Wisconsin rail CEO faces felony charges

April 12, 2011

MILWAUKEE — The CEO of privately owned regional railroad Wisconsin & Southern, William Gardner, says he will plead guilty to felony charges of making some $53,000 in illegal political campaign donations to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Gov. Walker has been leading his state’s attack on public-employee collective bargaining rights. Lesser amounts of alleged illegal political contributions also were made by Gardner to other state Republicans and some Democrats, reports the newspaper.

Gov. Walker said he returned to the railroad all contributions deemed to have been improperly made, and Democrats say they donated to charity all improper contributions made to them. Contributions returned by Walker to the railroad were then donated to charity, the Journal Sentinel reported.

Gardner, according to the Journal Sentinel, said that while he will plead guilty to two felony charges, he was not aware he had broken any laws.

According to the state’s criminal complaint, Gardner asked railroad employees to donate tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions to Walker and other Wisconsin political candidates and then reimbursed those employees out of railroad and personal funds.

The felonies in the criminal charges filed April 10 against Gardner include exceeding campaign contribution limits and reimbursing employees for their personal campaign contributions.

The two felonies carry a combined maximum penalty of seven years in prison and $20,000 in fines, but the Journal Sentinel reports that in exchange for Gardner’s guilty plea, state prosecutors will recommend Gardner serve just two years of probation. The railroad has already paid a fine to the state of some $167,000, reports the Journal Sentinel.

In 2005, according to the criminal complaint, Gardner paid a fine to the State of Wisconsin Ethics Board for a violation of campaign finance laws.

The criminal complaint quotes the railroad’s chief financial officer that state grants and loans to the railroad are “essential” to the railroad’s operations.

In March, Gov. Walker issued a press release that the state had awarded some $14 million in state grants to Wisconsin & Southern for bridge and track rehabilitation and replacement. The Wisconsin & Southern grant announced by Walker was included in a list of more than $25 million in state grants for rail infrastructure projects in the state.

Gov. Walker last year rejected more than $800 million in federal grants for a high-speed rail project for his state.

Wisconsin & Southern operates 700 miles of mainline and branch line track, primarily in southern Wisconsin.

The UTU does not represent Wisconsin & Southern workers.

To read the criminal complaint, click on the following link: