Category: Investigations

Wisconsin’s Full-Time (Lite) Legislature

The Wisconsin State Legislature meets in full just a few days a year, but is considered – and paid like – a full-time legislative body. What’s up with that?

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After Loosening of Campaign Finance Laws, Cash Poured into 2018 Race for NW WI State Senate Seat

Democrat incumbent survived huge wave of independent spending

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SIX OUT OF SEVEN: Wisconsin Supreme Court has highest percentage of high court female justices in the country

Historic all-woman bench possible if elections next week and next year break that way

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Record Campaign Cash Raised in Southwestern Wisconsin State Senate Race

Big name spenders include DeVos, Steyer, Koch, Jobs in rural district


A $53,000 salary. Nearly $1.5 million raised to win the seat.

One of the fiercest battles for control of the state Senate last year was fought in the 17th District, which covers much of the southwestern corner of the state and includes Reedsburg, Platteville and Monroe.

In his successful attempt to retain his seat, state Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) set a Wisconsin State Legislature record this election cycle, raising more than $900,000. That’s the largest haul of campaign contributions brought in by a general election candidate this century, and likely in the history of the legislature*, according to an investigation by The Badger Project.

His Democrat challenger, Kriss Marion, a 51-year-old organic farmer and county board member from Blanchardville, was no slouch either. She raised nearly $600,000 in her losing bid. Combined, the nearly $1.5 million raised by the two candidates also sets a state legislature record for most direct contributions to a general election race this century, and also likely in the history of the state legislature*.

The pair raised, and mostly spent, that record-setting amount to land a part-time state senator job that pays $52,999 a year.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said former state Sen. Dale Schultz, who represented the district from 1991 until 2015.


The 17th State Senate District is a long, vertical strip of the state’s Driftless Area that runs north from the Mississippi River and Illinois border about 125 miles before stopping just short of Wisconsin Rapids.

The district touches nine counties and includes Schultz’s farm near Richland Center, Marion’s farm near Blanchardville, and the farm where Marklein, now 64, grew up in Spring Green.

The 17th State Senate District, in green.
The 17th State Senate District, in green.

Marklein, a member of the legislature since 2011 and the Senate since 2015, is retired from his career as a certified public accountant for the accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly. In Madison, Marklein sits on the powerful Joint Committee on Finance and chairs the Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions. The married father and grandfather has proven to be an effective fundraiser, bringing in nearly $500,000 in his successful first campaign for state Senate in 2014, according to campaign finance data.

Marion was making her first run for state legislature, but is no novice to life in the spotlight. The former newspaper reporter and married mother of four often appears in local media as an advocate for female farmers, clean water and the region. She heightened her public profile significantly while part of a trio that successfully challenged a state law banning bake sales.

On first glance, the rural district doesn’t seem to be a place where political donors would pour in cash. Schultz, a Republican, said he remembered raising about $10,000 for his first campaign for Assembly in 1982. His own personal record came in the 2006 campaign, when he raised more than $300,000 while serving as majority leader of the state Senate.

In 2013, then-state Rep. Marklein announced he would run against him in the 2014 Republican primary election for his seat. Schultz retired and declined to endorse Marklein.

Marklein went on to beat a Democrat challenger in the general election that year, taking 55 percent and winning by more than 6,400 votes.

Against Marion in 2018, his margin narrowed slightly as he took 54 percent and won by about 5,700 votes.

State Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green)
State Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green)

After receiving requests for an interview for this story, Marklein replied with a six-sentence email statement.

“The 2018 elections are over,” he wrote in the first section of his email. “I prefer to focus on policy and service rather than divisive criticism and politics. My focus is on serving the people I represent and working hard for Wisconsin.”

Schultz, a 65-year-old moderate Republican who supported Democrat Tony Evers for governor but said he did not get involved in this race, credited Marion with running an “incredible grassroots campaign” with lots of people and energy.

In a phone interview, Marion said she “was really well-suited to the area.”

“I think I was a good candidate and I was well liked by Democrats. And I raised a ton of money,” she said. “And to only move (the vote) a percentage point is kind of shocking.”


Since Republicans drew the district maps in 2010, they have mostly held a majority in the 33-member state Senate, including an 18-15 majority in 2018.

Democrats had hoped to surf a blue wave of liberal voter energy this year to take both the 17th District and the entire Senate, said Joe Heim, a professor emeritus of political science at UW-La Crosse.

The 17th District had previously backed Barack Obama for president, but voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Heim noted, an encouraging sign for the GOP that it could be held.

“With a lot of cash,” Heim said.

