More than two years after he left the state Legislature, former GOP state Sen. Mike Ellis still has his campaign finance account, in part, because he knows what closing it down means: The end.

It’s been 47 years since Ellis, R-Neenah, won his first election to the state Assembly and three since he suddenly dropped his re-election bid following the release of an embarrassing secretly recorded video.

But the former Senate leader is just now preparing to start closing out his account by creating a foundation where he will send the money and then dole it out to charities in the Fox Valley.

He compared the delay to former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre’s repeated flirtations with retirement before he finally went to play for the New York Jets and then the Minnesota Vikings.

“It’s difficult when you close that baby down,” Ellis said. “You know that it’s time to accept the fact that you’re not 29, you’re 76.”

Ellis is by no means alone among former state lawmakers and candidates who still have accounts open years after they leave office. Under state law, past candidates have four options for their leftover contributions. They can keep the accounts open and continue spending the money on political activities so long as they comply with reporting requirements. They also can return it to donors, give it to the common school fund or donate it to charity.

Ellis is creating the Michael G. Ellis Charitable Foundation, filing paperwork with the IRS. He had $115,248 left in his campaign account at the end of June after spending $6,418 during the first six months of 2017. That includes donations of $2,000 each to GOP Sens. Rob Cowles, a long-time colleague from Green Bay, and Roger Roth, who replaced him in the Appleton-area Senate seat and is now the Senate president. He also gave $1,000 each to GOP Sens. Devin LeMahieu, of Oostburg, and Jerry Petrowski, of Marathon.

Ellis said he spent about six months working on the foundation, thought he admitted to sometimes still having the desire to run again.

“But after watching what’s been going on over the last year and half, I’m not interested in running for anything,” Ellis said.

The leftover campaign accounts also create a possible conflict for the former candidates who keep them open while lobbying the state Legislature.

State law only allows lobbyists to personally contribute to a candidate from the day nomination papers are circulated through Election Day. However, they are allowed to deliver a contribution at any time from a PAC or a conduit.

Administrator Brian Bell said the Ethics Commission has not addressed whether a lobbyist with an active campaign account is making a personal donation if they use the fund to donate to a candidate or it should be considered delivering a contribution from a committee.

Former GOP state Sen. Neal Kedzie resigned from the Legislature in 2014 to become president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association and is a registered lobbyist.

He also continues to have a campaign account, which he used to donate $1,000 to Roth June 28, which is in the window during which lobbyists cannot directly contribute to a candidate. It was the first donation he’s made to a candidate through the fund since resigning from the Legislature.

Kedzie, who had $41,607 left in the account at the end of June, said he was operating under the belief the donation counted as a committee to committee transfer and did not run afoul of the lobbyist contribution ban.

He also said he’d continued to hang onto the account initially because of the possibility he may want to return to public office. But he said a WisPolitics.com interview about the fund was a reminder he “should probably just make a decision what I should do.”

“I’ve thought, ‘What if I change my mind?’” Kedzie said about leaving office. “But I’m very happy with where I’m at and don’t see myself getting back into politics unless it’s sometime after I retire.”

WisPolitics.com check of campaign finance reports and lobbying records turned several other former lawmakers who continue to have campaign accounts after becoming lobbyists. They include former Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point; former Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau; and two former Assembly speakers.

Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, and John Gard, R-Peshtigo, notified the Ethics Commission this month they didn’t raise or spend anything during the most recent six-month period. Fitzgerald, who left the Assembly after 2012, last reported activity in the last half of 2016 and still had $3,271 in the account at the end of the year. Gard, who left the Assembly after 2006, when he made a bid for Congress, hasn’t reported any activity in at least eight years.

Meanwhile, Danou and Lassa had not yet filed reports for the first half of 2016 as of late Thursday.

Some of the activity former lawmakers reported was minor: Former Dem Rep. Kim Hixson, who left the Legislature after 2010, spent spent $63 on website development with Go Daddy and had $854 left in his account; former Dem Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, who left after 2014, spent $80 on Internet access and had $426; and former GOP Rep. Scott Gunderson, who left the Legislature in 2011 to join the Walker administration, spent $25 on bank charges, leaving him with $6,539.

Others who still have accounts include:

*Former GOP state Sen. Glenn Grothman, who is now a member of Congress. His state account had $10,267 in it after the Glenbeulah Republican donated to $500 to Roth, the state senator.

*Former GOP state Sen. Mary Lazich, who left the Legislature after last session. She spent $2,486 in the first half of the year, leaving her with $48,253 cash on hand. Of that, $392 went to cover cell phone bills, while she gave $1,000 each to Roth, who succeeded her as Senate president, and failed DPI candidate Lowell Holtz.

*Former Dem Rep. Robb Kahl, who also left after last session, spent $4,525, leaving him with $21,964. Of that, $2,500 was a donation to the Ripon College Center for Politics and the People to support “its work to promote good governance,” according to his report. He also gave $2,000 to local candidates.

There is no limit on how long former candidates can keep their accounts open, and former Dem Rep. Shirley Krug, of Milwaukee, continues to have one 12 years after she left the Assembly. Tom Barrett’s mayoral campaign sent her a refund for $1,210 on a past contribution, while Krug also listed $26 in interest on her account. She gave $1,000 to the ADCC and had $30,158 left in the bank.

Former Dem Rep. Spencer Black, of Madison, left the Legislature after 2010 and continues to have $84,432 in his account, down from $123,564 around the time he left. Over the past six months, he spent $2,338, including $158 for cell phone expenses, $134 in mileage and $47 for what was listed as media-newspaper. He also donated $2,000 to other committees.

Past candidates also continue to have open accounts, including Dem guv hopeful Mary Burke, who had $4,424 in income during the first six months of the year from renting out her donor lists. She also repaid $6,075 of the loans she gave the campaign, though she still had an outstanding balance of nearly $4.4 million from the 2014 campaign. At one point, she had loaned the campaign $4.6 million before paying off $85,000 in January and February of 2015, $100,000 in August 2016 and $15,000 in November.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Green, the president’s pick to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, has started emptying out his state campaign account more than a decade after losing his bid for guv.

The Green Bay Republican made $70,000 in charitable contributions this spring, including $50,000 to the World Orphan Fund, a group headed by longtime GOP operative R.J. Johnson. Green is a member of the group’s advisory board.

He also gave $10,000 to the International Conservation Caucus Foundation and $5,000 each to the Joseph P. Mettner Foundation and World Teach.

Green also paid $5,000 in consulting fees to the Arena Strategy Group and covered $469 in travel expenses.

That left Green, who was formally nominated by the White House in May, with $22,198 in the account at the end of June.

The report shows Green made his first charitable contribution April 10 and his last May 18.

Mark Graul, a longtime aide to Green, said the former congressman did not have to start spending down the account to join the administration. Still, questions about the account came up during the vetting process and became a “helpful reminder that we need to get rid of this.”

Green hopes to empty the account by the end of summer, Graul said.

“The money will be used much more wisely with the World Orphan Fund and some of the other charities that he’s given to than sitting in a bank account doing nothing,” Graul said.

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