Damakant Jayshi

Six weeks before the 2023 Spring election, questions about properly reporting campaign finance have surfaced again after a candidate for Wausau School Board filed ethics complaints against three candidates who ran as a slate last year.

It remains unclear whether James Bouche, Jon Creisher and Joanna Reyes violated the ‘Joint Ads Guidance’ issued by the Wisconsin Ethics Commission three months before they were elected last spring. The WEC has declined to comment on the status of the complaints, which was filed by Dr. Gillian Battino last month.

Bouche is pushing back against the inquiry, saying the commission’s opinion was an informal one in the beginning and it was only formalized after the election last year. The WEC also published an updated ‘Campaign Finance Overview‘ in 2019.

In a memo from the Wisconsin Ethics Commission to filing officers three months before the April 5, 2022 local elections, the body spelled out campaign finance reporting parameters.

“There is no prohibition on joint ads in the current statutes,” Administrator at the WEC, Daniel Carlton, Jr. wrote in. in his Jan. 5, 2022 memo on joint ads guidance. “So, the only question is how the candidate committees would report these types of ads when the candidate committees each pay a portion of the cost of the ad.”

The memo points out that “if multiple candidate committees purchase a joint ad and split the cost, they have made a disbursement to the vendor and there would also be an exchange of in-kind contributions between the candidate committees for the portion they did not pay.” Bouche, Creisher and Reyes ran as slate and reported identical campaign costs, $5104.28 each. All three won the election to the Wausau School Board.

Battino alleged in her complaint to WEC that the candidates violated applicable sections of 11.1101 (01) (h) 2 and 11.1102 and the ‘Joint Ads Guidance’ of the WEC. These state statutes set contribution limits at $500 and “two cents times the number of inhabitants of the jurisdiction or district, according to the latest federal census.” Wausau School District population is a little over 54,389 or 55,448.

In his response to WEC, Bouche questioned the statute’s interpretation in this case.

“We believe it was never the desire or intent of the State Legislature to interpret the Chapter 11 state statutes in such an illogical manner,” he said.

Carlton Jr. clarified that an advisory opinion cannot be violated, per se.

“Penalties arise from violating statutes,” the WEC administrator said. “They do not arise from ‘violating’ a memo or an advisory opinion. A person cannot violate an advisory opinion.”

Battino is a candidate for the school board along with four other candidates – Lance Trollop, Cory Sillars, Jennifer Paoli and Frederick Tealey. The election is on Tuesday, April 4, for three available seats.

“The reason I decided to report the campaign violations is that it was simply the right thing to do,” Dr. Battino told Wausau Pilot & Review. “For at least the last two years, certain candidates have run as a slate. This is not legal in our state.”

She added: “And still, candidates shared campaign expenses, greatly exceed contribution limits by 3-4 times, and did not report these in-kind donations. This may well have affected the outcome of the last two WSD races.”

Creisher in 2021 also ran as part of a slate with board members Karen Vandenberg and Cody Nikolai, who won.

Battino said “current candidates also have publicly indicated that they are running as a ‘slate.’ Sillars and Paoli appear to be running together as a slate. They issued a press release via email in December announcing their candidacies.

Sillars and Paoli were offered an opportunity to respond and comment for this story but did not return emails.

Battino and Tealey deny running as slate candidates, though they are pictured together in two instances.

“The only ad we both will be pictured in will be two billboards, the cost of which respects campaign in-kind contribution limits and will be reported accordingly,” Battino said. “Fred Tealey and I are aligned philosophically in many ways and we are campaigning collaboratively but not in any way that violates legal and ethical standards.”

Both she and Tealey referred to the WSD restructuring proposal as reasons for their decision to run for the school board election. The controversial restructuring plan, without clear community input, was approved by the Wausau School Board earlier this month. The plan deviates sharply from the April 2022 referendum and has prompted significant outcry from the public, including online discussions about potential recalls for board members who voted to approve the measure.

Tealey said it is disappointing to see that the board chose the present restructuring option without more input from parents, students and community members. “This has been thrust upon our community without its consent,” he said. The choice they made is not only very monumental and uneducational but it is the most costly choice of all.”

Bouche strongly pushes back against ethics complaint, WEC

Bouche, who is president of the Wausau School Board, has also been scrutinized for his role as representative of schools board in Region 5 on the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. Before the April 2022 election, the WASB appears to have circulated a memo on WEC guidance to its members.

The “WASB received an informal opinion from the WEC December 2021 with no given direction,” Bouche told this newspaper. “And then the WEC gave a formal opinion in Dec. 2022 after our reporting was completed in April of 2022.” 

He did not respond to a question whether he, as a WASB member, was aware of this guidance before the April 2022 election. Creisher and Reyes did not respond to questions at all.

Bouche also strongly pushed back in his reply to WEC, which had asked him to respond to the complaint.

“Apparently, WASB elected to circulate this private opinion among some of their membership, which is contrary to what the Ethics Commission can do since it was not law or the official position of the Ethics Commission,” Bouche wrote in his Jan. 24 response. “At some point in time, this position was converted into a more formal but undated document by the Ethics Commission, and purportedly placed somewhere on their website. Of note, this unofficial opinion was not made available to the general public, candidates, and citizens of Wisconsin or its Legislators.”

The school board president said he and other candidates did the correct and ethical thing in their reporting.

“It is properly and proportionally attributed to the number sharing the income and expenses,” he said. “And having had no guidelines, we believe that the Ethics Commission should have the burden of publicizing an opinion openly to the State of Wisconsin and State Legislators.”

He explained how the three candidates treated all contributions and expenses as split three ways. “A $3000.00 expense was split equally at $1000.00 per candidate and reported as such. We believed this was the proper and logical method to report.”

Bouche termed the WEC guidance on campaign finance reporting “illogical” since, he reasoned, “the Ethics Commission’s method of reporting would make  $3,000.00 of contributions into $15,000 of total campaign and in-kind expenditures – five (5) times the actual cash value. This logic is not comprehensible and something we must disagree with strongly.”

The Ethics Commission should have petitioned the Wisconsin State Legislature to clarify the rules in statutes, “and not write their own opinion,” Bouche wrote further, and suggested that the Ethics Commission immediately withdraw their opinion on their website and ask the Wisconsin State Legislature to offer clarification to the State Statutes. “Accordingly, the complaint against my campaign should be dismissed.”

WEC officials told Wausau Pilot & Review last week that they cannot confirm or deny any such complaint nor disclose any complaint’s status.

This week, WEC Administrator Carlton Jr., explained why. “There are a couple of reasons for this,” he said. “First, it is for the Commission, not staff, to determine whether a violation has occurred or is occurring. Second, it puts us in the position of prejudging a matter that may come before the Commission. It would be inappropriate for staff to do so.”

The WEC administrator also clarified the nature of Jan. 2022 memo.

“The memo itself isn’t guidance,” said Carlton Jr. who wrote the memo with the subject line ‘Joint Ads Guidance/Helpful Campaign Finance Reminders for the 2022 Election Cycle’. “Rather, it’s simply a communication informing local filing officers of guidance (in this case an advisory opinion) the Commission issued, encouraging them to direct committees to contact the Commission for assistance with the issues discussed in that advisory opinion, and advising/reminding the local filing officers about a couple of other matters.”