Before Marion even announced her campaign in February 2018, the incumbent Marklein had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state. That gave him a strong head start and the ability to buy TV and radio advertising, especially in the closing weeks and days of the campaign.

Logging thousands of miles across the long district in her red, former fire department pickup truck during the campaign, Marion said she constantly heard radio ads purchased by Marklein’s campaign or on his behalf by outside groups.

Kriss Marion
Kriss Marion, a Democrat from Blanchardville

“My name came up negatively every minute when you’re driving,” Marion said. “You’re changing from station to station and it’s just relentless.”

Marion drew some attention from the national press late in the campaign, appearing in New York Times pieces about Wisconsin state politics and polluted groundwater. That exposure, she said, and other late media pieces helped boost her fundraising as she hurtled toward the finish line. But most radio and TV time had been sold at that point, she said, blunting her messaging and hurting her ability to answer her opponent’s ads.

Looking at Marklein’s donors, he received the maximum donation of $2,000 from many businesses and groups, including Charter Communications, the Potawatomi Native American Tribe, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation and Wal-Mart.


His fundraising record of more than $900,000 in the 2018 general election campaign was actually topped by state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills). She raised more than $1 million in her successful 2011 recall election, according to campaign finance data. But fewer restrictions and limits exist in state law for those rare elections, making it easier to raise money.

Marion’s donors included several unions representing teachers, electrical workers, engineers and carpenters. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, gave her the maximum, and she also got two $2,000 checks from Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, the billionaire couple and prominent liberal donors.


With the balance of the Senate on the line and a potential blue wave motivating both sides, the political parties also spent heavily on the race.

Marklein and Marion received nearly identical amounts from their parties, about $240,000 each.

That means more than 40 percent of Marion’s total campaign cash flowed from her political party’s fundraising committees, the Wisconsin Democratic Party and the State Senate Democratic Committee of Wisconsin.

More than 25 percent of Marklein’s total haul came from his political party’s fundraising committees – the Wisconsin Republican Party and the Committee To Elect A Republican Senate of Wisconsin.

Then there were independent expenditures – money not donated to the candidates, but spent on their behalf.

The American Federation for Children, a conservative group funded by the billionaire family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, spent more than $500,000 through its political action committee on negative TV ads about Marion, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state.

Several left-leaning groups, including the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, combined to spend roughly the same amount promoting Marion through TV, internet and mailer ads.

Left-leaning groups also spent nearly $300,000 opposing Marklein through things like TV ads and mailers.

The Koch brothers’ political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity spent about $26,000 on mailers and digital ads promoting Marklein.


It’s no secret that money in politics continues to grow.

Those large deposits of party cash to Marklein and Marion in this race were made possible by a recent law change in Wisconsin. In 2015, the Republican-controlled legislature doubled the limits on contributions from individuals, lifted a ban on corporate contributions to political parties and legislative campaign committees, and removed limits on how much a political party could donate to a candidate, among other things.

Also, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, which prohibited spending limits by independent groups, was a landmark decision that led to a flood of campaign spending nationally, including in Wisconsin.

In 2002, the total amount of direct campaign contributions to all candidates for the Wisconsin state Senate was about $2.9 million. Compare that to the nearly $1.5 million Marklein and Marion raised for a single state Senate seat 16 years later, and you see which way the needle is moving.

Donations to candidates for the Wisconsin state Senate and Assembly have risen steadily in the last 18 years, to nearly $19 million for all candidates in last year’s campaign from about $10 million in 2000.

Former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican who previously represented the 17th State Senate District
Former state Sen. Dale Schultz, a Republican who previously represented the 17th State Senate District

That doesn’t even include the staggering increase in cash from outside groups spent on behalf of candidates, often to run TV or radio advertising bashing an opponent. Those groups, including the Democratic Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association and Americans for Prosperity, poured a record $61 million into the 2018 election here, according to the nonprofit watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign finance in the state. That’s up from $36 million in the 2014 midterm here and $19 million in 2010.

More money in politics means democracy doesn’t work as well, Schultz said.

“Instead of representing their constituents, (politicians) are representing the people who give them money,” he said. “And the people who give them money expect a return on investment.”


Wisconsin Democrats say they want to scale back the 2015 Republican changes to campaign finance reform and elect representatives who will “fight for policies to reform the campaign finance system that Wisconsin Republicans broke,” said Courtney Beyer, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin did not respond to several requests for comment on the issue.

Any changes before 2020 are unlikely though, as Republicans will hold both houses of the Legislature until at least then.

Marion is looking forward even farther, to the 2022 election, when the 17th Senate District is back up for reelection.

