Wisconsin State Senator Faces 18 Felony Charges
By Doug Cunningham, Special to Stateline
Just weeks ago Wisconsin State Senator and former Milwaukee assistant prosecutor Brian Burke (D-Milwaukee) was the front-runner for state attorney general.
Instead of prosecuting criminals Burke now faces 18 felony counts of misconduct in office and evidence tampering for allegedly using state resources and state employees for partisan campaigning and trying to cover up his crimes.
The charges against Burke are part of a sweeping year- long probe of corruption in state government. Wisconsin hasn't faced a political scandal of this magnitude since the early twentieth century days of progressive "Fighting Bob" LaFollette's crusade against corporate corruption of state politics.
Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala are both under investigation. Lawmakers and their staffs have spent roughly $600,000 of taxpayer money on criminal defense lawyers in this scandal.
Dane County Prosecutor Brian Blanchard said Senator Burke "systematically and repeatedly" used his office to break the law in his campaign for state attorney general and asked lobbyists for money in the capitol while discussing state business. Blanchard said Burke also lied on per diem expense vouchers, claiming payment on days when he wasn't in Madison.
If convicted on all counts Senator Burke faces a maximum penalty of 100 years in prison and $180,000 in fines.
Burke, the powerful co-chair of the legislature's Joint Finance Committee, is the first state lawmaker to be charged in an investigation triggered by a series of stories in the Wisconsin State Journal on the use of state employees and offices to do partisan campaigning. Senator Gary George, a Democratic colleague of Burke's, has called on Burke to resign his finance committee co-chair position until the felony charges are resolved.
Burke quit the AG race when it became public that he and other lawmakers had used tax money to pay for criminal defense lawyers in the legislative corruption investigation. There's widespread speculation that Burke is only the first of what could be several state lawmakers charged in this scandal.
In a dramatic speech from the Senate floor Burke accused Dane County's prosecutor of trying to destroy Burke's family to "further his own ends."
Burke's lawyers said in a written statement that the charges against him "will ultimately demonstrate that he has done nothing wrong."
State Senate Majority Leader Chvala said, "Senator Burke has served as an effective member of the State Senate providing leadership on many issues...My prayers and best wishes go out to him, his family and his staff at this difficult time."
Burke has used about $10,000 in tax money for his defense so far. But Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen (R-Waukesha) and his staff has spent the most more than $70,000. Politicians on both sides of the political aisle and in both houses of state government are under investigation.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a non-partisan state government watchdog group, said this is just the beginning of what may be a string of criminal charges against state lawmakers and their staffs. The campaign's Mike McCabe said, "This is the first tremor in a political earthquake that will transform the political landscape in Wisconsin."
Prosecutors in Madison and Milwaukee, assisted by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, are continuing their investigations into political corruption in the state legislature. They won't say whether there will be charges filed against other state lawmakers.
For the time being at least Senator Burke is carrying on as he prepares to defend himself against the 18 felony counts. He has said he won't resign his office but will not seek re-election in November.