Ethics panel refers Trump PAC for felony prosecution

The panel alleged there was a scheme to direct funds to Adam Steen's campaign.

February 23, 2024, 4:24 PM

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission is recommending felony charges against a fundraising committee aligned with former President Donald Trump for allegedly conspiring to improperly line the pockets of a Trump-endorsed candidate who unsuccessfully challenged a powerful Republican critic of the former president.

In a series of reports shared Friday with district attorneys' offices in the state, the bipartisan ethics panel laid out evidence of an alleged scheme to direct funds to the campaign of Adam Steen, a Trump-endorsed Republican who in 2022 unsuccessfully ran to unseat Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state.

Vos, who once likened Trump to the iceberg that sank the Titanic, ultimately defeated Steen by a narrow margin. But the commission found "probable cause" to refer three county Republican parties, Steen's campaign, eight individuals and Trump's leadership PAC, Save America, to law enforcement for felony campaign finance violations.

Save America is the PAC that has been covering much of Trump's legal bills over the past two years. During the 2022 cycle, the PAC donated to numerous political groups and Republican candidates aligned with Trump.

The parties allegedly "colluded" to circumvent state campaign finance contribution limits for individuals by funneling money to GOP committees in Chippewa, Langlade and Florence counties to steer the money to Steen's campaign or its vendors – an arrangement colloquially known as a "straw donor" scheme, the ethics commission alleged.

Under state law, a Wisconsin Assembly candidate can only accept up to $1,000 from an individual or a PAC, but can accept an unlimited amount from a state or county party committee – which can also accept unlimited amounts from a donor.

PHOTO: Wisconsin Republican state assembly candidate Adam Steen speaks at a rally, Aug. 5, 2022, in Waukesha, Wis.
Wisconsin Republican state assembly candidate Adam Steen speaks at a rally, Aug. 5, 2022, in Waukesha, Wis.
Morry Gash/AP

Trump's Save America leadership PAC was among the straw donors, the ethics panel found. Federal and state campaign finance records show that Save America gave $5,000 each to Langlade County GOP, Florence County GOP and Chippewa County GOP, all on the same day on Aug. 31, 2022. State campaign finance records show Langdale County GOP donated $40,000 to Steen's campaign during the 2022 race.

The commission also investigated Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and a major Trump supporter, but found that he did not violate any state laws.

The Trump campaign, Steen's campaign, and county GOP parties in Langlade, Chippewa and Florence did not respond to ABC News' request for comment. District attorneys' offices in Langlade and Florence confirmed receipt of the referrals, but declined to comment further.

Chippewa GOP Chair Bob Billen also declined to comment to ABC News.

The Chippewa County District Attorney, Wade Newell, said he had received the referrals, but added that, as a current member of the county Republican party, he "cannot personally take action in these matters" as doing so "would be a conflict." Newell told ABC News that he would refer the matter back to the ethics commission, which can then direct the referral to another county or the attorney general's office.

If district attorneys in the three counties decline to investigate within 60 days, the state attorney general will have the opportunity to take up the cases.