“I would love to remove Marklein, so I’m still thinking that direction,” she said of running again. “He’s getting more power, running more of the committees.”

She accused the senator of being hypocritical, saying he ran a campaign against Madison “insiders,” while noting “it doesn’t get more insider than being on (the) joint finance (committee).”

Marklein responded to those criticisms in the second and final portion of his email statement to The Badger Project.

“I have been appointed to influential positions in the Senate, which is good for those I serve,” he wrote. “I have a strong voice and tremendous opportunities to make a difference. My focus is on affecting good policy that makes strong fiscal sense for the people of the 17th Senate District.”

That district will look different in 2022. The maps must be redrawn after the 2020 census, which could mean a less favorable electoral landscape for Republicans. With a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, the GOP lacks the full control it had over drawing the lines in 2010.

Yet if Marklein continues his hefty fundraising and remains popular in the district, any challenger will face an uphill battle to dethrone him. Even a well-funded and media-savvy one like Marion.

Her success in generating voter enthusiasm likely will be her best chance.

“There is no substitute for getting off the couch and getting engaged,” Schultz said. “That’s what being a citizen is all about and you can’t outsource that. If you really want to make change, you have to be engaged.”

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*EDITOR’S NOTE: The Badger Project cannot say definitively that these campaign finance totals are all-time highs, because the Wisconsin Ethics Commission – which oversees campaign finance and has existed since 2015 – has records dating back to 2008, said Daniel A. Carlton, Jr., the Commission’s administrator. It’s unclear where previous campaign finance records are stored, he said. The National Institute on Money in Politics, a Montana-based nonprofit which tracks campaign finance data in all 50 states and was used in The Badger Project’s investigation, has gathered comprehensive data going back to 2000. Those facts, combined with the 2015 campaign finance change which loosened or removed donation limits and the comparatively modest campaign fundraising before 2000, led The Badger Project to conclude these are very likely the highest amounts raised by one candidate as well as two competing candidates in the history of the legislature.

Six members of State Assembly have declared personal bankruptcy


At least six members of the Wisconsin State Assembly have filed for personal bankruptcy at some point, The Badger Project has discovered in an investigation of federal court records.

The six legislators, all men, are Republicans and Democrats. The group consists of Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin), John Spiros (R-Marshfield), Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) and Leon Young (D-Milwaukee).

Five of the assemblymen did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

Wichgers, whose 83rd District covers Muskego, Big Bend and Waterford, told The Badger Project his bankruptcy was caused by large medical bills incurred when his wife endured two miscarriages in a short period of time, as well as another hospital visit for one of his eight children.

With their bills exceeding their monthly income by about $1,000, Wichgers said he and his wife tried to negotiate a payment plan they could afford. But the hospitals “would not budge at all,” according to their Milwaukee-based attorney, Joseph W. Seifert. Wichgers and his wife owed about $50,000 in medical debt, Seifert told The Badger Project. The Wichgers filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Young, whose 16th District covers part of Milwaukee, reported more than $10,000 in debt to a Las Vegas hotel and casino, Mandalay Bay Resort, according to bankruptcy documents he filed in 2010. In total, he reported more than $200,000 in debt.

Spiros, whose 86th District includes part of Marshfield as well as Mosinee and Marathon City, reported more than $100,000 in consumer debt, according to his initial bankruptcy documents, which he filed in 2002.

Sanfelippo, whose 15th District covers West Allis and New Berlin in the Milwaukee suburbs, reported the most debt of the six politicians, at nearly $900,000. Much of that appears to have come from a failed business. That debt included nearly $21,000 in unpaid payroll withholding taxes owed to the state, and more than $300,000 in a tax debt for state unemployment insurance. Now 54, Sanfelippo filed for bankruptcy in 2001. He sat on the Assembly Committee on Financial Institutions in 2017 and 2018.

Fields, whose 11th District covers the north side of Milwaukee, was in between stints as a state legislator when he filed for bankruptcy in 2016. He listed $6,000 in assets, and reported some medical and student debt in the more than $270,000 he owed to creditors. Despite his financial history, Fields, 44, promotes himself as a professional investment manager. He also sat on the Assembly Committee on Financial Institutions in 2017 and 2018.

And in a situation that comes as no surprise to us at The Badger Project, Novak filed for bankruptcy in 1992 while working as an editor for The Dodgeville Chronicle newspaper (journalists don’t make much money).

