Hidden video: Sen. Ellis, crusader against PACs, says he’ll make his own Super PAC


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – He sounds boastful. He sounds like he’s got a chip on his shoulder.

He is certainly a man in a bar.

And state Sen. President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, also sounds like he’s willing to skirt Wisconsin campaign finance law by setting up his own political action committee to attack his Democratic opponent, according to a new hidden-camera video from James O’Keefe, the controversial conservative muckraker.

HAMMERED: State Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, goes off on the gavel during a Senate session. Ellis, a vocal opponent of “special interest” money says he’ll create his own Super PAC in a James O’Keefe hidden vid.

O’Keefe’s Project Veritas trained its hidden cameras on Ellis at the “same bar he frequents” to see what the long-time state senator and publicly aggressive opponent of political action committees, or PACs, had to say.

“I am putting together my own Super PAC. I don’t need to kiss anybody’s ass,” Ellis tells undercover reporters who just happened to strike up a political conversation at the bar.

As O’Keefe points out in the video, candidates under state law are not allowed to coordinate the actions of a campaign with an independent group. But Ellis “appears to intend to create a PAC and not disclose his involvement” in order to attack state Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, his 19th Senate District opponent.

“I have a $400,000 committee, and Judi Rhodes will, I’m raising the money, and she will manufacture the crap,” Ellis says in the video sting. Rhodes is apparently Judith Rhodes Engels, who has handled fundraising for the Committee to Elect Republican Senators and founder of political consulting company Cross Rhodes Strategies, based in Cottage Grove.

“She’s (Rhodes Engels) good at what she does, so I told her, ‘Judi, if I raise $500,000 then you attack her,’” Ellis says in the video, again apparently referring to Bernard Schaber. “I don’t want to attack her. I want Judi, somebody else to attack.”

Publicly, Ellis has been a vocal advocate of stiffer campaign finance laws and a stern opponent of “special interests” in Wisconsin politics.

His Senate Bill 113 proposed giving candidates matching grants to offset independent spending special-interest or deep-pocket opponents. That proposal never came up for a vote, but was co-opted in many ways by Senate Democrats.

Though a Republican, Ellis had greater success with subsequent campaign finance reform, thanks to his partnership with Gary George and Chuck Chvala, disgraced former Democrat state senators.

George was convicted on felony charges for taking $270,000 in kickbacks in legal fees, pocketing money from a businessman who got state contracts, and for making his legislative aides run personal errands. In 2003, George became the second state senator to be recalled. Chvala served time in jail as part of the legislature’s notorious “caucus scandal.”

In an Appleton Post-Crescent story, Ellis once said the campaign finance reform measures he helped move through the legislature goes “to the heart of the biggest cancer in our election system,” special-interest money and PACs.

He called funding by such outside independent expenditure groups a “monstrous problem.”

But Ellis seems to toy with a PAC of his own in the O’Keefe video. He tells his undercover drinking buddies that maybe he’ll call his PAC “The Friends of Free Life, [or] whatever the hell they want to call it.”

Ellis says he’ll have the money – a half million dollars. He brags that his friends, apparently Stewart Mills Stewart Mills of chain store Mills Fleet Farm) will chip in $50,000. So will Mills’ family members and others.

Mills did not return a call from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment. Neither did Rhodes Engels. James O’Keefe, who led the hidden video sting of Ellis also did not return an email.

Reid Magney, spokesman for the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections and campaign ethics laws, declined to comment when asked if anyone had filed a complaint against Ellis following the release of the video.

Ellis, 73, who has served in the state Senate for more than 30 years and in the Legislature for 43 years) released a statement Wednesday afternoon, insisting that “standing up to special interests has consequences.”

“I find it ironic that after standing up to special interests my entire career, and trying to avoid them in my reelection campaign, that they are now targeting me and my supporters,” the senator said.

He said the recorded conversation was “one of many potential ideas that I have bounced of off (sic) others after work, in which I could be reelected with the help of personal friends, to avoid being tainted by special interest money.

“Shortly after the video was recorded, I was informed that the described scenario would be illegal, and the idea went no further,” Ellis added.

“At no time did I ever speak with Judi Rhodes or any of the other people mentioned about third-party expenditures or exceeding contribution limits,” the senator asserts in his statement. As evidence, he offered the fact that he returned a check to “one of the mentioned individuals” who had “attempted to contribute too much money.”

Ellis never questions or takes issue with the Project Veritas video or its content, as other subjects of the O’Keefe’s hidden-camera videos have.

Schaber, Ellis’ political foe, told Wisconsin Reporter she had not seen the video as of Wednesday afternoon, but she said a candidate must always be responsible for the things she says.

“Sen. Ellis’ words and actions speak for themselves,” the representative said.

Ellis charges that his opponent has already received the benefit of special-interest advertising in the campaign.

“If he considers ‘special interest’ to be money people in the district have given me … that’s what I have coming in,” Schaber said. She does acknowledge she has “taken PAC money, but I do not have special interest money coming into my campaign.”

Ellis also dogged fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the video, agreeing that the politically charged John Doe investigations into Walker supporters and the Walker campaign may be a blessing in disguise.

“I think Walker is working for Walker,” the senator says on video.

Ellis says he will keep up the good fight against special interest and PAC money.

“I will continue my fight to keep special-interest money out of politics, and give more power to the people.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org