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HomeJoseph MensahChris Abele: Sean Lowe Campaign 'Made a Mistake,' Refunded Excess Donation

Chris Abele: Sean Lowe Campaign ‘Made a Mistake,’ Refunded Excess Donation


Sean Lowe, a pro-BLM candidate, ran on a self-proclaimed “anti-racist” platform of bringing “police reform” to Wauwatosa.

Former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele told Wisconsin Right Now that Sean Lowe’s Wauwatosa aldermanic campaign “made a mistake here which they’re addressing” and has refunded his donation amount that exceeded campaign limits.

Chris Abele’s comments come the day after Wisconsin Right Now exclusively reported that Lowe’s campaign finance reports violated campaign finance laws in several ways. For one, his campaign filed its pre-election campaign finance reports on April 4, the day before the election, when they were due on March 28. The other media have ignored the problems in Lowe’s reports.

Why that matters: Lowe, it was announced Friday, won the race by ONE VOTE. But his late filings made it difficult for voters to know who was funding his campaign before the election, not only Abele but also a host of out-of-state donors, as well as the husband of a lawyer who is suing the City of Wauwatosa over its curfew and other matters alongside controversial BLM attorney Kimberley Motley. Motley has been a thorn in the side of Wauwatosa police for months.

[If you want a sense of how Lowe did his job as chairman of the Wauwatosa “Equity and Inclusion Commission,” check out this video, especially the portion starting at 2:18. Lowe loses complete control of this heated June 2020 meeting and makes it clear he believes a police captain should apologize to the mother of an armed teenager shot by an officer outside Mayfair Mall. The DA cleared the officer of wrongdoing. If you have time, watch the whole video.]

The campaign finance reports also indicate that Lowe spent all of the money, raising the question as to whether the unlawful donations made a difference in a race that initially tied, with the single provisional ballot breaking that tie in Lowe’s favor on Friday.

We confirmed that the City of Wauwatosa Clerk, Steve Braatz, has sent a violation report in Lowe’s name to the state Ethics Commission. Usually, such offenses are handled civilly. However, if intent can be shown, they can be criminal, although that rarely occurs because it’s so hard to prove.

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Furthermore, we discovered that several donations, including from Abele and the lawyer, exceeded the $500 donation allowed in such a local race.

The Wauwatosa Professional Firefighter union’s $1,200 donation was listed as a PAC but under a column for conduits; PACs are limited to $400; conduits are bundled individual donations, but the individual donors are supposed to be listed. Campaigns have a short window in which to return excess donations without penalty.

In short, the reports were a mess and that reduced transparency in a race that came down to one voter.

Chris Abele’s Comments

“What happened is that the online platform they used for donations has, in addition to the campaign amount a donor wants to contribute, a box you can check if you’re willing to also cover the transaction/processing fee that all platforms charge,” Abele explained to WRN. “Those options are a lot more common on online giving platforms these days.”

“In any event, they apparently set it up incorrectly so the whole amount went to the campaign. I haven’t looked at the donor list, but if you’ve got it, I’m guessing you’d see the same for anyone else who did the max donation. Your article listed two other individuals who had the same specific and low amount over the limit. I don’t know the other two individuals but even if I did, it’s hard to imagine why, if we all wanted to do more for his campaign, we wouldn’t simply use any of the numerous legal options that are out there to do it and instead opt to collectively add less than $60 in a manner that publicly flouts the law.”

Chris Abele added, “In any event, their campaign reached out to me immediately and is refunding my $19.52. Still, it’s a totally reasonable question and I think we can all agree that if we want the public to have the trust it deserves in the integrity of all elections, all campaigns need to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The campaign made a mistake here which they’re addressing and, while I believe they didn’t intend to, I’m hoping their lesson is that they need to work harder to intend NOT to make those mistakes in the future. I still support Sean, who I’ve known for a long time, and believe he would be an effective and honorable public servant.”

We reached out to Lowe when our original story ran, but he has yet to comment.

We discovered that 50% of Lowe’s donors were from out of state. We obtained the reports through an open records request.

Sean Lowe was running for District 5 alderman in Wauwatosa against Rob Gustafson. Both initially received 702 votes.

We discovered these donations violated the $500 campaign finance limits for the local race for individuals.

-Chris Abele’s $519.52 donation on Feb. 23.

-Chris Knowlton gave $519.52 on March 14. He is the husband of Kathryn Knowlton, whose name appeared with Motley’s on lawsuits suing the city over its handling of the demonstrations that erupted into the police shootings by Joseph Mensah.

-Marshawn Wolley, a CEO from Indianapolis, Indiana, gave $519.52 on March 19. His company works to advance diversity and equity initiatives.

Sean Lowe reported $5,290.29 contributions from individuals and $1,200 from committees, for a total of $6,490.29. The report said he spent $10,708. He was left with a cash balance of $109.20 because had carried money over from a previous report.

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The report was filed by Chelsea Cross, his campaign manager. Although the reports ask for a signature and date, there is no date listed with her signature on the reports.

In contrast, Lowe’s opponent in the race didn’t have to file a report at all because he didn’t make the $2,000 minimum threshold for doing so, the city clerk told WRN.

Sean Lowe has attended the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March with Motley, according to an old Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article. He has called for “police reform” in Wauwatosa, the article says. He’s chairman of the Wauwatosa Equity and Inclusion Commission. In 2021, he tweeted, “No charges for the police officer, no justice for Jacob Blake’s family. Shameful.” The DA later cleared that officer. In 2020, he wrote, “Some of y’all had #BlackLivesMatter hashtags last month and this month trying to convince people that Kamala Harris isn’t black. Please have several seats! I support @KamalaHarris ✊🏽 #HerLifeMatters”

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Jim Piwowarczyk
Jim Piwowarczyk is an investigative journalist and co-founder of Wisconsin Right Now.

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