April 11, 2011- A Wisconsin railroad magnate accused of illegally donating to Gov. Scott Walker's campaign said Monday he would plead guilty to felony charges but didn't realize he had done anything wrong when he asked employees to donate tens of thousands of dollars and then reimbursed them.
Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. president and chief executive officer William Gardner was charged with one count of excessive political contributions and one count of unlawful political contribution. Both charges are felonies that carry a combined maximum sentence of seven years in prison and $20,000 in fines.
Gardner struck a plea bargain calling for him to plead guilty. Prosecutors in exchange agreed to recommend he serve two years on probation. His company, meanwhile, has paid a $166,900 forfeiture, and seven employees have each agreed to pay a $250 forfeiture, state election officials said.
Gardner said in a statement he cooperated with investigators and didn't realize he had violated the law, which limits individual gubernatorial contributions to $10,000 per election and prohibits furnishing money to others for political donations made in their names.
In Wisconsin, it is also illegal to give corporate money to political candidates.
"My employees had every right to assume that what I was asking them to do was legal. But it wasn't. I failed them and everyone else miserably," Gardner said.
According to court documents, state election officials and Milwaukee prosecutors launched a secret investigation into Gardner's campaign donations in May 2010 after Gardner's ex-girlfriend, angry that he hadn't returned all her things, alerted election officials to his activity.
In April 2010, Gardner's ex-girlfriend warned the attorney mediating the property dispute between them that she had been speaking with state election officials about the contributions. She said she had been withholding Gardner's name but threatened to reveal it if she didn't get all of her things back.
Gardner responded directly to her, saying "Knock yourself out. I did nothing wrong and have broken no law …"