The Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed an ethics complaint against Attorney General Brad Schimel’s campaign Wednesday, alleging it has accepted more than the legal limit from a political action committee.
According to campaign finance reports, Schimel’s campaign accepted $40,337.40 from the Republican Attorneys General Association’s PAC in the current campaign cycle. That is $337.40 more than the $40,000 contribution limit, according to Wisconsin law.
Republican Attorneys General Association spokesman Zack Roday said Wednesday the excess donation was "a mistake that has been corrected." Schimel's campaign did not return a phone call or email requesting comment on the complaint.
David Buerger, an attorney for the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, said he could not comment on any complaints filed but noted that a campaign that accepts contributions above the legal limit can “cure the violation by returning any contribution in excess of the limits within 15 days of the filing deadline.”
The filing deadline for the most recent campaign finance report was July 16. The Ethics Commission will likely make a decision on the complaint at their next meeting on August 21.
Schimel opponents are also criticizing the attorney general's use of campaign funds to send his deputy, Paul Connell, to a Federalist Society conference in Washington, D.C. in November 2017. Schimel used taxpayer dollars to send two other Department of Justice employees, Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin and Ryan Walsh, the chief deputy solicitor general, to the conference.
"Brad Schimel's campaign finances show how he regularly blurs the lines between his political operation and the Department of Justice," said Joanna Beilman-Dulin, research director for One Wisconsin Now, a liberal advocacy group based in Madison. "It's not just unseemly, it raises a serious question about who Brad Schimel is working for: his campaign donors and his political self interest or the people of Wisconsin?"
According to its website, the Federalist Society is a group of "conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order." Though the group is a federally registered nonprofit, which requires it to be technically nonpartisan, the group is widely known as a de-facto pipeline for conservative judicial nominees that adhere to a specific approach to interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
DOJ spokeswoman Rebecca Ballweg disputed that the Federalist Society's conference was a conservative event.
"The Federalist Society is a widely respected 501(c)3 non-profit legal organization. The conference that was attended by DOJ staff is attended by lawyers across the spectrum," she said.
According to its latest report, Schimel's campaign reimbursed Connell $2,135 for lodging, airfare and other expenses related to the conference. According to DOJ records, the agency spent $1,479.96 last year on expenses for Tseytlin and Walsh to attend.
Tseytlin and Walsh attended the conference to earn continuing legal education credits, Ballweg said, noting that it is common practice for DOJ to pay for its attorneys to attend conferences to earn such credits. Connell did not claim those credits, which is why Schimel's campaign paid for him to attend, she said.
"AG Schimel did not feel it was appropriate for DOJ to cover his attendance and instead, opted to have his campaign cover the costs. Deputy AG Connell did not attend the conference on state time as a result," she said.
The filings are the latest in a series of instances where Schimel has used a mix of campaign funds and state money to send DOJ attorneys to conservative conferences.
Last year, DOJ paid about $1,094 for Deputy Solicitor General Kevin LeRoy to attend the Alliance Defending Freedom’s 2017 Summit on Religious Liberty, according to a May report by the Associated Press. According to its website, the Alliance for Defending Freedom's mission is to "keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family."