Railroad CEO charged with campaign law violations
A major donor to Gov. Scott Walker was charged Monday with funneling more than $60,000 in illegal campaign contributions through his railroad employees over five years.
William Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., has agreed to plead guilty to two felony counts – one for exceeding the campaign contribution limits and a second for giving company and personal funds to associates so they could make political donations, mainly to Walker but to others as well. Individuals can give no more than $10,000 to gubernatorial candidates.
As part of a separate settlement, the railroad paid a civil forfeiture of $166,900 – the largest ever imposed by state election officials. Seven employees will each pay $250 forfeitures as well.
Under Gardner’s criminal plea deal, prosecutors ask that Gardner be sentenced to two years’ probation.
“Because he was cooperative and accepted responsibility at the outset – providing much of the evidence against himself – we are not recommending jail time,” said Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf, who investigates election and campaign matters.
Although Milwaukee prosecutors handled the case, the charges were filed in Washington County, where Gardner lives. Each of the two felony counts carries a maximum penalty of 3 1/2 years of combined prison and extended supervision and a $10,000 fine.
Gardner issued a statement Monday acknowledging his mistakes.
In that written statement, the 63-year-old railroad executive said he didn’t initially realize that what he and others were doing was improper. The criminal complaint says Gardner took several steps to conceal the scheme and that the illegal contributions came to light only when his ex-girlfriend alerted state officials.
“I made and asked others to make these contributions, and I am responsible for having the company reimburse some individuals,” Gardner stated. “My actions were against the law and wrong, and I take full responsibility.”
Walker said his campaign acted quickly to return the illegal donations from Gardner and cooperated with the investigation.
“I’ve got 50,000 contributors and if there’s a problem with any of them, we’ll obviously take action,” Walker said. “We took action swiftly in this case.”
Over the years, the first-term Republican governor received more than $50,000 in illegal contributions from Gardner and his employees, according to the complaint. Another $10,000 in illegal donations went to other Republicans and Democrats, including former Gov. Jim Doyle.
Last year, Walker returned more than $43,000 to Gardner and a handful of his company workers after the railroad official informed state regulators that he had been using company funds to reimburse his workers for their campaign contributions.
It is illegal in Wisconsin to give corporate money to political candidates.
This case came to light only because of a domestic disagreement, and it is difficult to know how often such illegal campaign giving happens, officials said.
“This is inherently a difficult type of violation to ferret out,” Landgraf said. “There is little chance this type of crime is going to be discovered unless we get a tip.”
One election lawyer said he understands why the prosecution isn’t recommending incarceration.
“Although these are serious criminal allegations, the mitigating factor that might preclude jail time is the fact that Gardner notified the (Government Accountability Board) of his crimes before he was caught,” said Michael Maistelman.
Milwaukee County prosecutors have been conducting a John Doe investigation into the allegations against Gardner. The Journal Sentinel first reported the illegal donations last summer and the John Doe investigation late last year.
Gardner’s small railroad company relies on millions of dollars in grants and loans from the state to operate.
Walker met twice with Gardner during the campaign, in December 2009 and April 2010, just days before Gardner’s former girlfriend contacted election officials about illegal donations. Walker said he spoke only generally with Gardner about his transportation philosophy.
According to the 12-page criminal complaint, Gardner told a number of employees in 2009 and 2010 to donate money to Walker and file expense reports with the railroad to cover the donations. Most agreed, and Gardner told at least some of them not to send their campaign checks until they received the money from the railroad.
One employee, lobbyist Ken Lucht, was given $5,000 from the company but never made the donation to Walker’s campaign. Lucht is among those levied a $250 forfeiture.
Gardner gave $10,000 to his girlfriend, Stacie Long, to donate to Walker. She sent a check to the campaign in December 2009, but they broke up shortly thereafter. Long learned the scheme was likely illegal, canceled the check and returned the $10,000 to Gardner.
She later contacted the Government Accountability Board about the situation as a leverage point as she tried to get belongings of hers that she said Gardner was hanging on to.