Novak represents the 51st District, which includes Dodgeville, Mineral Point, and Monroe. The 53-year-old politician also serves as the mayor of Dodgeville, earning $7,000 annually for that position. Because Novak’s bankruptcy documentation is so old, it has been disposed of, according to the Federal Records Center in Chicago.

All six assemblymen filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, according to federal court records. Individuals file for bankruptcy when they can’t afford to pay their debts. The chapter 7 type allows debtors to sell some nonessential assets and put that cash towards their debts, rather than entering a payment plan. Many of the other debts are wiped clean and the debtors no longer legally owe them to their creditors.

More than 16,000 bankruptcies were filed in Wisconsin in 2016, the most recent year data is available from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That’s about 3.7 per 1,000 adults in Wisconsin.

The number of bankruptcies filed in Wisconsin has fallen steadily since 2010, the heart of the Great Recession, when more than 29,000 filed in the state in 2010, for a rate of about 6.8 per 1,000 Wisconsin adults.

 Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

With at least six assemblymen filing bankruptcy at some point, that’s a rate of at least 6 percent in the 100-member Assembly. That body, along with the Wisconsin State Senate, was responsible for crafting and passing the state’s $76 billion, two-year budget last year. The Republican-controlled State Assembly and State Senate haggled 10 weeks past the July 1 deadline before passing it.

The legislators’ bankruptcies raise questions about the Assembly’s ability to balance a budget, especially in a year when the legislature took weeks past its deadline to get it passed.

But managing one’s personal finances and crafting and voting on a state budget is not an apples to apples comparison, according to James Simmons, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.

“State budgets involve the value and priorities legislators place on policies and programs,” he wrote in an email. “Furthermore, their voting on budgets usually reflect clear partisan divisions and party line agenda rather than the individual financial acumen of the elected official.”

And legislators don’t manage the state’s day-to-day finances as the heads of state agencies do, he noted.

The two Democrats, Fields and Young, were serving as assemblymen during part or all of their bankruptcy process. State representatives and state senators make about $50,000 annually.

All four Republicans declared bankruptcy years before taking office.

It’s not uncommon to see legislators with a history of personal bankruptcy, Simmons said.

“This is not something that usually hurts them,” Simmons said. “I can’t think of any race in which bankruptcy or personal finance can be attributed to a loss.”

“When it comes to state legislators, most people who vote for them know very little about them,” he continued.

Simmons also noted the high profile case of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose companies have filed for bankruptcy protection multiple times over the years.

“If (a history of bankruptcy) isn’t going to affect a high-information race, it certainly won’t have much effect on a low-information race,” Simmons said.

Fields is the only candidate virtually assured of retaining his seat next year. The Democrat is running unopposed in both the August primary election and the November general election.

Republicans Novak, Sanfelippo and Wichgers have no primary opponents, but must defeat Democrat challengers to remain in the Assembly.

Spiros, a 57-year-old Republican, faces a challenger in the August primary. Should he prevail, he must defeat a Democrat and an Independent candidate in the general.

Young, a a 51-year-old Democrat, is leaving the Assembly after more than two decades. Party leaders stripped him of his committee assignments earlier this year. The reasons why are unclear, but Young has said they did so because he pushed for an assault weapons ban.

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Brookfield politician pleaded no contest in 2000 to punching minor



The future soldier and politician lost his temper, and turned violent.

Dale Kooyenga tackled and punched a 17-year-old boy in 2000 during a dispute outside a summer party in Sheboygan. Now a 39-year-old Republican state representative from Brookfield, Kooyenga was 21 at the time police filed a criminal charge of disorderly conduct against him.

The incident has received little public attention. The assemblyman did not return messages seeking comment.

While at the party at Kooyenga’s Sheboygan residence, the minor victim got into an argument with his sisters and Kooyenga. Eventually, Kooyenga chased down the teen and struck him, according to the report from the Sheboygan Police Department. Officers noted the boy had a torn shirt and a black eye.

Investigators originally charged Kooyenga with a misdemeanor criminal offense, which carried a maximum fine of $1,000 and 90 days in jail, but he was allowed to plead no contest to a lesser offense of disorderly conduct. He paid a fine of $181.25.

Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative was apparently the first to break the story, though The Badger Project discovered it independently.

Kooyenga is trying to move up politically, running for the Wisconsin State Senate seat in the 5th District being vacated by state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield), who is running for U.S. Senate.

The conviction is probably not a major blemish for a politician, said Joe Czarnezki, who served for 12 years in the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate as well as in Milwaukee city government.

“I think generally, voters are willing to forgive youthful indiscretions,” the 63-year-old Democrat said. “Especially today, when people see what’s going on in the Trump administration, things that would have been major scandals in the past.”

