Wisconsin ethics panel recommends criminal prosecution for a Trump fundraising committee

Feb 24, 2024, 7:00 AM

Former President Donald Trump walks on stage during the 2024 NRB International Christian Media Conv...

Former President Donald Trump walks on stage during the 2024 NRB International Christian Media Convention Presidential Forum at The Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center on February 22 in Nashville. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

(Jon Cherry/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

Originally Published: 23 FEB 24 17:36 ET
Updated: 23 FEB 24 21:10 ET

(CNN) — A Wisconsin ethics panel is recommending that local prosecutors pursue criminal charges against one of Donald Trump’s fundraising arms and several other Republican committees that it alleges violated state campaign finance law in an effort to topple a powerful lawmaker who had run afoul of the former president.

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission said it found probable cause that Trump’s Save America political action committee – along with a state lawmaker, three county Republican parties and the campaign committee of one-time Republican candidate Adam Steen – conspired to circumvent the state’s donation limits during Steen’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in the 2022 Republican primary.

A Trump campaign spokesman and Save America’s treasurer did not respond to CNN’s inquiries about the commission’s recommendation. Steen did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages.

The referral from the bipartisan commission comes as the former president – and front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination – faces a litany of legal troubles, including 91 criminal charges in four jurisdictions and recent civil judgments that total hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under state law, individuals, candidate committees and PACs are barred from donating more than $1,000 to the committees of candidates running for the state assembly, the commission said. But party committees can make unlimited contributions to candidates.

The ethics panel said its investigation found Steen’s campaign, three county party committees and others arranged to circumvent those limits and steer larger donations – routed through party committees – to Steen’s campaign or to his vendors. Save America donated $5,000 each to the three GOP county committees cited in the investigation, the commission said in public records released Friday.

The panel referred its findings on Save America to local prosecutors in the three counties where the local GOP party committees are based for “investigation and prosecution.”

CNN has reached out to officials with the three county parties. One of them – Bob Billen, chairman of the Republican Party of Chippewa County – said he had no further information because he wasn’t elected to his post until August 2023, after the alleged events had transpired. In an email, Billen said he was learning “details of this Ethics Commission investigation in real time just as you are.”

The panel said that Save America has denied the allegations of wrongdoing in response to a complaint that sparked the commission’s investigation. (A commission official on Friday said that document was not a publicly available record.)

The commission also said that if the local district attorneys choose not to pursue prosecution, it reserved the right to refer to matter to another district attorney or to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, a Democrat.

In 2022, Trump endorsed Steen’s candidacy and sharply criticized Vos for not yielding to his pressure campaign over his 2020 loss in the state to Joe Biden. At one point, Vos told CNN affiliate WISN that Trump had asked him to decertify the 2020 election and that he had refused, saying the state’s Constitution barred him from doing so.

In the end, Steen lost to Vos by 260 votes in the 2022 primary.

The commission voted to approve the referrals to local prosecutors on Tuesday but made the records public on Friday. The referrals were first reported WISPOLITICS.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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Wisconsin ethics panel recommends criminal prosecution for a Trump fundraising committee