Longtime state legislator accepted donations over the legal maximum from several donors
BY PETER CAMERON, THE BADGER PROJECT
On the way to raising and spending more than $2.2 million in their race for the 8th District, state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and her defeated opponent Democrat Neal Plotkin may have committed some violations of campaign finance law.
Darling appears to have accepted nearly $7,000 in over-the-limit campaign contributions in the 2020 election cycle, according to an analysis by The Badger Project.
It would be her second consecutive election violating campaign finance law.
Plotkin appears to have accepted about $1,200 in over-the limit contributions, though he said his campaign recognized the error and returned the excess.
Darling did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The Wisconsin Ethics Commission, which oversees and enforces campaign finance, runs regular audits of campaign contributions, but cannot investigate a potential violation unless someone files a notarized complaint, said Daniel Carlton, the Ethics Commission’s administrator.
So the Ethics Commission would not confirm or deny the campaign had violated campaign finance law.
The Badger Project filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission to get clarity on the possible violations, triggering an inquiry.
Even if the suspected violations are confirmed, no one is going to jail.
The Ethics Commission does not generally seek enforcement against the donor, Carlton said. But it will ask campaigns to pay a settlement for violations, usually matching the amount exceeding the limit, he added. The money raised by settlements goes to the state’s Common School Fund, which gives revenue to public school districts.
Darling, who represents the wealthy northern suburbs of Milwaukee and is often a big fundraiser, has been penalized for violating campaign finance limits before.
In her previous reelection campaign in 2016, for which she ran unopposed, the Ethics Commission found Darling had accepted a total of about $3,000 in over-the-limit contributions from several people, according to state records. That’s from a total raised of more than $600,000 for her 2016 campaign. She repaid the overage amount to the Ethics Commission in 2018, according to state records.
The Ethics Commission was “designed to be weak,” said Kenneth Mayer, a UW-Madison political science professor and an expert on campaign finance, in an email.
In 2016, the Republican-controlled state legislature abolished the Ethics Commission’s predecessor, the stronger and more independent Government Accountability Board, accusing it of political bias when it investigated then-Gov. Scott Walker for alleged campaign finance violations.
The legislature divided the GAB into the Ethics Commission and the Wisconsin Elections Commission, both of which are controlled by a board of commissioners split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
Across the country, “it’s true as a general rule that campaign finance regulatory agencies are designed to be weak,” Mayer said.
“There are some exceptions (California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, perhaps), but it’s not hard to see why legislators are happy to have enforcement structures that are not aggressive,” he added.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.