution from a committee.

FORMER GOP state Sen. Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn resigned from the Legislature in 2014 to become president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association and is a registered lobbyist.

He also continues to have a campaign account, which he used to donate $1,000 to Roth June 28, which is in the window during which lobbyists cannot directly contribute to a candidate. It was the first donation he's made to a candidate through the fund since resigning from the Legislature.

Kedzie, who had $41,607 left in the account at the end of June, said he was operating under the belief the donation counted as a committee to committee transfer and did not run afoul of the lobbyist contribution ban.

He also said he'd continued to hang onto the account initially because of the possibility he may want to return to public office. But he said in a interview about the fund was a reminder he "should probably just make a decision what I should do."

A check of campaign finance reports and lobbying records turned up several other former lawmakers who continue to have campaign accounts after becoming lobbyists. They include two former Assembly speakers.

JEFF Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, and John Gard, R-Peshtigo, notified the Ethics Commission this month they didn't raise or spend anything during the most recent six-month period. Fitzgerald, who left the Assembly after 2012, last reported activity in the last half of 2016 and still had $3,271 in the account at the end of the year. Gard, who left the Assembly after 2006, when he made a bid for Congress, hasn't reported any activity in at least eight years.

And former U.S. Rep. Mark Green, the president's pick to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, has started emptying out his state campaign account more than a decade after losing his bid for governor.

The Green Bay Republican made $70,000 in charitable contributions this spring, including $50,000 to the World Orphan Fund, a group headed by longtime GOP operative R.J. Johnson. Green is a member of the group's advisory board.

He also gave $10,000 to the International Conservation Caucus Foundation and $5,000 each to the Joseph P. Mettner Foundation and World Teach.

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