On Friday, when the Government Accountability Board is expected to certify a recall election against Gov. Scott Walker, the days of unlimited fundraising for the governor will come to an end. Restrictions will also be placed on any so-called residual recall funds.
Of course, most political observers expect Walker's campaign to "spend down" the millions he's received before these new restrictions go into effect. We won't know definitively what has transpired until the next round of campaign finance statements are due on April 30 (covering activity through April 23).
Normally a donor cannot give more than $10,000 to candidates for state and local office in a calendar year.
But under state law, incumbents who are facing a recall effort are allowed to start accepting unlimited donations the day opponents start circulating recall petitions. For Walker, that day came on Nov. 4.
The governor is allowed to use these funds to pay for legal fees related to fighting the recall effort or verifying petitions. The Government Accountability Board also determined that he could use the money for advertising, though the authority for that is not clear in the statutes, says Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Walker raised $12.1 million between January 2011 and January 2012, when the last campaign finance reports were due. At that time he reportedly had $2.6 million in cash on hand.
According to a GAB memo from March 2011, once a recall election is certified, residual recall funds can be used for an upcoming campaign; donated to a charity or school; or returned to the original contributor.
But since all campaign donations go into one pot, it's not clear how - or if - the Walker campaign would determine which of the remaining funds needed to be returned or funneled elsewhere.
According to Reid Magney, spokesman for the GAB, that determination is "up to the office holder."
McCabe says the bigger issue is whether the GAB has a system in place to make sure the unlimited campaign donations have been spent properly. Campaign finance reports, he notes, do not state which funds are used to pay for which expenses.
"Does the GAB have anything in place to document what expenses are being paid for with the money being raised during unlimited fundraising?"
GAB spokesman Reid Magney says that campaigns have been instructed to mark any funds received during the period of unlimited fundraising as recall-related donations and to similarly categorize recall-related expenses.
"The GAB staff has put extensive time into ensuring that all recall-related expenses are properly reported on campaign finance reports," he says. "We will respond to any complaints that arise out of those reports."
Questions about how recall funds could be used bubbled to the surface earlier this month when Walker announced he had created a legal defense fund in connection to the ongoing John Doe investigation in Milwaukee County.
Democrats pounced quickly, asking whether Walker could use his unlimited funds to pay his criminal defense lawyers.
Walker spokeswoman Ciara Matthews told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Jason Stein that state law prevented the governor from transferring any of the unlimited donations to a legal defense fund.
Matthews also told Stein that Walker's attorneys had met with the GAB to properly set up the legal fund.
Magney would not confirm whether his agency advised Walker, saying that state law prevents him from acknowledging whether the agency has given advice to any official.
Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Mike Tate said at the time that only officials who are being investigated or charged, or who have been convicted of a criminal violation, can set up a legal defense fund.
But the statutes are actually a bit more expansive: They also allow candidates or public officials to set up legal defense funds if their "agent" is being investigated, charged or convicted.
"Agent" is not defined in the statute, but it seems reasonable that an aide to a county executive could be considered one.
So far three former aides have been charged as a result of the secret investigation into Walker's office when he was Milwaukee County executive.