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Wisconsin Ethics Commission alleges illegal scheme by Trump fundraising committee

MADISON - A state oversight panel is recommending Wisconsin prosecutors pursue a slate of felony charges against a fundraising committee for Donald Trump and a Republican state lawmaker in a scheme to evade campaign finance laws surrounding an effort to unseat one of the most powerful Republicans in Wisconsin, Trump foe Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission alleges Trump's Save America political action committee, GOP Rep. Janel Brandtjen, county Republican party officials and the campaign committee of Adam Steen, who ran against Vos in 2022, conspired to avoid state fundraising limits for Steen's bid to replace Vos.

The alleged scheme to flood donations to Steen's campaign materialized as Trump and Brandtjen pressured Vos to take illegal and impractical steps to decertify the 2020 election when President Joe Biden defeated Trump by about 20,000 votes.

Just days before the Republican primary during which Vos defeated Steen by fewer than 300 votes, Trump held a rally in Waukesha County during which he leveled condemnation at Vos and revealed to the crowd that the former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Vos hired to review the 2020 election had endorsed Steen in the primary.

The commission on Tuesday referred the alleged violations to several county prosecutors, according to records obtained Friday from the commission. Commissioners noted if the prosecutors do not initiate charges within 60 days, the panel will take the referrals to another district attorney or the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Wispolitics.com first reported on the recommended charges.

The recommended charges stem from a scheme allegedly orchestrated by Steen and a handful of county Republican parties to funnel donations to Steen's campaign above the individual limit of $1,000 to the county party instead. County parties may give candidates unlimited amounts of donations under state law.

"Friends of Adam Steen advised people that wanted to give more than allowed under Wisconsin’s contribution limits to send it to the Langlade County Republican Party with “63” in the memo line of the check," commissioners wrote in their orders.

In August 2022, Steen and his campaign workers arranged for Trump's Save America PAC to donate $5,000 to be sent to the Chippewa County Republican Party and then transferred to Steen's campaign, the commission alleges.

Adam Steen, Robin Vos' primary opponent for the 63rd Assembly District seat, speaks as former President Donald Trump held a campaign rally for Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels at the Waukesha County Fairgrounds in Waukesha on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.
Adam Steen, Robin Vos' primary opponent for the 63rd Assembly District seat, speaks as former President Donald Trump held a campaign rally for Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels at the Waukesha County Fairgrounds in Waukesha on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.

Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he will refer the charges back to the commission because he is a member of the party being charged.

"The Chippewa County District Attorney’s Office takes all potential campaign violations seriously. However, I cannot personally take any action in these matters. As both a past and present member of the Chippewa County Republican Party it would be a conflict for me to take any action regarding these allegations," Newell said in an email. Newell said by referring the charges back to the commission, commissioners can take them to another prosecutor or to the state DOJ.

Lawrence Andrea of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

Molly Beck can be reached at molly.beck@jrn.com.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Ethics Commission alleges illegal scheme by Trump committee