MILWAUKEE -- Federal prosecutors say some city aldermen spent thousands of dollars in campaign money on personal items, accepted illegal donations, promised favors in exchange for contributions, and regularly lied about it all on campaign spending reports.
Two aldermen already have resigned their seats after being indicted in the FBI probe into misconduct at City Hall. A third stands trial Monday and could provide the most detailed revelations to date about what went on at City Hall.
The corruption charges are the latest scandal to mar Wisconsin politics in the last year: seven Milwaukee County supervisors were recalled from office and the executive resigned after a feud over pensions. Five state legislators were charged with felonies for illegal campaigning at the state Capitol.
"It's kind of like our turn," said Alderman Fred Gordon, an 11-year council member who is not implicated.
The City Hall investigation started last summer amid reports that Alderwoman Rosa Cameron illegally used federal block grand funds from a nonprofit group she started before she ran for office. U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic said none of the aldermen knew what the others were doing.
"I think it's shaken up people in terms of Milwaukee not being the kind of city where this happens," Gordon said. "Everything has been turned upside down. That's never happened in this state before."
Alderman Paul Henningsen, 56, will answer this week to five charges of extortion and mail fraud for allegedly embezzling from his campaign fund and falsifying spending reports. Prosecutors say he pressured three developers to donate to his campaign, one day before the committee he chairs voted on their housing project. The 20-year veteran politician has pleaded not guilty.
His attorney did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment, and his City Hall receptionist hung up on a reporter's call.
Alderman Jeff Pawlinski, 36, resigned his council seat in May and agreed to plead guilty to defrauding campaign contributors after accusations he deposited about $40,000 into a personal account, then spent it. The indictment said he reported fake bank balances on his filings.
Prosecutors said they will recommend eight months in prison.
Cameron, 55, is serving eight months in a federal prison in Pekin, Ill. for stealing $29,000 from the community association she founded. Cameron admitted taking the federal block grant funding to finance her April 2000 election bid and trying get more money for the group without revealing that her two daughters ran it -- a conflict of interest. Her daughters also face federal charges.
From prison, Cameron declined an interview request.
The incidents have further sullied the once-clean image of Milwaukee as a Midwestern city above the corruption fray in nearby Chicago.
That picture is outdated anyway, said Janet Boles, a professor of urban politics at Milwaukee's Marquette University.
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"If Milwaukee has been missing from the scandal headlines for many years, suffice it to say we're now normal and average," she said.
Boles said Wisconsin's relatively lax campaign finance laws are too tempting for some corrupt politicians. Like tax returns, Boles said the law relies primarily on honest reporting.
"I think that's what we expect from our politicians. We assume that when we make contributions to them, they're not going to spend it on happy hour," Boles said.
Lawmakers passed a series of campaign reforms last year that were thrown out by a federal court. This year, the state Senate and Assembly approved a bill that would close one loophole in the law by banning pay-for-play, or the trading of campaign contributions for votes. The bill is awaiting Gov. Jim Doyle's signature.
Alderman Tom Nardelli, who is running for mayor in 2004, said Milwaukee's now-tainted image is disappointing for colleagues who work hard for their constituents.
"The skeptics just get fuel to the fire when these things happen. There are cynics out there who don't like elected people for starters," Nardelli said.
"If people are doing things that are illegal, that should be discovered and that should be purged from the public system," he added.
Common Council President Marvin Pratt says the probe put others at City Hall on guard for any actions that could be considered improper.
Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who settled a lawsuit last year with a former aide who accused him of sexual harassment, declined an interview request.
Henningsen, meanwhile, faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of $250,000 if he's convicted.
Milwaukee resident Shirley Loughlin, 61, wasn't surprised to hear the allegations, but said she doesn't expect much from politicians, anyway.
"We need somebody that doesn't owe their soul to the company store before they get in there," she said.
Others hope the indictments lead to changes in politics as usual. Said Wanda Johnson, 46, of Milwaukee: "It would be nice to see someone in there that's going to use the funds for their true purpose."
The City Hall investigation is expected to end soon, U.S. Attorney's office spokeswoman Francia Wendelborn said.