Madison: The Wisconsin Ethics Board has the final say on whether a politician or lobbying group is following the letter of the law. The law is clear; public officials are not allowed to take anything of value from a lobbying group.
"Wisconsin has the strictest law of any state in the country," says State Ethics Board Legal Counsel Jonathan Becker.
Recently the board decided Governor Jim Doyle did not violate the law when he accepted a free plane trip to the 2003 Final Four. The Ethics Board ruled the trip was actually a donation to the state, because the free trip saved the taxpayers money. "The state of Wisconsin would have paid for that transportation if someone else had not provided," says Becker.
They also decided to fine the Tavern League $2,500 for not charging politicians enough to attend a March lobbying function. That's the same function Sen. Russ Decker was at before being arrested for driving drunk. The Ethics Board ruled the $5 cover charge for all you can eat shrimp and beer was too cheap.
"The board wanted to impose a forfeiture that was large enough to send a message–not to the tavern league–but to all the organizations out there," says Becker.
Senator Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) says the message was confusing, because they both should have been fined. "Coming in light of the fact he said the Governor didn't get the trip, the state got the trip he had to slam somebody. So then he slams the Tavern League for handing out potato salad and shrimp."
Sen. Ellis is authoring a bill that would merge the Ethics Board and the Elections Board and give them much more power. "We would have a division dealing with ethics, a division dealing with elections and a prosecutorial–an enforcement division. And there would be an executive director over all three of them."