By Shereen Siewert

Three candidates in the race for Wausau School Board are named in a campaign ethics complaint filed this week with the state ethics commission, Wausau Pilot & Review has confirmed.

Jon Creisher, Karen Vandenberg and Cody Nikolai are each named in the complaints, which allege a failure to properly disclose a “Paid for by” disclaimer on yard signs and a digital Facebook ad. Wisconsin law requires that all campaign advertising include such a disclaimer followed by the name of the candidate or other individual making the payment or assuming responsibility for the communication.

Daniel Carlton with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission said complaints filed with the Commission are confidential.

“Therefore, we do not confirm whether a complaint was filed or provide any information about pending complaints,” Carlton said.

The notarized complaints were submitted March 22 by Joel Lewis, an organizer with Citizen Action of Wisconsin and obtained by Wausau Pilot & Review on Tuesday.

Creisher, Vandenberg and Nikolai are running closely-coordinated campaigns for the April 6 election, in which four board members will be chosen from seven candidates. The group says they have been on the receiving end of “ongoing smear strategies” by people who oppose their platform, which relies in part on a strong desire for in-person learning at all Wausau schools. The Wausau School District began the 2020-2021 school year virtually, but later shifted to in-person instruction.

The group issued this statement in response to the complaints filed against their campaigns:

“It has been brought to our attention that ethics complaints have been filed with the State of Wisconsin against each of our individual campaigns regarding 1. some yard signs and 2. a Facebook advertisement not including a “paid for by…” attribution.

We have confirmed with our printer that they made an error on our first batch of small yard signs printed without an attribution statement despite our request to include it. Our large signs and second batch of small yard signs and all of our printed literature rightly included the attribution. Our radio ads and television ads have also rightly included the attribution. It was an innocent error and we have no intention of throwing our printing company under the proverbial bus. They have been wonderful to work with and we would recommend them to anyone. They are already in the process of printing weather resistant labels, at their expense, to apply to the portion of signs that were printed with the attribution information unintentionally omitted. 

As for the Facebook ad attribution, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission campaign manual, “attribution statements do not apply to communications containing express advocacy printed on small items, which would normally require a disclaimer, but cannot be conveniently printed, including text messages, social media communications, and certain small advertisements on mobile phones. WIS.STAT. 11.1303(2)(f).” Further, we went beyond the requirements of the ethics campaign manual and did include a disclosure of paid for by Jon Creisher, but there was no way that we could edit the disclaimer on these ads (there was an autofill of one person’s name, that could not be changed to a committee). We are working within Facebook advertising limitations and we will continue to work with Facebook so that our ads are compliant. 

It is of utmost importance to all three of us that our campaign is run based on truth, integrity and ethical behavior. We believe our campaign and efforts have demonstrated exactly that. It has been disheartening to be on the receiving end of the ongoing smear strategies of others. We are parents, neighbors and professionals in this community who have demonstrated that our intentions are to serve with integrity for the good of the entire community. We would like to spend our time discussing the real issues facing our district namely the 400+ student exodus, the 300% increase in failing grades at the secondary level, 2 previously failed referenda with ongoing building maintenance needs and full pupil service needs, and the unheard voices of hundreds of educators, parents and students. It is our hope that the voters in the Wausau School District will see that and that their support is evident at the polls. Thank you.

Any person may file a complaint with the Commission asking that it investigate alleged violations of campaign finance laws under Chapter 11 of the Wisconsin Statutes. Each complaint is reviewed to determine whether the violation alleged is within the Commission’s jurisdiction and satisfies the criteria for a proper complaint.

If the complaint is found sufficient, Creisher, Vandenberg and Nikolai will have 15 days to respond in writing, explaining why no action should be taken. A flowchart illustrating the complaint investigation process can be found here.

Nic Bisgrove and Kay Gruling are also on the ballot, as are two incumbents: current Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker and Vice-President Pat McKee.