“I don’t know if the public is becoming more tolerant, or just numb to what’s going on,” he added.

In an unrelated and more recent incident, police confronted Kooyenga last year when he was caught on security cameras taking a sign from the state Capitol building criticizing President Donald Trump and Wisconsin Republicans. The owner of the sign had received a permit for it and complained to Capitol Police when it disappeared. Kooyenga later returned the sign and apologized.

But that didn’t stop the man from filing a federal lawsuit against him. A judge had set a jury trial date, but Kooyenga agreed in April to pay a $30,000 settlement to the man. The state representative also said he would cover the costs, rather than allow taxpayers to do so. He did not clarify whether he would pay the settlement with his own cash or campaign contributions, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The assemblyman is a captain and intelligence officer in the Army Reserve. He deployed to Iraq in 2008 and was awarded a bronze star, according to his Army service record.

He was first elected to the Assembly in 2010.

The race for the Wisconsin State Senate seat in the 5th District, which covers the Republican-leaning west suburbs of Milwaukee, is a crowded one. Kooyenga faces a Democrat, Julie Henszey of Wauwatosa and an Independent, Joe Zwier of West Allis. The general election is in November.

The disorderly conduct conviction could come up in the fast-approaching campaign season, Czarnezki said.

“While the voters may be willing to overlook a youthful indiscretion, that doesn’t stop an opponent from using it against you, which is the more likely scenario,” he said.

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Milwaukee politician pleaded guilty to 2nd drunk driving charge in 2014


On an early Sunday afternoon in January of 2014, police responded to a car crash in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer. Officers arrived to find the vehicle up on a snowbank in the median. The bloodied driver had stumbled from the van and tried to leave the scene, witnesses told police.

That driver was Jason M. Fields, who at the time was in between stints as a Democratic Assemblyman from the 11th district, which covers Milwaukee. It was about 12:30 p.m.

When Brown Deer Police confronted Fields after the crash, the man said he “f***** up” in slurred speech, according to the police report.

Fields told police he had “a lot” to drink, according to the report, and officers found an open bottle of vodka in the van. He was later found to have a blood-alcohol level of .305, well over the legal limit of .08.

Police arrested Fields, and he later pleaded guilty to his second drunk driving conviction. The Badger Report discovered the conviction while sifting through the court records of state legislators.

Fields did not respond to messages seeking comment.

He was again stopped in Madison on March 18, 2015 by Capital Police and cited for driving without a license, which had been revoked. He has still not paid his fine of about $200 for that citation, according to court documents.

 A police mugshot of State Rep. Jason M. Fields from 2014 while in between stints in the Wisconsin State Assembly. A police mugshot of State Rep. Jason M. Fields from 2014 while in between stints in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

The politician’s first drunk driving arrest came in 2008 when he was a sitting state representative. Police arrested Fields in March of that year after seeing him swerving on the highway, according to an article from The Pioneer Press.

He lost his seat in a primary election in 2012 to Mandela Barnes, who is now running for lieutenant governor.

While running to return to office in 2016, Fields seemed to hint at the second drunk driving conviction during an interview with Fox 6 in Milwaukee.

“I have lied, cheated, done some outrageously stupid things and made horrible decisions,” he told the TV station. “But I will always confess to them and do my best to be as transparent as possible.”

He declined to elaborate when asked, according to the Fox 6 piece.

Fields went on to easily defeat Darrol D. Gibson of Milwaukee, earning more than 58 percent of the vote and winning by a vote count of 2,933 to 2,063 in the Democratic Primary election in August 2016. He faced no opposition from the Republican Party in the November 2016 general election.

At the moment, no challengers have announced they are running against Fields.

Joe Heim, a longtime political science professor at UW-La Crosse, said drunk driving convictions are not always fatal to political careers. Particularly in Wisconsin, a view Fields seemed to prove by winning reelection after his first arrest.

“Part of that has to do with the fact that Wisconsin is widely known as a drinking state,” Heim said. “I think most of us that see stuff like that and feel bad for the person. We all kind of remember that maybe there were times in our lives when the same thing could have happened, but for the fate of God, we got lucky. I think a lot of people in this state are fairly sympathetic about it.”

Fields is not the only sitting representative in the Assembly with at least one drunk driving conviction on his record. State Rep. Josh Zepnick, another Milwaukee Democrat, was arrested for the offense in October of 2015 and later convicted.

“But if (a drunk driving conviction) occurs two or three times, that’s another story,” Heim said. ‘In cases like that, I think it can be fatal or very difficult for a politician to win reelection.”

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