A Wisconsin railroad magnate pleaded guilty Thursday to making illegal political contributions in a deal with prosecutors.
Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Company chief executive William Gardner was charged last month with one count of excessive political contributions and one count of unlawful political contribution. The charges are both felonies that carry a combined maximum sentence of seven years in prison and $20,000 in fines.
Gardner pleaded guilty in Washington County Circuit Court to both counts in exchange for a recommendation from prosecutors that he serve two years on probation. He also won't be permitted to vote until he completes his sentence.
Judge James Pouros has scheduled sentencing for July 7.
Gardner's attorney, Bob Friebert, said Gardner entered his pleas according to the bargain struck with prosecutors, but said Pouros won't be bound by the recommendations at sentencing.
According to court documents, state election officials and Milwaukee prosecutors began investigating Gardner's donations about a year ago after they got a tip from Gardner's ex-girlfriend.
Investigators learned that between November 2009 and April 2010, Gardner reimbursed himself out of the railroad's expense account for $10,000 in donations he made to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's campaign and another $4,000 he gave to the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee and former Democratic Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan of Janesville. He also asked a handful of railroad employees to donate to Walker's campaign and reimbursed them with company funds.
Wisconsin law limits individual gubernatorial contributions to $10,000 per election and prohibits furnishing money to others for political contributions in their names.
Gardner came forward about a week after the probe began and told election officials he had used company money to reimburse his employees for political contributions and cooperated with investigators. Walker, who was in the midst of a primary at the time, promptly returned about $40,000 in contributions from Gardner and Wisconsin & Southern employees. Gardner has said he donated that money to charity.
Election officials said the Assembly committee has since donated its contributions to charity as well. Sheridan also has given some of his contributions to charity, they said.
The railroad has paid about $167,000 in forfeitures in the case, election officials have said. Seven employees each have paid a $250 fine as well.
Gardner said after he was charged he didn't realize he had violated state law.
Court documents indicate he had been contributing to political candidates from both parties and reimbursing himself through the railroad's expense account since at least 2005. The railroad's lobbyist testified he summarized Wisconsin campaign contribution limits for Gardner in January 2010.