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RPW files ethics complaints against Barnes and Pfaff

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has complained that “too many politicians have operated as if the rules don’t apply to them.”

Barnes, a Democrat running against U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh), is one of those rule-ignoring politicians, according to an ethics complaint filed by attorneys for the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

The complaint details how in 2021 and 2022 Barnes and state Sen. Brad Pfaff, Democrat running for the 3rd Congressional District seat, accepted illegal campaign donations from lobbyists in violation of Wisconsin law, according to an RPW press release.

Barnes accepted illegal contributions from multiple lobbyists and both accepted illegal contributions multiple times and throughout the course of the Legislature’s 2021-2022 Session, the complaint alleges.

RPW is calling on the Wisconsin Ethics Commission to launch an immediate investigation into the violations and make recommendations for civil or criminal violations to the proper court system.

A party spokesman did not provide details on the lobbyists involved, but the MacIver Institute has reported Barnes has taken multiple, illegal, campaign contributions from the vice president and lobbyist of solar energy giant Sunrun, a “non-union, government-subsidized, OSHA-violating“ company based in California.

RPW notes state law universally prohibits members of the Legislature and partisan elected officials from accepting contributions from registered lobbyists while the Legislature is in session and conducting legislative business.

“Despite mandatory ethics training for elected officials, both Mandela Barnes and Brad Pfaff chose to ignore the law, in order to boost their chances against stronger and more qualified candidates in Ron Johnson and Derrick Van Orden (Republican candidate for congress),” said RPW Executive Director Mark Jefferson.

Barnes’ campaign did not return a request for comment.

Pfaff did not address the complaint directly, but did take aim at the Republican Party and his opponent.

“It’s understandable that the Republican Party of Wisconsin would want to deflect from their own candidate’s record of using campaign contributions to finance his trip to the January 6th insurrection,” the Democrat said. “That decision coupled with his radical position on choice and admitted sexual and verbal harassment of women make him unqualified for office.”

The Federal Election Commission in July unanimously dismissed a complaint that alleged Van Orden used campaign funds to finance his trip to a D.C. rally that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol. Republican commissioners found the approximately $4,000 was mostly spent on meetings with key Republicans regarding his run for office, and the Democrats on the committee agreed the amount was too small to pursue while politically chiding him for being in D.C. at the time of the civil unrest.

The Democratic Party and retiring U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) have attempted to characterize Van Orden as a sexual harasser for a medical story he describes in a 2015 book he wrote about his long career as a Navy SEAL.

Asked about the complaints against Barnes and Pfaff, Wisconsin Ethics Commission Administrator Dan Carlton said complaints are confidential. Discussing a complaint could land him in jail for nine months.

Barnes has been very vocal about getting corporate and dark money out of politics. He’s called for an amendment to the constitution to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling allowing unions and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in political races.

“It’s time to change the game and build a democracy that is accountable to the people,” Barnes has said. “We need leaders who will prioritize the voters’ interests over special interests and deliver for the working families who are the backbone of our democracy.”

But as the RPW notes, Barnes has been taking PAC money since his run for lieutenant governor and his time in the State Assembly. He has been fined for taking too much money from the Working Families Party (WFP) PAC.

Some of his other benefactors include:

RPW said Barnes is clearly breaking state elections law by taking lobbyist cash, and despite notions to the contrary, federal law does not supersede state statute.

“While Mandela Barnes claims to want to ‘Stop big corporations and special interests from buying political influence,’ his actions again prove his words are just lip service and not only will he accept special interest money, he’ll also accept illegal contributions,” Jefferson said.

Empower Wisconsin | Sept. 8, 2022

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