A major donor to Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign was charged Monday with two felonies after an investigation discovered he illegally contributed more than $50,000 to political campaigns throughout the state.
Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Company CEO William Gardner will plead guilty to the felonies after he violated two state laws. After contributing the maximum amount for an individual, Gardner asked his employees to give money to Republican campaigns, including Walker’s. Gardner then reimbursed those employees who donated with money from his corporation, Executive Director of the Government Accountability Board Kevin Kennedy said during a press conference.
Wisconsin law prohibits corporations from donating money and furnishing funds to another person to make a political contribution.
“In short, Mr. Gardner, as owner, president and CEO of Wisconsin and Southern Railroad, engineered a scheme to launder over $50,000 in political contributions to several political committees, including Friends of Scott Walker, Friends of Mike Sheridan and the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee,” Kennedy said.
The prosecutor, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, is not recommending any jail time because Gardner cooperated with authorities last year by admitting to the contributions after his girlfriend notified GAB. But the DA is asking for Gardner to receive two-year probation to prevent him from voting, Kennedy said.
Wisconsin and Southern Railroad has already paid a forfeiture of $166,690. This is the largest settlement in the history of the GAB and reflects the size and scope of Gardner’s scheme, Kennedy said.
Each of the seven employees involved will pay a forfeiture of $250 for breaking state law by accepting funds to make a political contribution, Kennedy added.
“Our hope is that this action will reinforce the obligation on a part of corporate entities to properly follow both the spirit and the letter of the law as it relates to financing candidates in Wisconsin,” Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf said.
Executive Director of Common Cause in Wisconsin Jay Heck predicted Wisconsin may see more of this kind of activity unless the Legislature reforms campaign finance laws.
“Last fall we saw a $40 million campaign for governor,” Heck said. “It’s only a matter of time before we see something like the Gardner case again.”
Gardner had his employees made 11 political contributions totaling $53,800 between November 2009 and April 2010. Of that amount, $49,800 went to the Friends of Scott Walker committee, while the remaining $4,000 went to former Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, and the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee, Kennedy said.
The case came to the attention of the GAB when Gardner’s girlfriend became involved with a domestic dispute with him and reported the contribution requests, Chisholm said. The investigation began soon after.
The Friends of Scott Walker Committee returned almost all the funds they received, which Gardner then donated them to the American Cancer Society, Chisholm said.
The Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee gave the money they received from Gardner to a school fund, and Sheridan has donated half of the money received to charity and will donate the rest soon, Landgraf said.