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Rarity of Milwaukee corruption prosecutions shows system is effective, says political expert

Campaign finance
Joaquin Corbalan
Stock Adobe
Milwaukee alderwoman was removed from the common council because of campaign finance convictions.

A Milwaukee alderwoman has been removed from office after she was convicted in Milwaukee County Circuit Court Monday of two felonies related to her conduct in office.

Chantia Lewis pleaded no contest to accepting an illegal campaign finance disbursement and entered a guilty plea to misconduct in office. She’ll be sentenced in the coming weeks.

UW-Milwaukee political science professor emeritus Mordecai Lee says campaign funds can be used for any purpose related to political advancement or campaign activities. But, he cautions, “It's not a debit card, it's not a checking account. It's not for personal expenses,” he says. “Over the last generation or so, every once in a while, there are people who are just tempted by the green, tempted by the dollars.”

There are sort of two separate categories of corruption, he says. “One category of activity is your campaign funds, your fundraising, how you use the money, how you raise the money. It's really a separate category.”

A second category of offenses arises if you're already holding office and if you abuse your office. For example, if a politician accepts a bribe in exchange for voting on approving or rejecting something, for example, like zoning. “And it's disappointing to say, but there's always the temptation [for some politicians]… Because there's so much special interest group lobbying that happens behind the scenes that every once in a while, there is a temptation for that to happen,” notes Lee.

WUWM's Maayan Silver's extended conversation with political expert Mordecai Lee on campaign finances.

Lee says, generally speaking, charges of political corruption or political crimes in Milwaukee and Wisconsin have popped up only occasionally over the last generation or so. “Occasionally, it's popped up in the Common Council, occasionally, it's popped up on the County Board. And sometimes in the state legislature,” he says.

Lee says it's good that federal prosecutors and state prosecutors are very consistent about the need for strict oversight. “Because if there isn't adequate oversight or an adequate regulatory review of all those papers that are generated by campaign finance reports or travel expenditures, reimbursement, whatever it might be, that's when it starts getting bad.”

Lee distinguishes Milwaukee from Chicago or Cook County politics, where he says, “Political corruption almost seems to be baked into the political system.”

When these kinds of cases come along every 10 years or so, Lee suspects that people that are already cynical of politicians say, “Aha, I told you, this proves it. They're all a bunch of corrupt self-serving politicians.”

But Lee says, in fact, the rarity of the prosecutions should be seen as evidence of an effective system that regulates violations and violators. “This proves that the vast majority of elected officials believe in public service, believe in doing good, and that we should honor them and accept them based on their activities, and not be suspicious right off the bat,” argues Lee.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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