Scandal another blow to Wisconsin's squeaky-clean image

Saturday, October 19, 2002

MADISON, Wis. -- The top two Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly were charged with felony misconduct Friday, the latest fallout in a scandal that has shaken the legislature's power structure and put another dent in the state's long-cherished reputation of clean government.

Speaker Scott Jensen and Majority Leader Steve Foti are accused of using their offices to campaign illegally on state time.

They were charged one day after the top Democrat in the state Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, was charged with demanding campaign contributions for legislative favors.

In all, nine people have been charged in the scandal -- including five lawmakers.

"This sounds more like Illinois or New Jersey," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.

Jensen and Chvala said they would resign their leadership positions while they fight the charges, which both denounced as untrue and politically motivated so close to the Nov. 5 election.

For decades, Wisconsin considered itself a shining example for other states to follow with its reputation for progressive reforms. It began with Robert La Follette, governor from 1901 to 1906 and later a Progressive candidate for president. He and his followers denounced corporate monopolies, favored public ownership of natural resources and increased funding for education.

In the 1960s, Wisconsin overhauled its legislature to create nonpartisan agencies to advise lawmakers. Those reforms also included the creation of the caucus staffs -- which has now yielded one of the biggest scandals in state government.

The bodies -- one for each party in each chamber -- were meant to do research for lawmakers. But a series by the Wisconsin State Journal last year revealed that caucus employees were coordinating campaign activities from their state offices using state resources, in violation of the law.

The partisan staffs were eliminated last year to end a state probe. However, prosecutors in Dane and Milwaukee counties continued their own secret investigations and the first charges were filed in June.

Of the nine charged so far, five are lawmakers and four are staff members.

The lawmakers would be kicked out of office if they are convicted of any offense requiring them to spend at least a year in jail.

Several scandals have hit Wisconsin over the past year. Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist and Archbishop Rembert Weakland have been accused of sexual misconduct, while the FBI is probing possible corruption in Milwaukee's city government.

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