By Shereen Siewert
The Wisconsin Ethics Commission this week found probable cause that three Wausau School Board members violated state law during the campaign season but chose to issue a warning to all three candidates.
A campaign ethics complaint filed in March accused Jon Creisher, Karen Vandenberg and Cody Nikolai of failing 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.
After issuing the warning, the state closed the complaint. The Commission can choose to fully prosecute violations or issue warnings, which it did in this case.
The notarized complaints were submitted March 22 by Joel Lewis, an organizer with Citizen Action of Wisconsin.
Creisher, Vandenberg and Nikolai ran closely-coordinated campaigns for the April 6 election, in which four board members were chosen from seven candidates. All three candidates were elected and now serve on the board.
The group said in March they were on the receiving end of “ongoing smear strategies” by people who oppose their platform, which relied in part on a strong desire for in-person learning at all Wausau schools. All three candidates acknowledged the mistake and pointed to an error by a local printer that was since rectified.
The group’s unprecedented fundraising, which amounted to well over $30,000 and included donations from the Republican Party of Marathon County, also raised eyebrows with some voters opposed to their platform. But Wisconsin Ethics Commission Administrator Daniel A. Carlton, Jr. said there is no specific statute that would prohibit a political party from contributing to nonpartisan candidates.
Wausau School District bylaws require school board members to maintain a “stature that is above political pressure and partisanship.” District Administrator Keith Hilts said that such donations do not appear to violate ethics rules.