Milwaukee board members may have violated ethics code in ‘living wage’ vote


CONTRIBUTIONS: At least two people with ties to Service Employees International Union agencies appear to have defied Milwaukee County’s ethics code by making campaign contributions to board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic.

By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Two Milwaukee County Board members instrumental in passing a living wage ordinance may have violated the county’s code of ethics by accepting campaign contributions from Big Labor groups likely to benefit from the legislation.

At least two people with ties to Service Employees International Union agencies also appear to have defied the code by making contributions to the campaign of board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic.

County Supervisor David Bowen, who wrote the ordinance with help from SEIU representatives, also received campaign contributions from several SEIU-affiliated leaders while working on his living wage proposal.

The Milwaukee County code of ethics prohibits public officials from accepting anything of value from any person if it reasonably could be considered as a reward or is expected to influence that official’s vote or actions.

Chapter 9.05(2)(k) also states, “No person(s) with a personal financial interest in the approval or denial of a contract or proposal being considered by a county department or with an agency funded and regulated by a county department, shall make a campaign contribution to any county elected official who has approval authority over that contract or proposal during its consideration.”

That section could also apply to board members because the entire code of ethics pertains to all county employees, according to Robert Tuszynski, interim executive director of the Milwaukee County Ethics Board.

Dimitrijevic, who cast the final affirmative vote in February to ensure a veto-proof majority, received $200 shortly after the Dec. 16 Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee meeting where the ordinance was first presented for approval. Those contributions came from Bruce Colburn, vice president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, and Peter Rickman, a community organizer for Wisconsin Jobs Now.

Dimitrijevic also was given $650 in the months after Bowen announced in early September he would be introducing his living wage proposal later in the year. That money was contributed by Colburn, Wisconsin Jobs Now Executive Director Jennifer Epps-Addison, SEIU Local 1 and Michael Lauer, former executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now.

Bowen reported total payments of $180 from Colburn, Epps-Addison and Lauer on Oct. 29, almost two months after his living wage announcement.

Wisconsin Jobs Now, a political nonprofit in Milwaukee, is funded by SEIU and received $1.47 million in 201112, according to U.S. Department of Labor records.

Bowen, Dimitrijevic and the involved union representatives could face disciplinary action if the ethics panel receives a formal complaint and determines infractions were committed. Tuszynski wasn’t aware of any filed complaints as of Tuesday afternoon.

Tuszynski also admitted it would be almost impossible to predict any possible outcomes until the ethics board is asked to review the matter and learns all the “facts and circumstances.”

But Jim Balassone, an executive-in-residence at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, said it appears that all parties involved in the donating acted unethically.

“It’s clearly unethical for a county official to accept money, or for someone to give money that has a financial interest in the outcome of some legislation or some project … if the supervisor is going to vote on it,” Balassone told Wisconsin Reporter. “It’s a clear conflict of interest.”

SEIU stands to gain financially from the ordinance because of a provision exempting county-contracted firms from paying the $11.32-an-hour living wage if their employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement between the employer and a bona fide labor union.

SEIU could see approximately $300,000 more a year from Supportive Homecare Options Inc. alone if owner Sally Springer forces her nearly 1,200 employees to join the union.

Sprenger said she was approached by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin staff director Bonnie Strauss in December with an offer that she wouldn’t have to pay her staff a living wage if she signed a contract requiring that all her employees become union members.

“(SEIU) said they wrote the (ordinance) for the supervisors … it’s all about union security,” Sprenger told Wisconsin Reporter.

SEIU organizations, led by Rickman, worked with Bowen and other county officials on about 16 different drafts of the legislation, supervisors Deanna Alexander and James “Luigi” Schmitt have confirmed.

Rickman even provided several supervisors with talking points on Dec. 15 to address any naysayers of the living wage, according to emails obtained by Aaron Rodriguez of the Red Fox blog.

“No matter how many times the opposition cries wolf, it’s simply not true to say that living wage laws kill jobs, raise taxes, or diminish services,” Rickman says in one of the emails.

Rickman also sent six supervisors, including Dimitrijevic, a response to legal questions raised by the Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel on the proposed wage hike. The legal opinions Rickman furnished came from an attorney associated with the Living Wage Coalition.

Additionally, the emails reveal that Supervisor Theodore Lipscomb Sr. forwarded Rickman a report on the projected impact of the living wage proposal less than 10 minutes after Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele sent it to the entire county board.

VETO POWER: Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a Democrat, plans to veto a living wage ordinance that was recently passed by board members.

Rickman responded a few hours later that he already “got a copy from a few different places.”

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors passed the living wage ordinance Feb. 6 by a veto-proof majority of 12-6.

Abele, a Democrat, plans to veto the legislation, but in order for that veto to stand, one of the 12 supervisors would have to change votes.

Milwaukee County Comptroller Scott Manske estimates the ordinance, which applies to thousands of county employees and workers under contract with the county, would require $1 million in tax levy funding this year to offset the new wages.

That amount is expected to increase to $3.4 million by 2019, the year the 8,100-member Milwaukee County Department of Family Care’s reserves are expected to dry up.

The state has a tendency to eliminate insolvent programs, Manske said.

“I can see where a whole bunch of us would probably hope we die before then,” Margaret Ivers, a 65-year-old Family Care member from Greendale who suffers from diabetic neuropathy, told Wisconsin Reporter in January.

Contact Adam Tobias at or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias

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