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Wisconsin GOP seeks probe into Feingold’s campaign activities

By   /   August 31, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. — Did Russ Feingold lay the groundwork for his U.S. Senate re-election bid while employed at the State Department? Doing so could be a violation of the federal Hatch Act.

Wisconsin’s GOP is asking federal agents to take a closer look.

Mike Duffy, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, on Tuesday filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Duffy wants an investigation into whether Feingold engaged in political activity while serving as U.S. Special Envoy for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The complaint comes days after a Wisconsin Watchdog story raised questions about Feingold’s political conversations and activities during his time at the State Department.

Feingold’s campaign, which has not returned multiple requests for comment from Wisconsin Watchdog, told the Journal Sentinel the complaint had no merit.

AP file photo

HATCH ACTION: The Republican Party of Wisconsin is asking federal agents to look into whether the Senate candidate set up his campaign while at the State Department.

The Middleton Democrat is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, in a rematch of the 2010 contest.

Johnson’s campaign countered that the allegations are serious and “Feingold should come clean about the conversations he had and the shadow campaign that continued to operate while he was at the State Department.”

“After 34 years in politics, not only does he find Hillary Clinton ‘trustworthy,’ he’s also apparently guilty of the same kind of dishonesty and questionable ethics that have surrounded the Clintons for decades,” the Johnson campaign said in a statement Wednesday.

On the campaign trail earlier this week, Feingold described Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as “reliable and trustworthy.” While his descriptor of Clinton sounded like an ad for a Plymouth Reliant station wagon, it was a ringing endorsement of a scandal-plagued presidential candidate with root-cellar level “trustworthy” polling numbers.

Also Wednesday, the Johnson campaign released a digital ad titled, “How Do You Explain That?” The ad hits Feingold on his former political action committee, Progressives United.

Feingold was named special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa and the DRC in July 2013. He served in that role until March 2015 — several months after he “realized the time had come” to run for office.

An Associated Press story on Feingold’s State Department departure noted the buzz surrounding a Feingold campaign.

“Russ Feingold is leaving his position as a special envoy in Africa amid speculation he will try to reclaim his former US Senate seat in 2016,” stated the lead of the story, headlined, ‘Russ Feingold to leave special envoy post as speculation grows he’ll challenge Ron Johnson.’

RELATED: Was Russ Feingold laying groundwork for Senate run while at State Department?

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported last week, Feingold had multiple conversations with senior Democratic leaders about the potential of a re-election bid during his tenure at the State Department. Those conversations, depending on when they occurred, could land the candidate in trouble with the Hatch Act, the nearly 80-year-old federal law that outlines what executive branch employees can and cannot do related to political activity.

Among its many prohibitions, the action does not allow preliminary candidacy activity like “meeting with individuals to plan the logistics and strategy of a campaign.”

Beyond hinting to fellow Dems in 2013 that he might run again in 2016, we know a top party official spoke with Feingold in January 2015 — before the former senator left the State Department — about Feingold running for his old seat.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, “said he talked to former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in early January about a potential rematch against Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis). Feingold has been seriously considering a run and Tester said he learned his lesson from what many Democrats viewed as a lackluster 2010 campaign,” stated a Feb. 5, 2015, story in The Hill.

“Because the Hatch Act has been interpreted to prohibit preliminary activities regarding candidacy, any action that can reasonably be construed as evidence that an individual is seeking support for or undertaking an initial ‘campaign’ to secure a nomination or election to office would be viewed as candidacy for purposes of the Hatch Act,” the U.S. Office of Special Counsel wrote in a legal opinion.

AP file photo

TESTER THE WATERS: U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, chairman of the DSCC, talked to Feingold about running for his old Senate seat shortly before Feingold left the State Department.

It’s clear Feingold was talking about a Senate run while he was at the State Department, and he was talking with people who typically talk about the fundamentals of campaigns.

Did the conversations involve strategy and logistics?

Feingold’s folks would not answer that question when Wisconsin Watchdog asked it.

They didn’t seem to answer it in the Journal Sentinel piece, either.

“Senator Johnson and his allies are so desperate to keep him in Washington that they’ve resorted to a classic Washington insider stunt that’s completely without merit,” Feingold campaign spokesman Michael Tyler told the newspaper.

And then there is the question of Feingold’s Progressives United Inc., the liberal activist organization he founded in 2011. Some have called it a personal slush fund. The political action committee arm of PU, as has been widely reported, gave just 5 percent of the money it raised to progressive candidates and political parties. PU spent much of the $7.1 million it took in on itself, including hefty salaries and consulting fees for its founder and key members of PU’s staff, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.

Feingold’s campaign has tapped many of the same people and is using much of the same political infrastructure employed by Progressives United.

The Johnson campaign has described PU as a “shadow campaign” for Feingold’s ceaseless Senate ambitions.

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.