Fifty Three to Fifty Six: Kaufert's Tavern

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Kaufert's Tavern

Bar partnership doesn't quite pass smell test

Rep. Dean Kaufert knew he had a problem on his hands when his buddy and partner in the tavern business, Steve Foti, told him last year that he would leave the Legislature and might seek his riches in the world of lobbying.

Hmmm, a lobbyist and a lawmaker owning a bar together - that would make the do-gooders sit up and give Kaufert the type of notice he'd like to avoid. Making matters worse was the fact that while in office, Foti, who had been the Assembly majority leader, was charged with a felony for using state workers for campaign work. That case has yet to come to trial.

Even a couple of pols could figure out that type of relationship might not look so good to Joe Sixpack, who, by the way, just might be sitting at the bar owned by Foti and Kaufert.

"We both came to the conclusion that we wanted to take care of the problem so there could never be the slightest hint of favoritism or undue influence," said Kaufert, co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee.

So Kaufert, who has owned the Under the Dome Bar & Grill in his Neenah legislative district with fellow Republican Foti for three years, called state ethics guru R. Roth Judd. Judd's unexpected response: It's kosher.

"Because the ownership in the bar predates Mr. Foti's becoming a lobbyist, the lobbying law will not restrict your continued joint ownership and requires no action by either of you," Judd, the executive director of the state Ethics Board, wrote in June.

"I was a little surprised," Kaufert admitted Tuesday. "I thought he was going to tell us that we would have to dissolve it."

One restriction that Judd put on the lobbyist-lawyer partnership was that neither could pour more money into the business. Still, Kaufert said, there could be some folks out there who - despite Judd's blessing - would detect an odor from the arrangement.

He was right. The odor got particularly strong this month when Kaufert said he would sponsor a bill aimed at making insurers pay a chunk of the $600 million estimated cost to remove polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the Fox River. The bill is being pushed by a group of papermakers, including Georgia-Pacific.

Oh, did we mention that Georgia-Pacific was one of the first clients signed up by rookie lobbyist Foti? So Kaufert, who owns 40% of the business, said he decided to buy half of Foti's 30% share. Foti's brother Tom, a small shareholder, would buy the remainder of the lobbyist's interest. Kaufert said the deal, set to close Friday, was discussed long before the PCB bill was being circulated in the Capitol.

Good plan - too bad it won't work. Kaufert would be well served if, before reacting to an Ethics Board ruling, he read the entire letter. The last line of Judd's letter states that Foti and Kaufert could sell their interest in the bar to whomever they please, provided it's not each other.

Told of the prohibition, Kaufert stammered a response. "I don't know . . . I don't know what to tell you," Kaufert said. "I'm going to have to talk to Roth. Maybe there will be a little glitch."

Later, Kaufert said Tom Foti may try to buy out all of Steve Foti's share. But, for now, everything is unclear, and the Kaufert-Foti partnership may have to live on.

All this places the duo in the type of ethics web that could be spun only in Wisconsin - where the ethics cops tend to major in minor infractions. "This would keep us partners even though we don't want to be," Kaufert said of Judd's ruling. "We don't want to be partners anymore, because that doesn't pass the smell test."

From Milwaukee Journal -- -- 2/23/05


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