State Sen. Patrick Testin accepted donations over the legal maximum from several donors
BY PETER CAMERON
State Sen. Patrick Testin’s 2020 campaign appears to have violated campaign finance law, according to an independent analysis of public records by the Point/Plover Metro Wire and The Badger Project.
By law, candidates for state Senate can only accept a maximum of $2,000 in campaign contributions from most donors per 4-year election cycle.
But Testin’s campaign accepted more than $2,000 from a handful of donors.
“When it was determined that mistakes may have been made, Senator Testin set about to ensure that the campaign was in compliance,” the senator’s office said in an emailed statement. “The campaign has been in contact with the Ethics Commission and the matter is being addressed.”
The campaign collected a total of $8,800 in over-the-limit donations, a small portion of the nearly $750,000 it raised for the 2020 election. Some of those donors said they had been refunded, though it’s unclear if that happened before or after the The Badger Project inquired. And even for refunded or amended contributions, most needed to be done by now to avoid violations. It does not appear the campaign reported did this by the reporting deadline.
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 Point/Plover Metro Wire and The Badger Project filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission to get clarity on the possible violations, triggering an inquiry.
The donors who went over the limit include individuals and trade associations.
David Ludington, an Onalaska dentist, Louis Wysocki, a farmer from Custer and James Hoffman, the owner of Hoffman Construction in Black River Falls, all gave Testin over the maximum by about $500-$1000.
Ludington and Hoffman did not return messages seeking comment. Attempts to reach Wysocki were unsuccessful.
The Wisconsin Association of Nurse Anesthetists and the Wisconsin Bankers Association each donated $1,000 over the limit to Testin.
Stevens Point car dealer Michael Dudas gave Testin’s 2020 campaign $6,000, but told said he was refunded the additional $4,000.
The Wisconsin Credit Union League gave the campaign $3,000. Sarah Wainscott, a senior vice president at The League, said the donation had been made in error.
“It is our understanding a refund check is on its way,” she wrote in an email.
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, Carlton said. The money raised by settlements goes to the state’s Common School Fund, which gives revenue to public school districts.
The Wisconsin 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 Wisconsin 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.