Trump-linked campaign finance case suffers another setback

The Capitol Report The Capitol Report by

Posted 5/1/24

The Wisconsin campaign finance case with ties to Donald Trump has suffered another setback.

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Trump-linked campaign finance case suffers another setback

The Capitol Report The Capitol Report by


The Wisconsin campaign finance case with ties to Donald Trump has suffered another setback.

First, a series of local prosecutors said they had a conflict of interest and couldn't handle the case.

Now the Waukesha County district attorney says a lack of evidence she could use in court means she won't file against GOP state Rep. Janel Brandtjen. The Menomonee Falls lawmaker had been accused of playing a major role in a scheme to evade campaign finance limits as she backed a challenge of GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in 2022.

Some background is in order:

The state Ethics Commission in February recommended felony charges as part of what it described as an effort by Vos challenger Adam Steen, Brandtjen, three county Republican parties and Trump’s joint fundraising operation to funnel $40,000 to Steen’s campaign as he challenged Vos, R-Rochester.

Steen lost the GOP primary to Vos in August 2022 by 260 votes and then mounted a write-in campaign against him that fall.

In the referral, investigators alleged Brandtjen played a role in facilitating the contributions from Trump’s Save America Joint Fundraising Committee to the three county parties and spoke with Steen about the donations. According to the referral, there was at least one recorded conversation in which she discussed “getting” money from Save America to a county party. The referral says she donated $3,000 to the Langlade County GOP, though a WisPolitics check of state campaign finance records didn’t turn up a personal contribution from the lawmaker to the party or a transfer from her legislative campaign account.

The commission accused her of a Class I felony, which carries a penalty of up to a $1,000 fine, up to six months in jail or both.

The heart of the alleged effort was an arrangement between Steen, three county Republican parties and others to evade limits on how much individual donors can give to an Assembly candidate. The Elections Commission alleged Steen and campaign aides told those who wanted to give more than the $1,000 to send the additional contributions to the Langlade County GOP with a “63” in the memo line, a reference to Vos’ district number.

The number was a signal that the Langlade County GOP was to forward those funds or use them for in-kind donations to benefit Steen, according to documents obtained by WisPolitics.

The commission also referred for prosecution eight individuals, along with the Langlade, Florence and Chippewa County Republican parties, and Trump’s joint fundraising committee for their alleged involvement.

The state Ethics Commission’s referral accusing Brandtjen was built upon taped calls that were shared by Steen’s former campaign staffers.

Though the commission had portrayed Brandtjen as a central figure in the scheme, Waukesha County DA Susan Opper wrote in a late April letter to the agency that the intercepted communications couldn’t be used in a court to prosecute the Menomonee Falls lawmaker. Without them, she added, there was no way to prove Brandtjen’s knowledge and intent, which are necessary to win a conviction or establish a conspiracy.

Her letter noted that though one-party consent recordings are lawful in Wisconsin, they can’t be admitted as evidence.

While the intercepted communications may be compelling in the court of public opinion, they are not in a court of law,” Opper wrote.

Still, she added her conclusion should not be seen as a finding that Brandtjen’s actions were “lawful nor laudable.” Opper also added the Ethics Commission could still pursue a civil violation where “the burden of proof and constitutional rights of the accused are far less stringent.”

The Ethics Commission also referred charges against Steen to Opper recently after Racine County DA Patricia Hanson sent them back, citing a conflict of interest. As of April 19, Opper had yet to decide whether to prosecute in that case.

Local DAs who received the other referrals have referred them back to the commission, citing conflicts of interest. The cases against the Chippewa, Florence and Langlade county Republican parties have all been referred to other local DAs. But already, one of those counties has sent the case back to the commission, citing a lack of time and resources to investigate the allegations.

If the commission can’t find a local prosecutor to take the cases, the agency has the option of referring them to the state Department of Justice. So while the case has yet to be embraced by local prosecutors, state prosecutors may have the chance to push it forward.

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The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in coverage of government and politics and is distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

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