Waukesha DA won’t pursue charges against Brandtjen

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission alleged Rep. Janel Brandtjen took part in a criminal fundraising scheme in 2022

State Rep. Janel Brandtjen and conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna speak at an "Audit the Vote" rally
Republican state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, left, and conservative talk show host Vicki McKenna, right, speak at an “Audit the Vote” rally at the state Capitol Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Will Kenneally/PBS Wisconsin

Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper says she won’t pursue criminal charges against state Rep. Janel Brandtjen, a Menomonee Falls Republican who allegedly violated campaign finance laws to support the primary opponent of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.

The bipartisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission referred the case for prosecution in February, alleging that Brandtjen worked with former President Donald Trump’s Save America political action committee, three county Republican parties and the campaign committee of Adam Steen, who ran against Vos.

According to the Ethics Commission, Brandtjen advised Steen and facilitated contributions between the Save America committee and the Chippewa County Republican Party, the Florence County Republican Party and the Republican Party of Langlade County.

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Under state law, donors can only give candidates to the state Assembly up to $1,000, but they can give unlimited amounts to county political parties, which can make unlimited transfers to candidates.

The Ethics Commission alleged Brandtjen was “complicit” in a scheme that arranged large dollar donations to the county parties that were then transferred to Steen’s campaign, saying there was “at least one recorded conversation” where she discussed getting money from the Save America committee to a county party.

In her letter to the commission Friday, Opper said she had been given four recorded conversations purported to be between Brandtjen and Steen. While state law allows one person to record another over the phone without their knowledge, Opper said courts would not allow it to be used as evidence to support criminal charges.

“Nothing in this decision should be interpreted as a conclusion that the actions of Rep. Brandtjen were lawful nor laudable,” Opper wrote. “I do not reach such a conclusion. I am simply concluding that I cannot prove charges against her.”

Opper added that while the recordings “may be compelling in the court of public opinion, they are not in a court of law.”

The district attorney said the Ethics Commission could still decide, at its discretion, to pursue a civil case against Brandtjen.

In its February referral letter, the panel noted it could refer the matter to another district attorney or to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is led by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

Brandtjen and Trump campaigned for Steen in his 2022 Republican primary bid against Vos, criticizing the powerful Assembly speaker for not doing more to try to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss in Wisconsin. Vos narrowly won his primary and went on to defeat Steen a second time when he ran as a write-in candidate.