MADISON — Former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen finally settled his misconduct-in-office case on Monday after fighting for nearly a decade to avoid prison.
Prosecutors charged Jensen, a Republican who represented Waukesha, back in 2002 with using state workers to campaign for GOP legislative candidates. Now he’ll walk away from the case after paying a $5,000 forfeiture and $67,000 to cover the state’s legal fees.
Jensen, 50, issued a statement quoting singer Johnny Nash, calling Monday “a bright, bright sunshiny day.”
“For my wife Julie and I, and our three young children, today is a day of thanksgiving,” the statement said. “For nearly a decade, this investigation has been a dark cloud over our lives.”
The plea agreement closes the so-called caucus scandal, a secret probe into corruption at the state Capitol. The investigation began in 2001 after the Wisconsin State Journal reported lawmakers were using their staffers as their personal campaign workers.
The probe eventually ensnared some of the most powerful figures in Madison at the time.
Prosecutors charged Jensen, who once harbored dreams of running for governor, in October 2002 with three felony counts of misconduct in office and a misdemeanor ethics violation. They accused him of using state workers in his Capitol office and in the Republican legislative caucus, a now-defunct group of policy analysts, to campaign for Republican candidates.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, D-Madison; Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti, R-Oconomowoc; Sen. Brian Burke, D-Milwaukee, co-chairman of the powerful Joint Finance Committee; and Assistant Majority Leader Bonnie Ladwig, R-Racine, were charged as well.
All of them were convicted in plea deals — except Jensen. He fought every step of the way, filing multiple appeals and delaying proceedings against him for years. A jury finally convicted him in Madison on all counts in March 2006 after an exhausting three-week trial that exposed numerous lawmakers who got campaign help from state workers.
Jensen was sentenced to 15 months in prison, but convinced a judge to let him remain free while he pursued more appeals.
He resigned from the Legislature after his conviction and has worked as a consultant for the Alliance for School Choice, which promotes school vouchers. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported that he also worked as an adviser for the American Federation of Children, another pro-voucher organization.
In November 2007, Jensen got what he wanted. A state appeals court granted him a new trial, ruling a jury instruction wrongly concluded that using state resources to campaign automatically equated to criminal intent.
He asked that his new trial be moved to Waukesha County, a Republican stronghold packed with his supporters. He argued a state law that allows legislators to face ethics violations in their home counties should apply to him, even though it was passed in 2007, five years after he was first charged.
A Madison judge and a state appeals court refused to move the trial, but the state Supreme Court overruled them this year. That move was key, since it put Jensen in the hands of Republican District Attorney Brad Schimel.
What was scheduled as a routine status conference on Monday became a plea hearing. Jensen pleaded no contest to using his position for financial gain, a civil violation. In return, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel agreed to drop the other felony counts.
Jensen agreed to pay $5,000 in forfeitures for the civil violation and another $67,147 to cover prosecutors’ expenses. He remains convicted of the misdemeanor ethics charge. The Wisconsin Constitution prohibits anyone convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving a violation of public trust from running for office.
Schimel said in a statement that his limited staff couldn’t devote the time to prepare for what would have been an extremely complex trial. He also noted that most of the lawmakers who served in 2002 are now gone, the investigation created a bright line between state and campaign work, and Jensen remains convicted of a misdemeanor.
“It is time to put closure to this matter,” Schimel said. “Our criminal justice system has expended hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing these matters. . I am convinced it is the right thing to do at this time.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin said he was impressed with Jensen’s toughness.
“He had chosen to fight it tooth and nail from the very beginning,” Franklin said. “That tenacity as a legal strategy has paid off, as long as you don’t count eight years of living with the uncertainty of this hanging over your head. That couldn’t have been a fun time for anybody.”
Jay Heck, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin, said Jensen will always be remembered for his fall from grace. But the plea agreement sends a troubling message, he said.
“What I’m fearful of,” Heck said, “is it sends the signal that politicians can . avoid prosecution for some pretty serious violations of the public trust.”
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