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WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: Sen. Ellis announces retirement after illegal fundraising scandal breaks

MADISON - Wisconsin State Senate President Mike Ellis said today he will not run for re-election this fall, after a secretly-recorded video showed him discussing an illegal campaign scheme.  The Neenah Republican called his home district newspaper, the Appleton Post-Crescent, to announce his decision.  His office confirmed it to other media.  

He was planning to run this fall against state Assembly Democrat Penny Bernard-Schaber of Appleton, who would have been his first election challenger in 16 years.  Instead, Ellis is calling it quits on a 44-year legislative career.  

On Wednesday, the conservative Project Veritas released a video in which Ellis talked about creating an independent political action committee with up to a half-million-dollars in funding.  He was being recorded at a bar across from the State Capitol at the time.  Ellis said his campaign fundraiser would use a so-called "Super PAC" to launch attacks on Schaber.  It's illegal for candidates to coordinate their activities with outside groups like the one Ellis talked about creating.  After the video popped up on You-Tube, Ellis said he scrapped the idea after learning it would be illegal.  Critics didn't buy that explanation, saying Ellis has fought for years to reform Wisconsin's campaign financing system.  They said he should have known better.  

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports on a second controversial video released yesterday by Project Veritas.  It had Ellis saying he had more power than Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau).  And in discussing Governor Scott Walker's possible presidential bid, Ellis said quote, "I think Walker's working for Walker."  The Journal-Sentinel Web site has all the videos from Veritas.   The paper also indicated that a school choice group headed by former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen of Brookfield may have arranged the recording because of Ellis' previous resistance to expanding private school vouchers.  Jensen denied that.  About the video, he told the paper quote, "Like everyone else, I watched it with awe."  

Ellis was born in Neenah, and was elected to the state Assembly in 1970.  After 12 years, he moved to the upper house where he was elected every four years since 1982.  He was the Senate's president the previous two legislative sessions, and was both the majority and minority leaders at various times before that.

Ellis says he doesn't mind being held accountable for what he says.  But even as a public figure, Ellis said he's frustrated that he was secretly recorded in a Madison bar.  "There's absolutely no privacy anymore.  You can't even sit and have a Diet Coke or a beer, and talk to a friend without it being secretly recorded."  In a statement and an interview with WTMJ-Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes, Ellis said the world has changed and quote, "I just don't fit in there anymore."  He said he grew into his career when he could be an independent thinker and still work out compromises.  Ellis admitted to Sykes that the video looked quote, "terrible."  He said he deserved to be held accountable for what he said at the bar -- but his wife should not have to put up with same scrutiny.  He said it's the "new norm," and he agreed with her when she said it wasn't worth it

For now, Appleton Assembly Democrat Penny Bernard Schaber is the only candidate for Ellis' Senate seat.  The Journal-Sentinel says a couple of former Assembly Republicans from the Appleton area may be possible GOP hopefuls -- Roger Roth and Steve Wieckert.


Flood warnings were issued today at several places along the Wisconsin River, as the melting of last week's heavy snow in the north is making its presence felt.  The National Weather Service said the river reached its flood stage this morning at Wausau, Stevens Point, and Whiting.  About 70 miles to the south, another flood warning was issued along the Wisconsin River at Portage.  There, the river was seven inches below its flood stage.  Minor flooding was reported or forecast in all four locations.  Also, a flood warning is in its second day for the Big Rib River at Rib Falls and Marathon City.  As of this morning, the Rib was about three inches over its banks.  A flood warning continues until tomorrow afternoon on the Oconto River at Oconto, where the water less than an inch below its flood stage overnight.  Scattered rain showers were predicted for Wisconsin tonight, with rain statewide tomorrow.  Cooler temperatures were projected for Sunday, with possible freezing rain and light snow returning in some places.


The risk for wildfires continues to grow in Wisconsin.  The DNR said today that almost the southern two-thirds of the Badger State have either high or very-high fire dangers.  Several fire departments were called this morning to a marshland fire near Brandon in Fond du Lac County.  Sheriff's officials said somebody was burning brush that got out of control.  The fire danger was high this afternoon in Fond du Lac County, although a countywide ban on open burning was not in effect there.  Those bans have been imposed in a number of places -- especially in about the southwest third of Wisconsin where the wildfire risks are very high.  The dry lands could get at least some relief tomorrow, when rain is in the forecast statewide.  More rain is possible on Sunday -- along with freezing rain and light snow as temperatures get colder again.  


