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Wausau mayor accused of violating state campaign ethics rules

in Breaking News/Investigations/News

By Shereen Siewert

A complaint filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission accuses Mayor Robert Mielke of violating state campaign statutes by using taxpayer money to share a campaign message with thousands of Wausau households and businesses.

Mielke’s challenger in the mayoral race, Katie Rosenberg, filed the notarized complaint on Thursday.

Rosenberg alleges in her complaint that Mielke violated a statute commonly referred to as the “50-piece” rule, which prohibits elected officials from using public funds for the cost of materials or distribution for 50 or more pieces of substantially identical material during the campaign season.

The rule is one of several in place to ensure elected officials do not use public funds to further their campaigns.

At issue is the “Mayor’s Message” in the Wausau City Winter 2020 newsletter, which residents and businesses received earlier this week — during the campaign season. On the front page, Mielke’s message contained “substantially similar content to his campaign messaging,” much of which is nearly identical to his September 2019 campaign kickoff speech, which was held at City Hall.

In all, about half of the message mailed to residents at taxpayer expense closely mirrors the September speech, which can be heard in its entirety in this YouTube video:

The newsletter, which can be seen here and is embedded at the end of this story, is not mandated by city ordinance and is solicited, crafted and put together at the behest of the mayor, the complaint states.

Rosenberg said filing the complaint made her uncomfortable.

I wanted to brush it off and continue focusing on my message, my campaign, and the people of Wausau,” Rosenberg said. “However, I can’t continue to tell my neighbors that I stand for accountability and leadership while at the same time ignoring another lapse in judgement and misuse of government resources.”

“In September, he used the city equipment and social media accounts for his campaign announcement,” Rosenberg said. “Now he’s using the publicly financed newsletter that is mailed to tens of thousands of Wausau households and business to deliver campaign language.”

In her complaint, Rosenberg mentions both issues that arose in September and included links to stories in The City Pages and Wausau Pilot and Review for reference.

City of Wausau Facebook Page screenshot captured Sept. 9, 2019

Photos and an announcement regarding Mielke’s political plans briefly appeared on the city’s Facebook page, but the post was taken down after critics spoke up. Mielke, in September, said his assistant, Kathi Groeschel, is the Facebook page administrator who both determines and adds city-related news as it happens.

“This isn’t a policy disagreement, it’s a pattern of behavior intended to give him an unfair political advantage,” Rosenberg said.

Most investigations into actions by local officials are undertaken by the city’s ethics board, an entity established in 1990 with members chosen by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.  But the terms of Wausau’s ethics board members all expired nearly two years ago.

Ethics board members are ideally appointed during a time that makes clear to the public that the group serves the public interest and not the interests of those groups subject to the board’s oversight, according to the Campaign Legal Center.

The mailing differs from the two other issues cited in the complaint because the action appears to apply to a specific state statute, likely bringing it under the authority of the state ethics commission.

Speaking in general terms Daniel Carlton, administrator of the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, said prejudging a complaint would be inappropriate, because the process specifically provides that a person named in a complaint has at least 15 days to respond before the Commission takes any action other than to dismiss a complaint.

“There may be facts or legal argument that would affect any conclusion that we might reach that we would not be aware of until that response,” Carlton wrote, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review.

Penalties for violating campaign ethics rules are far-ranging and vary from state to state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Wisconsin, violators of the code of ethics for public officials and employees are subject to civil penalties of up to $500 or not more than $5,000, depending on the violation. Criminal penalties for code violations include fines between $100 and $5,000, imprisonment of up to one year, or both, according to the NCSL database.

Mielke and Rosenberg are the only two candidates seeking the office in the April election. A third challenger, Christopher Norfleet, announced his candidacy but instead opted to run for city council in Dist. 1, challenging Pat Peckham.

Mielke, in an email on Friday, told Wausau Pilot and Review that he was unaware of the complaint filed against him.

Top image: Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke, flanked by staff and supporters, announces he will seek another term of office on Sept. 9, 2019. Photo credit: Shereen Siewert/Wausau Pilot and Review

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