What are Wisconsin's biggest lobbying law violation settlements since 2016?

When lobbyists violate the state's strict rules, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission negotiates a fine, which is called a "settlement" — here's a look at which groups and people have paid the biggest ones in recent years.

The Badger Project

March 26, 2024

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Light streams through a row of arched windows alternating with pillars that ring the inside of a large dome, with a painting visible at the oculus at its top, as seen from an angle on one edge of the structural feature's circle.

The interior of the Wisconsin State Capitol's dome is illuminated by sunlight on April 12, 2018. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Badger Project

By Hina Suzuki, The Badger Project

Not even a cup of coffee.

Wisconsin has strict lobbying laws. So strict that lobbyists are not allowed to give anything of monetary value to the politicians and government officials they lobby.

Lobbyists must get authorized with the state and then report things like dollars and time spent lobbying, and on which bills and issues they are lobbying.

And unlike regular citizens, lobbyists can only make donations to political candidates during the campaign period – usually April 15 to Election Day in November.

If a lobbyist breaks the rules, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission will negotiate a fine, which they call a “settlement,” with the lobbyist or lobbying organization, in lieu of civil litigation, said Daniel Carlton, who heads the Wisconsin Elections Commission with the title of administrator.

Money received from settlements goes into the Common School Fund, the primary, and often only, funding source for school libraries in Wisconsin.

Violation types

15 Day Reports: Registered principals must turn in 15-day reports to report each bill, budget bill subject, proposed rule and topic to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission within 15 days of the first lobbying communication.

Statements of Lobbying Activities and Expenditures (SLAEs): Registered principals are required to submit a Statement of Lobbying Activities and Expenditures (SLAE) every six months during the legislative session. SLAEs are meant to detail the total time, dollars and allocated effort for each lobbying activity.

Lobbying Communications: Wisconsin Statutes §13.62 refers to lobbying communication as “an oral or written communication with any agency official, elective state official or legislative employee that attempts to influence legislative or administrative action.” Before a lobbyist makes a lobbying communication on behalf of their principal, they must be authorized.

Campaign Donations: Wisconsin Statutes §13.625 states that no lobbyist or principal can give anything of financial value to an elected state official, candidate for state elective office, legislative employee or agency official. However, they can make a donation to a political candidate during the campaign only, between the first day authorized by law for the circulation of nomination papers and the day of the general or special election. Additionally, donations to candidates for local and non-partisan offices are allowed.

Payment of Lobbying Fees: Lobbying-related fees are due at the time of lobbyist license application or principal registration. These fees include the lobbyist license fee, the principal registration fee, and the lobbyist authorization fee.

Largest settlements since 2016

Below is a list of the largest lobbying fines, or settlements, since 2016, when the Wisconsin Ethics Commission was launched. The Badger Project obtained these settlements in a records request from the commission.

1. Quad/Graphics, Inc. – $2,500
Quad/Graphics, a registered lobbying principal, paid $2,500 in 2017, the largest settlement for a lobbying violation in Wisconsin in the past seven years. They were charged for failing to file their Statements of Lobbying Activities and Expenditures on time between 2012-2016. Quad/Graphics is a marketing solutions company headquartered in Sussex, Wisconsin, according to their website.

2. The Wisconsin Paper Council, Scott Suder and Patrick Stevens – $2,100
The Wisconsin Paper Council and its lobbyists Scott Suder and Patrick Stevens collectively paid $2,100 in 2021, according to the settlement document. Suder and Stevens initiated lobbying communications before acquiring the license and authorization. The Wisconsin Paper Council is a trade association that advocates for the state’s papermaking industries.

3. The Badger Institute – $2,000
The Badger Institute paid $2,000 in 2021 after its lobbyist, Julie Grace, engaged in lobbying communications before obtaining her license and authorization. Formerly known as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, the conservative Badger Institute is a policy research organization “guided by a belief that competitive free markets, limited government, private initiative and personal responsibility are essential to our democratic way of life,” according to their website.

4. The Developmental Disabilities Coalition of Dane County – $1,000
In 2020, the Developmental Disabilities Coalition of Dane County paid $1,000 after its lobbyist, Melissa Mulliken, participated in lobbying communications before obtaining her license and authorization. Developmental Disabilities Coalition of Dane County is an organization that provides residential support, supported employment, broker services, day services and consumer and family advocacy groups, according to its website.

5. The Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association – $1,000
The Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association paid $1,000 in 2020 in settlement of their lobbyist Henry Schienebeck’s lobbying communications prior to securing licensure and authorization. Located in Rhinelander, The Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association is a nonprofit organization that provides leadership in the Lake States Forest products industry, according to their website.

6. Joe Leibham – $1,000
Joe Leibham, a licensed lobbyist, paid $1,000 in 2020 in settlement of his political donations to candidates for state legislative office. His contributions were not made within the allowed period.

7. Wisconsin Right to Life, Kristen Nupson – $1,000
In 2020, Wisconsin Right to Life paid $1,000 while their licensed lobbyist, Kristen Nupson, engaged in lobbying communications before acquiring her license and authorization. Wisconsin Right to Life is an anti-abortion and anti-assisted suicide organization and the Wisconsin affiliate of National Right to Life.

8. Diane Wilcenski – $975
Diane Wilcenski, a licensed lobbyist, paid $975 in 2018 in settlement of her political donations. According to the Settlement Agreement document, she made a total of eight donations to Tony (Evers) for Wisconsin outside of the allotted time period.

9. Bryant Brooks – $750
Bryant Brooks, a licensed lobbyist, paid $750 in 2021 to settle his donation of $500 to Patty (Schachtner) for Senate in 2020.

10. Dan Trawicki – $750
Dan Trawicki, a licensed lobbyist, paid $750 in 2021 to settle his donation of $500 to (Brad) Schimel for Attorney General in 2017.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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