Wisconsin's alleged campaign fraud scheme: What you need to know, who's involved

NOW: Wisconsin’s alleged campaign fraud scheme: What you need to know, who’s involved

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A handful of Wisconsin Republicans, including a fundraising committee for former President Donald Trump, are all being recommended felony charges for their involvement in an alleged scheme to funnel campaign donations to a 2022 primary opponent of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

The bipartisan ethics commission asked local district attorneys across the state to decide whether to pursue charges after their report alleges multiple Republicans were part of an illegal plot to evade campaign finance laws.

Here's what you need to know.

What happened?

Last week, the ethics commission filed a series of reports against individuals and groups tied to Adam Steen.

Steen, who was endorsed by Trump during the 2022 primary election, ran for the 63rd Assembly District, a seat that has been represented by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos for nearly two decades.

Steen centered his campaign around election integrity after the former president and many conservatives blamed Vos for not doing enough to investigate the 2020 election.

Vos was pressured multiple times by Trump and others to decertify the election, an illegal and impossible step that cannot be undone. Multiple reviews, court rulings and recounts all confirm the election outcome.

To try and unseat Vos, Steen needed a well-funded campaign, but despite his efforts he ended up losing the race by fewer than 300 votes.

But leading up to the primary election, Steen supporters allegedly skirted campaign finance laws to help his campaign, according to the commission's report.

Now, Steen's campaign, a Trump Super PAC, county GOP party leaders from Chippewa, Florence, and Langlade and others are under fire for their involvement.

At least $40,000 was illegally steered to Steen's campaign by the Langlade County GOP, according to the report.

Who's involved?

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen, a Trump ally, is one of many facing possible charges.

The Menomonee Falls Republican was "one of several people to provide advice to Friends of Adam Steen" and "also played a role in facilitating contributions" from Save America to the Chippewa County Republican Party, the Florence County Republican Party, and the Republican Party of Langlade County.

During a 2022 Florence County GOP party meeting, chairman Brain Jennings told members they would receive $5,000 from Brandtjen and to forward that money to the Langlade County GOP. Jennings told investigators the plan was "to help get rid of Vos," according to the commission.

Jennings is being recommended for felony charges for his role.

State law doesn't limit how much parties can donate to candidates, but individuals, like Brandtjen, are limited to $1,000 donations.

The former Florence County treasurer later told investigators, "It was after the fact that we were like, this sounds like money laundering to me. Did we just screw up really bad?"

Other individuals being recommended felony charges include:

  • Members of the Save America political action committee, a campaign fundraising arm for Trump
  • Friends of Adam Steen, the campaign committee of Steen
  • Officials at the Republican Party of Chippewa County, Republican Party of Langlade County, Republican Party of Florence County
  • Leonard Boltz, vice chairman, Langlade County GOP
  • Terry Brand, chairman, Langlade County GOP
  • Amanda Radle, the Chippewa County GOP treasurer
  • Kevin Steen, Adam Steen's father, who donated $3,000 to the Langlade County GOP
  • Julie and Bryan Knudtson, New Richman residents who admitted to donating $3,000 to the Chippewa County GOP after Steen directed them to
  • Alan Blair of Virginia, who allegedly donated $8,000 to the Langlade County GOP with the intention of bankrolling Steen's campaign

What's next?

District attorneys in Chippewa, Florence, Langlade, Racine, and Waukesha counties have 60 days to decide whether to pursue charges, and if not, the commission said they'll bring their case to other local prosecutors or the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell referred the charges back to the commission, citing a conflict of interest since he was a former member of the GOP county party.

The Racine County District Attorney's Office said they'll be reviewing the referral from the commission and will determine if an additional investigation is needed.

Prosecutors in Waukesha County told CBS 58 they received a referral and once they review it, they'll determine the next steps.

What type of penalties could they face?

Everyone involved is facing a possible Class I felony, which is the lowest level in Wisconsin. It carries a maximum of 3.5 years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both.

For Rep. Brandtjen, the stakes are higher. Any state lawmaker charged with a felony cannot serve in the Legislature, putting her at risk of losing her Assembly seat.

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