February 10, 2015

Complaint calls Oneida County mailings illegal; fairness at issue, too

The second of two parts.

Let’s start with the obvious: The fliers mailed to voters in four Oneida County Board races last spring were, like many political communications, overstated and arguably unfair.

As recounted in last week’s column, one of the fliers sounded an alarm about a “plan” to eliminate dams in Oneida County. The fine print noted that this referred to a rejected proposal. The person who allegedly made this proposal denies it.

This is one of the fliers sent out before the April 1 election in Oneida County.

This is one of the fliers sent out before the April 1 election in Oneida County.

Two of the candidates who the fliers said would “Save Our Dams” won their races; two did not. The mailings, it emerged, were crafted by state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, an Oneida County resident and political rising star.

Questions and concerns about the fliers led to the creation of Citizens for Democracy in Oneida County. Member Scott Eshelman says the group has several hundred people who receive its emailed newsletters. He blasts the fliers for making “wild accusations” that have taken a toxic toll on county politics.

In August, a group member complained to the Government Accountability Board, which oversees state election laws. In September, the GAB responded to say it defers to county district attorneys to investigate and prosecute such matters.

In October, the group sent a complaint to Oneida County DA Michael Schiek, who says he forwarded it to the state Attorney General’s office in November. Says AG spokeswoman Anne Schwartz: “We have received the information and it is under review.”

The complaint alleges more than 70 violations of state elections law. It accuses the candidates of filing false reports and Sen. Tiffany of causing “the dissemination of improper campaign information.”

Some of these accusations may be based on misunderstandings. For instance, the bulk mail permit used for the fliers belongs to the Northwoods River News of Rhinelander. Tiffany contacted the paper to arrange for this mailing; he says the candidates, not he, paid for it.

But none of the four candidates touted by these fliers reported campaign expenditures to the Northwoods River News or its parent company. The complaint therefore alleges that this amounted to an illegally unreported in-kind contribution.

Actually, there’s another explanation. Three of the four candidates reported payments totaling $2,125 to Full Impact Communications of Oconomowoc, which produced the fliers. (The fourth candidate did not file a report, under an exemption for campaigns that spend less than $1,000.)

Full Impact owner Brian Nemoir, who played key roles on Supreme Court Justice David Prosser’s 2011 re-election campaign and former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s 2012 U.S. Senate bid, says the cost of the bulk mailing was included in the overall price, a common practice. Admits Eshelman, “I never thought of that possibility.”

Candidate Ken Dirks, who lost his race, says he paid a single bill from Full Impact for printing and mailing. Candidates Lance Krolczyk and Robb Jensen, who won the election and now serve on the Oneida County Board, also say they paid the full cost of the fliers. Losing candidate Dennis Schoeneck had this to say: “I am not saying anything.”

The complaint alleges other violations, including a lack of requisite disclosure. The fliers bear the bizarrely misspelled disclaimer, “Authoized and pad for by candidate.” State law requires mailings to include the name of the candidate or committee in this wording.

But this and other irregularities may not rise to the level where the local DA or state Department of Justice would be compelled to act. That leaves the fairness of the mailings, or lack thereof, as the main outstanding issue. And good luck complaining about that.

Indeed, the people behind the fliers are as sore as anyone. Tiffany calls the filed complaint “just purely sour grapes.” Krolczyk filed county-level ethics charges, which were not sustained, against a fellow board member who criticized the fliers. And Dirks demands, “Are you guys trying to dissuade people from running for office by turning this into a nightmare?”