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MADISON, Wis. - State Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, is apologizing after he was caught on video proposing illegal fundraising.
Ellis was the latest target of a conservative activist with a hidden camera and was caught proposing an illegal fundraising scheme in his upcoming campaign against Rep. Penny Bernard-Schaber, D-Appleton.
"I have a $400,000 committee and Judi Rhodes will ... I'm raising the money and she's manufacturing the crap," Ellis said in the video. "She is good at what she does so I told her, $500,000, then you attack her."
Politicians are prohibited by state law from coordinating with third-party groups.
The video, posted online by New York nonprofit Project Veritas, shows Ellis explain that he'd have a number of wealthy friends donate to the political action committee.
Ellis has very publicly opposed independent spending in elections in the past. Following the video's release, he said he discovered the scheme was illegal and never followed through.
"This tape is not inaccurate and I don't look good on it," Ellis said. "I'm sorry to the people of this district for even coming up with a harebrained idea, but we never did it. We never talked to anybody about doing it. It was a couple minutes and they got it on film and now I look like the lowest rat in the west."
Ellis said he would apologize to five friends he mentions in the video as likely giving $50,000 to the PAC.
"I never suggested they'd do it, I didn't ask them to do it," said Ellis. "We found out you can't do it and that it would be collusion between a candidate and a third party interest group so we dropped it."
"I find that difficult because I think he's been around long enough to know that coordination with outside groups of any kind is not proper in Wisconsin law," said Jay Heck with Common Cause Wisconsin.
Heck had been working with Ellis since 1999 to curb third-party spending.
"There needs to be a real thorough examination of whether this is just talk at a bar as Sen. Ellis claims it was or whether there was anything to it," Heck said.
Judi Rhodes-Engels, who was serving as Ellis' fundraiser, resigned from her post following the video release, saying she hadn't spoken to Ellis or set up any Super PAC.
"I will not work for any committee that would imply that I would improperly do so," Rhodes-Engels said in a statement.
Project Veritas points out Ellis used the past tense, saying he "told" Rhodes of the plan in one quote at the bar. The founder of the group, James O'Keefe, won't say why it targeted Ellis with the hidden camera.
"There are thousands of instances of hypocrisy and corruption," O'Keefe said. "Sen. Ellis just got caught in our investigative cross hairs."
A search of state campaign finance records showed no new political action committees formed by Rhodes-Engels or independent groups registered to support Ellis.
The state Government Accountability Board could not say Thursday whether there had been a complaint filed regarding Ellis, citing state law prohibiting it from discussing that or whether the board was investigating the statements.
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