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State ethics investigators recommend felony charges against Trump committee, GOP arms

Ethics commission alleges Trump's Save America committee, Wisconsin GOP party offices and a lawmaker colluded to skirt campaign finance laws

Windows of a storefront have red signs saying "RECALL VOS" in white letters
Storefront for the Recall Vos campaign in Union Grove, Wis. Deneen Smith/WPR

The bipartisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission is recommending felony prosecution of a committee related to former President Donald Trump and several elected Wisconsin officials on allegations of campaign finance violations.

The ethics group met earlier this week in closed session and recommended that charges be brought against Trump’s Save America committee, three county GOP arms, and Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls. The commission alleges Brandtjen, Trump’s committee and county party leaders conspired to illegally bypass campaign finance rules to funnel money to a Republican candidate challenging Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in 2022.

Vos’ opponent in that race, Adam Steen, narrowly lost in the partisan primary and later mounted a write-in challenge in the general election.

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In the recommendations, the commission alleges that county Republican Party arms directed donations to the Steen campaign that were larger than the maximum $1,000 allowed by state law.

Party arms are allowed to give candidates unlimited funds, but the complaints allege that individual donors earmarked donations to the party for Steen to get around the cap on individual donations.

The ethics commission described this as “collusion” and “intentional,” and has referred the recommendations to the relevant District Attorneys in Florence County, Chippewa County and Langlade County.

Under state law, if those DAs don’t pursue prosecution, the state Department of Justice has the option to do so.

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission declined WPR’s request for an interview.

In 2022, Steen ran a Trump-backed challenge for Vos’ Assembly seat, losing by just several hundred votes. Brandtjen — arguably Trump’s strongest ally in the Wisconsin state Legislature and a key proponent of his debunked claims that the 2020 election was stolen in the Badger state — also backed Steen. She subsequently was removed from committee leadership.

According to the commission, Brandtjen allegedly advised the Steen fundraising arm, and “played a role in facilitating contributions” from the Trump fundraising group Save America to the three county Republican parties.

“There was at least one recorded conversation where she was discussing getting money from Save America to a county party,” the findings state.

Brandtjen did not respond to a WPR request for comment.

Trump has repeatedly attacked Vos, R-Rochester, in the past, angered by the Republican Assembly Speaker’s refusal to try to decertify President Joe Biden’s victory in Wisconsin. Election law experts say that would have been legally impossible.

Trump endorsed Steen in his campaign, inviting him on stage during an August 2022 rally and referring to Vos as “your RINO speaker of the house.” During the rally, Trump accused Vos, who worked to pass several bills that year that would have made absentee voting more difficult, of blocking efforts to secure elections.

“A lot of people think he’s a Democrat,” Trump said at the time.

Last month, conservative activists launched an effort to recall Vos from his Assembly seat. That effort has backing from far-right figures, including MyPillow CEO and Trump ally Mike Lindell.

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission reportedly investigated a $4,000 Lindell donation but found no probable cause.

A spokesperson for Vos did not respond to a WPR request for comment.