Ethics complaint alleges Ron Johnson used Senate resources for political attacks

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The Wisconsin Republican has used his official website and social media accounts to smear his Democratic opponent.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is facing another ethics complaint after using his official social media accounts to smear his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

The official complaint, sent last Thursday and shared with the American Independent Foundation, was filed by a Wisconsin attorney named Richard Thal. It asks the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to open an investigation into whether Johnson violated federal law and Senate rules by using official Senate resources for campaign purposes.

"In particular, Senator Johnson's official website, as well as Twitter and Facebook accounts posted content advocating for the people of Wisconsin to vote against Senator Johnson's 2022 general election opponent," Thal alleges. "On August 23, 2022, Senator Johnson posted to all three accounts that the 'people of Kenosha are still suffering because of Gov. [Tony] Evers and Lt. Gov. Barnes Lack of leadership.'"

This refers to a statement by Johnson, issued on the second anniversary of Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The protests were in response to the Jacob Blake shooting, where a white police officer shot the 29-year-old Black man seven times in the back, paralyzing him from the waist down. The community saw several days of protests against systematic racism and police violence.

Despite Johnson's claims, the 2020 Kenosha protests were largely peaceful. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident, shot and killed two protesters and injured a third protester. At his trial, Rittenhouse argued that he had acted in self-defense and the jury acquitted him on all charges.

Johnson has repeatedly tried to falsely blame the protests on Evers and Barnes, even after PolitiFact debunked most of his claims.

Thal's complaint also notes that Johnson's posts expressly urged "the people of Wisconsin" to hold Evers and Barnes "accountable for their actions," which he said was tantamount to asking voters to defeat them.

"Couching electoral messaging in requests to hold an election opponent 'accountable' cannot absolve an underlying campaign purpose," the complaint asserts.

The official Senate Ethics Manual notes, "Official resources may only be used for official purposes. This principle derives in large part from 31 U.S.C. § 1301(a), providing that official funds are to be used only for the purposes for which appropriated, as well as from statutory authorizations for allowances. 418 It is thus inappropriate to use any official resources to conduct campaign or political activities." [p. 153]

As of Thursday morning, Johnson's posts remained visible on his official website, official Facebook page, and official Twitter feed.

In an emailed statement, Johnson spokesperson Alexia Henning told the American Independent Foundation that the posts were not political:

The senator referencing the second anniversary of the Kenosha riots is not a political issue. The people of Kenosha are still suffering because of Gov. Evers and Lt. Gov. Barnes’ lack of leadership. Government leadership is a matter of public safety and to point out their lack of leadership is not solely a campaign issue. During the multiple days of rioting, lives were lost, people were seriously injured, and Kenosha suffered millions of dollars in property damage. The senator cares about Wisconsinites and has spoken to Kenosha businesses owners and met with Sheriffs and others in law enforcement who have recruiting problems because of defund the police movements that both Gov. Evers and Lt. Gov. Barnes support. It’s unfortunate that the Democrat [sic] Party and their supporters are trying to deflect from the actual issue and attack the senator.

This is not the first time Johnson has been accused of unethical behavior.

In May, he came under fire for using taxpayer funds to reimburse 19 flights back to Washington, D.C. from his Fort Myers, Florida, vacation home. While experts said this was likely legal, Common Cause Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck told the American Independent Foundation at the time that the reimbursements were "surprising" and showed "bad judgment."

A constituent's ethics complaint over the matter was dismissed in late June.

Days later, another complaint was filed alleging Johnson and his wife may have broken Senate rules by making $280,000 worth of cash gifts to his now-former chief of staff and his wife. Henning told the Wisconsin State Journal that the complaint was "frivolous" and predicted it too would be dismissed.

Polls have shown the race between Johnson and Barnes to be very close.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.