Milwaukee's police chief says an apparent scam is causing dozens of people to inadvertently call 911.  It started around eight this morning, when people received text messages or robo-calls which said there were problems with their credit or debit cards -- and to fix them, they should either dial "1" or 112.  When that happens, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn says the emergency dispatch center gets the calls -- and he's worried on two fronts.  First, he's trying to find out if people get victimized in any way by responding.  And second, Flynn's worried that the phony 911 calls will prevent dispatchers from reacting to real emergencies as rapidly as normal.  Officials say the problem has turned up in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, and Waukesha counties as of early afternoon.  Banks repeatedly tell their customers they would never call, e-mail, or text personal financial notices -- and they would only send them through the U.S. Mail.


The president of the UW System says he wants to work with the governor and Legislature to create the best budget possible for the university.  That's how Ray Cross responded today, after Governor Scott Walker said he wanted to freeze UW tuition for another two years, until the summer of 2017.  The Republican Walker said he was concerned about a surplus in the UW System that's projected to be over a billion dollars by the end of the school year.  Walker and lawmakers imposed the first tuition freeze a year ago after being blindsided by reports of large university cash reserves while tuition kept going up five-and-a-half percent a year ago.  Walker said students and their families need a break, and Cross agreed.  He passed Walker's sentiment onto the UW Board of Regents during its meeting today in River Falls.  The governor said he would include another two-year tuition freeze in his next state budget in early 2015 -- but Walker would have to get re-elected in November to do that.  State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) said he expects his colleagues to consider the tuition freeze while working to assure a quality university system.  Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) also supported a continued freeze, as did both chairs of the Legislature's finance panel.


Both parties are gearing up for their election-year state conventions.  The State Republican Party says Indiana Governor Mike Pence will be the keynote speaker at its convention in Milwaukee May 2-4.  And of course, Wisconsin's heaviest Republican hitters will deliver convention speeches -- including Governor Scott Walker, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, and U.S. House Budget chair Paul Ryan.  Meanwhile, state Democrats are planning their convention for June 6-7 in Wisconsin Dells.  They have not announced a keynoter yet.


Wisconsin taxpayers will spend $562,000 to settle a lawsuit connected with a man's self-inflicted death at a state mental institution.  The suit was filed by Nancy Barton of Oneida, the mother of Mendota Mental Health Institute patient Jason Peters.  Barton claimed that the state facility was negligent in providing care for her 27-year-old son.  She said staff members were supposed to check on him every 15 minutes in his seclusion room.  But they didn't notice for 18 hours that he had strangled himself with a sock.  The state agreed to settle the suit.  The Justice Department has not commented.  An attorney for Barton said her client was "very pleased" with the settlement.


Two people were due in court today, after being arrested for growing marijuana at a house in Tomahawk.  About 45 plants were seized, along with cultivating equipment that included heat lamps and a sophisticated watering system.  Police Chief Al Elvins said it was most marijuana he had seen in his northern Wisconsin community in at least 30 years.  Police received an anonymous tip about it, and they searched a home yesterday before arresting a 38-year-old woman and a 33-year-old man.  Both face numerous possible charges in Lincoln County of drug distribution and growing.


A drunk driver will spend 17 years in prison for causing a crash that killed an 80-year-old man and injured his 82-year-old widow south of Oshkosh.  If he's still alive when he gets out, 58-year-old William Doemel will spend ten years under extended supervision.  Authorities said Doemel's vehicle breezed through a stop sign in late 2012 and struck another vehicle -- killing Robert Zentner and injuring his wife of more than 60 years, Phyllis Zentner.  She told Winnebago County Circuit Judge Karen Seifert that Doemel took away the person who was the center of her life since she was 16.  To this day, Zentner said she'll start talking to her husband when she remembers she's speaking to quote, "an empty chair in an empty room."  Doemel said he doesn't remember what led to the crash.  He said he fell into a diabetic coma just before the crash.  Authorities said Doemel had marijuana in his system, and a blood alcohol level of .28.


Wisconsin will soon have a "Silver Alert" program to help find missing seniors who are at-risk, similar to the way Amber Alerts help find missing children.  Governor Scott Walker will visit a hospital in Green Bay where he'll sign the measure just before today's noon hour.  The Silver Alert program will use the state's current Crime Alert Network to spread the word about missing seniors who are over 65, who may be in danger due to conditions like Alzheimer's.  Law enforcement would send the information to broadcasters, electric billboards, and others to quickly alert Wisconsinites to the missing seniors.  The Legislature unanimously supported the idea in the recent session.