Gardner continued to solicit employees for such donations even after Long informed him in an April 2010 email she had reported the situation to the accountability board.
“Knock yourself out,” Gardner responded in an email. “I did nothing wrong and have broken no law.”
Long did not identify the company when she reported the situation to the board, but an attorney there was able to figure out the railroad was involved. Within weeks, Gardner reported himself to the board.
But three months earlier, in January 2010, Long’s new boyfriend, Gregory Edminster, contacted Walker’s campaign. Edminster told investigators that someone from Walker’s campaign staff assured him they had methods to detect illegal contributions and were confident they had not received any. Walker said Monday he was unaware of that conversation.
Those involved in the investigation declined to say at a news conference who on Walker’s campaign staff talked to Edminster. They said they couldn’t disclose that because of secrecy rules the Legislature imposed on investigations by the accountability board.
Gardner had tried to keep the scheme quiet. He sent an email to Dale Thomas, the chief mechanical officer for railroad cars, telling him to donate $4,900 to Walker once he received the same amount from the railroad.
Thomas agreed, and Gardner wrote him back: “And let’s not blab this around.” Responded Thomas: “I kinda figure that, my lips are sealed.”
Gardner’s attorneys told investigators Gardner didn’t want it out because he didn’t want employees thinking lavish payments were being made at a time when wages were being cut.
Thomas will pay a $250 forfeiture.
Gardner also made a $5,000 donation to Walker in July 2005, when Walker made an earlier run for governor. That contribution was illegal because lobbyists can’t make contributions to state candidates during the legislative session, and Gardner was a lobbyist for the railroad.
On Nov. 15, 2005, Gardner was fined $1,000 by the accountability board for making that contribution. Two days later, Walker’s campaign returned the $5,000 contribution to Gardner, but the same day Gardner had his daughter, Stephanie Schladweiler, give the campaign the same amount.
Schladweiler used Gardner’s money to make the contribution. Making donations in someone else’s name is illegal, but Schladweiler is not facing a forfeiture.
The complaint shows $34,800 going to Walker from the railroad in late 2009 and early 2010. During Walker’s first run for governor, Gardner gave another $12,000 to others using his personal funds as well as $6,000 in railroad funds so they could make donations to Walker.
In all, Walker’s campaign received $52,800 in illegal contributions.
The complaint shows Walker’s campaign has returned $45,300, including $39,800 in May and $5,500 in his first campaign for governor.
That leaves a $7,500 gap between the illegal donations that Walker’s campaign received and returned. Walker said he would return additional sums if any questionable donations remained.
In May, Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes said Walker returned many of his contributions after he dropped out of the 2006 race for governor. Gilkes is now Walker’s chief of staff.
Walker returned $43,800 in donations in May from those connected to the railroad. That included a $4,000 donation from Don Snyder of Southlake, Texas, who sits on the railroad’s advisory board. Investigators found that contribution had been given legally, Landgraf said.
The money that was returned to the company was later given to charity, according to investigators.
The complaint shows illegal contributions went to other campaigns as well.
Railroad money was used to give $500 to Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) in 2003, $500 to then-Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) in 2005, $5,000 to Doyle, $3,500 to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee in 2009 and $500 to then-Speaker Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville) in 2009.
Darling received the $500 donation from Lucht in 2003, but he wasn’t reimbursed by the company for it until two years later.
The Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee gave the $3,500 it received to charity in 2010 after reports surfaced about Gardner making illegal donations. Sheridan gave $300 of the $500 he received to charity. He plans to have his campaign give the remaining $200 to charity as well but does not have the money in his account, according to Jonathan Becker, ethics director of the accountability board.
Gardner was charged under an unusual provision of the law that requires campaign finance cases to be filed in the county where defendants live. Most crimes are charged in the county where they occur.
The case shares similarities to the one against Kenosha trucking magnate Dennis Troha, who in 2008 was sentenced to six months of probation for exceeding federal campaign donation limits by funneling political donations through family members. Troha, who unsuccessfully sought a Kenosha casino, was a large donor to Doyle, as well as Republicans.